The One and Only
I had cigarettes but needed coffee. The money just wasn't there and I'm not sellin' shit just for a cup o' mud. So I grab my keys, lock the door and head out for St. Augustine's.
Saint Augustine's is a nice enough house of God as churches go. It welcomes not only the devout, but tolerates the dilapidated as well. The broken souls who are at best ambivalent about a higher power, but very fervent about free sandwiches and tepid coffee.
. Y'see, along with the plush lawn that the bums lay on, smoking tobacco and squashing the flowers, St. Augustine's offers a section of itself known as "The Open Table". It's a small room no bigger than the average attic, with about twelve worn down chairs hugging a long shaky table. There might be some religious tracts piled high in the center of the table, but I never got close enough to confirm that. I think it used to be an anteroom of sorts because it's got these huge windows from ceiling to floor that look out onto the actual pews and pulpit. I've been there once before to grab a ham on rye and let me tell you, when the priest is hard into a sermon about the seven deadly sins and he gets to that part about slovenliness and he looks right through those all showing windows behind the pews and sees all of us guys just chowing down on the free eats and sippin' hot water and we're really just relaxed and unreligious, well it can get a little humbling even for us with next to no shame so I split that scene and haven't returned since.
But it's like I said, I had the smokes but no coffee. So I'm goin' back against my vows and headin' back to the "Open Table". Fuck it. I'll be in and out like a speed freak and no shame'll fall on me.
I'm about thirty yards away from the steps that lead up to the front door and notice a serious lack of customers outside who usually hang out by the stairway railing. These ones, like myself, only come to church for the caffeine and are looked down upon by the "Open Table" authorities for not really getting into the holy spirit of brotherhood among bums. The "Open Table" CEO's would much rather we hang around inside, not smoking, around the long table, listening as the priest's sermon comes in through the intercom and into our joyless hearts.
But the ones, like myself, who just want the warm water to sip on while the cigarette burns immaculate aren't down with that. Now I'm not linking myself to these fuckers as a whole, while we both make it clear that our visits are strictly non-religious and all free-shit consuming, the difference is that I don't stick around and linger like a foul fume in the noses of the "Open Table" top brass. I grab my cup and flee the scene, carefully getting the coffee back to my place. Out o' sight and out o' mind is what I'm thinking. No need to give the cunts a reason to scorn you. No need to risk a possible banning and cut off a good source of supply.
But those others... man.... they smoke and go back for seconds, smoke and go back for thirds. And while the "Table" has no real policy about helpings, all the weathered clientele know not to bleed this non-profit joint dry. But these others have been around long enough to know the score. And the score shows that they're always ahead as long as they're getting.
They carry two sandwiches in each hand outside with a cup clenched between their forearms, prop themselves up along the railing and laugh at ugliness.
They're all fat bastards with bad beards and slimy hair. Their dress is the same every day and usually consists of old bankrupt hockey jerseys like the Quebec Nordiques or the Hartford Whalers. Some of 'em wear winter hunting hats year round with baby blue suspenders holding up painfully tight corduroy pants. Others got those black horn-rimmed glasses. The kind Buddy Holly had but twice as thick with lenses so magnified it distorts their eyes and even their entire faces into something that no longer makes sense if you look at them too much.
This is one half of the flock that makes up the "Table"'s togetherness, so when I can't spot a single one of 'em, I begin to sweat it that maybe I missed my chance for a handout.
As I creep inside the doorway, bad signs are brewin' from the get-go. A service is underway and that's a rotten egg for sure, but that ain't what trips me up. It's the sight of this old skinny boy who once told me that he won't bug Jesus so long as Jesus don't bug him. Well this old bum is in the pews along with all the others and he's scratchin' his collar and twitchin' his bony skull like he's got a wasp in his eyelid. If there's one soul who wouldn't be pushed into the pews it's this guy so I'm thinking, what the shit?
My eyes push a little further past him and notice that practically all the congregation is filled with nothing but the depraved, the homeless and other assorted dregs and mendicants.
Jesus Christ, I'm thinking, how on earth did you manage to hypnotize so many low lifes all at once? On a very good, guilt-ridden day the staff at this place might manage to hoodwink one of the boys into believin' that the word of God will get him off the sauce and into eternal bliss, but a coercion of this magnitude trumps all the odds of Vegas. Unless Father Mackilvoy is handing out the sacramental wine, this scene reeks of pressure tactics and broken resistance.
There ain't no signs of life comin' from down the hall at the "Open Table" either except for some ominous shuffling of papers so I'm bookin' it for the exit as of this second.
Like a curtain-fly, this pseudo-nun drops out of nowhere and pinches my elbow to break my stride. She's got a good grip, so I forget about pushing on to the door and figure I'm in for somethin'.
These pseudo-nuns are the worst. They're a pack of zealot volunteers with monumental chips on their shoulders who bring a very ungodly hostility from their personal lives into the work place and it's always the poor who suffer their wrath, as I most surely feel I'm about to.
She starts clearing her throat and straightening up her ankle-long polyester skirt as though she had just run a mile to stop me from leaving. "I'm glad I caught you," she sputters, "Mr. Burnby's service has just started so you must hurry."
She pushes a ledger of some sort at my chin and still has my elbow in her palm. "Write your name for attendance purposes then follow me. It's a very nice crowd today but Mr. Burnby deserved it all. As you can see, all of our regulars have decided to come and say good-bye to one of their peers. Mr. Burnby had earned their respect, as he was one of the chosen few who, before his time came, embraced the word of God. He came here, just as you are now; hungry, thirsty, without direction, but he opened his heart to Christ and I can assure you he left here a full man."
This nut was almost salivating at her own spiel. She spoke with a skitterish monotone that suggested a robotic approach to every thing she did. She seemed to love this Mr. Burnby and almost acted as if he needed defending or constant adulation.
I back away from the sign-in sheet, and in doing so, snap her lock on my elbow. By daring to question her dominance of the situation, I agitate this cunt to no end. I try to explain, "I came for a cup of coffee ma'am. I don't even know who Mr. Burnby is."
This comment has no real effect on her, as she keeps claiming over and over that the service has just started and while most choice seats are taken, she will find me a place. "No, no, "I'm sayin', "I just come by now and then and... uhh... I never met that guy."
She won't believe this. She starts breathing faster. "Mr. Burnby had no enemies. Mr. Burnby knew everyone and was liked by all. You may not have known his name but I'm sure his face would have meant something to you. A fine man and an excellent Christian." She pauses for a moment with her head down, the instance of praise surpassing her need to be dutiful.
I'm starting to piece the whole shtick together and now know that this woman is ruled by a need to believe in people who have succumbed to her tight fisted persuasions. Burnby was clearly one of those people. Up until now I hadn't been able to decide exactly who this Burnby boy might be. But as she gathered herself, I could just see over her shoulder the casket that lay in the corner of the church stage. The one and only Mr. Burnby was in that box.
"Ma'am please," I find myself almost begging, "I'll just get a cup of juice and wait outsi-"
"Nothing will be served until the funeral terminates," she hisses in disbelief at my plea, shaking her finger, "not a thing... until it's over."
She has to state this fact with the tired unfurling of someone who has had to convince many men before me of the same decree, like the old skinny boy buggin' out in his seat, the fat grubbing fuckers who finally had to compromise their resolve, and all the truly silent dopes who never say a thing around the table and sure as fuck weren't gonna start now. She, this pseudo-nun, pseudo-everything, had gotten to them all. They were all willing to sit through an hour or two of searing boredom for a man, I'm convinced, they neither knew well nor respected as she claimed? Hard to swallow.
Burnby was a saved soul and a pillar in her eyes and her eyes only. None of those saps in there would put up with this unless their treats were being withheld. This nun had performed a miracle in getting Mr. Burnby into that field of one percent turn-arounds who start showing up at the "Table" for the goods, but unlike the other ninety-nine percent, stay for the God.
She held the food and the drink hostage just to fill the pews with asses, and in doing so, convinced herself that her work with project Burnby wasn't in vain. The comical shit about her whole plan is that those guys in there, in that funeral, don't even need what she's starving them of. Those chumps aren't waiting for sloppy salami and Kool-aid. They're waitin' to eat for free so they can put aside half their welfare cheques for booze and all the other things.
She simply threw a stick in the spokes of their cycle for a few hours. Tomorrow nothing will change. If she won today, then so be it for today. The "Open Table", the staff, this lady... they're all just makin' it easier for me and the men to stay high. In the end, the bums will always win. "I'm gonna leave now," I say and inch towards the exit.
She goes real cold but tries for the Hail-Mary anyway, "Mr. Burnby would have liked you to stay. I know he would have. Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," I say. And I was.