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The sun is back. I’m so relieved, I gave myself a lunch break. I head for the Depot, where they have a butternut soup that inspires fistfights. The air outside is freezing, but I will not be kept from my UVs. I don my sunglasses, baseball cap and ski jacket and take a seat on the patio.
The Depot is Mill Valley’s epicenter; all surrounding ridges are equidistant from my table. It’s like standing on the 50-yard line of a football stadium. I take a taste of my quadruple espresso (what they call The Cardiac). The substances meld and blend and I think I may be ready. I reach into my pocket and pull out an envelope. It’s a letter from Callie. It’s been surfing my desk for a week, nibbling at my skin.
It’s not that this letter contains anything dangerous. I came to my present way of thinking all on my own; therefore, I am not reprogrammable. Beyond the perfect cursive address, the lines of scripture on the flap, lies nothing much more than an irritant. If you come back, she will say, all your crimes will be forgiven.
Inevitably, though, the irritant becomes an aerial photograph of a widening chasm. I spent a large slice of my life with this woman. We created beautiful moments: delicious dinners, stunning vistas, funny jokes, luscious sex. Now, all she cares about is my soul. Or, rather, an object that she thinks is my soul.
In Callie’s world, if you join the proper Girl Scout troop, and take all the necessary pledges, then Bingo! Your soul is saved. The atheist soul is a much more complex creation, composed of the daily actions you feel compelled to take, the ideas you feel driven to pursue. We are always thinking. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass. The paint-by-number ease of religion is tempting.
After a while, though, you step back from the easel and realize that you’ve come up with this big and grasping picture – Picasso’s Guernica, Seurat’s La Grand Jatte. You can’t quite believe all the sparks that you have set into motion, the way they streak and wave and bounce off of each other like sardines in a school. You’ll never get to heaven, but you will never ever go to hell. When you open a letter and find an illustration from Dick and Jane, it’s pretty depressing.
I take another sip. The espresso guns my engines. I run the letter under my nose. I’m surprised to smell perfume. You slut! I set it back down. A gust of wind whips it from the table. It slides under the patio fence and winds up on the sidewalk. I give myself up to a greater force: meteorology. If the wind keeps taking it, then so be it.
A woman in a red coat trots over to pick it up. She smiles, revealing her identity, then comes to my table and takes off her sunglasses.
“Paul! Your epistles are blowing all over Ephesia.”
Her gaze drifts to the blue skies. “You know any good hiking trails?”
“I know several.”
“Well let’s go then.”
I open the gate and let her pass. Once she’s ahead of me, I toss Callie into a garbage can.
Paul leads me out of town on a zig-zag of uphill streets. The last line of houses are what I call “hilltoppers” – not precisely mansions, but they do radiate money. One of them is a woodsman-style creation, its foundation buttressed by entire Douglas firs sliced in half. Just past the gated entrance we slip between two metal posts onto what looks like a fire road.
“It’s a little late for hiking,” says Paul. “But with fire roads, visibility’s not really an issue. Besides, I… Well now I’m just explaining too much. Have you gotten very far with the book?”
It takes me a moment to remember which book he means. “Yes! I swear, it feels like I’ve been carving holes in a piece of wood, and this book offers all these pegs that fit right in. Like all the transplanted Greek mysticism. And the misogyny!”
“That’s exactly the reaction I had. If Paul had gotten laid more often – or ever – we wouldn’t have all these creepy celibate priests and their pedophilia.”
A lizard zips across the sandstone. A thought lands on my radar. “You don’t suppose he was latent?”
Paul laughs and picks up a rock. “Oh believe me, hon, you’re not the first. I tend to be cautious on such matters – but yes, there are definite signs of closeted self-loathing. Also, they recently discovered a mistranslated passage in Corinthians that seems to refer to Judy Garland.”
“Oh! You are evil.”
“You’re not the first to say that, either. But isn’t it amazing how one guy can screw up sex for billions? Schmuck!”
From there, our hike gets quiet. It seems that Paul has as much on his mind as I have on mine. I suspect it was the letter; the writing looked feminine. For me it’s Tony. He’s trying to make up to me. He says he’ll be gentle. And he’s offering me twice as much. I can feel the danger, but I’m flattered that I’m considered so valuable a piece of ass.
“Are you doing better?”
Paul’s talking over his shoulder. He’s not even winded.
“Yes. Thanks. I’m much better. It was a family thing. Nothing huge, just… upsetting.”
“Don’t worry, we’re almost there.”
I’m relieved. We’re on the southern flank of Mount Tamalpais. If Paul wanted, he could take us uphill for another three days. A little later, as the sun fades behind us, we come to a clearing. Over the slopes of grass I can see Mill Valley, down to the tiny yellow loop of the moviehouse marquee. A hundred feet on, we enter a patch of live oak and bay laurel. I can see another clearing at the far end, but before we get there, Paul stops.
“Okay. Can you stay here a second?”
He smiles. “Fantastic. I’ll be right back.”
He jogs ahead for thirty yards, stands there a second, and jogs back.
“It’s perfect. Now. I am attempting to maximize your experience. So, put your hand up to your eye, like a horse blinder, and promise me that you will not look to your right.”
“Okay. I promise.”
“Just keep your eyes on the trail.”
I cover the thirty yards looking at the trail and Paul’s feet. He stops and turns.
“Okay. Now. Take my hands and close your eyes. Don’t worry – it’s a smooth path.”
My trust alarms are going off (“I’ll be gentle”), but it’s also a little exciting, like heading downstairs on Christmas morning. I can feel the calluses on Paul’s hands, probably from drumming. The path feels like moist soil, a little grass. The air is getting cold.
“Okay. Keep them closed.”
He comes behind me, takes me by the shoulders and adjusts my bearings.
“Okay. Go ahead.”
What I’m seeing is so extraordinary that it takes me a while to sort it out. It’s the city of San Francisco, miles below us, a hilly blanket of white buildings speckled with lights, fog lining the valleys like mink stoles.
“My God. It’s like a city in a snow globe.”
Paul says nothing. He is just as enchanted as I am. As I look harder I begin to pick out features. Coit Tower. The green swath of the Presidio. The TransAmerica Pyramid. The shiny necklaces of the Bay Bridge. A wink of light from Alcatraz. We find a boulder and take our seats, drinking it in as the twilight darkens and the city lights up. Paul begins to talk.
“I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. I loved it. I was their best salesman. The door-slam, the curt no, the hurled insult – I took them as blessings. I was doing the Lord’s work.
“I married a Witness. Callie. Not that I had a choice. But I loved her anyway. I was lucky. Soon after our first anniversary, my mind began to wander, especially during readings of scripture. I attributed this to evil forces, as I was trained to do. Then I realized that the evil force was my own mind, a powerful organ that had been held in check for too long.
“I began to raise questions, all of them unspoken. Then I took the fatal step – I brought my doubts to the elders. They were horrified. They ordered me to stand trial for heresy. I was destined to lose. My marriage was annulled – I had clearly misrepresented myself. I was declared an apostate and ordered to leave.”
I look at Paul’s profile against the lights of the city. His nose is prominent, Mediterranean, with a small notch halfway down, as though he had broken it butting up against God.
“You’re a heretic? That is so cool!”
Paul thrusts his hands in the direction of San Francisco. “I’m a heretic, motherfuckers!”
After we stop laughing, I stand and stretch my legs. He has given me quite the workout.
“So one thing I’ve been meaning to ask you, Galileo…”
“Judas of Mill Valley. You can’t possibly be supporting yourself with that shop. What’s the deal?"
“Ah.” He slaps a hand against his thigh. “Well. You can just imagine into what dire straits I had thrust myself. But news travels quickly in a family tree, and soon I received a call from a personage I had always considered to be as mythical as a Griffin. My great aunt Minnie, rumored to be a communist spy, a Wiccan priestess, founder of the Gray Panthers, original bassist for the Sex Pistols. She was, in fact, executive editor of a publishing house in Boston. When she heard that a member of her lost tribe had escaped, she flew me to her house in Cambridge and had her lawyers draw up a trust. With the proviso that I use the money to continue my spiritual evolution. And thus was born The Free Thinker.”
“Well God bless Aunt Minnie. Whoops! Sorry.”
“Never apologize for a figure of speech.”
“We better go. Lord knows, we don’t want to get caught in a rainstorm.”
“Right on. Heretic.”
“You really like that.”
“You should tell that to all the chicks.”
“I will think about it.”
A grown man shouldn’t feel so goofy because a girl holds his hand. But I am years and years out of practice. Mill Valley is not helping matters, halos around the streetlamps, Cassiopeia haunting the ridge like a fairywing.
To Jasmina, the hand-holding may not mean as much. She strikes me as the type who’s affectionate with everyone. We arrive at the shop. I start to say something and find that she’s kissing me. That she’s rolling her tongue along the inside of my mouth. I’m so shocked I almost forget to enjoy it.
She breaks off and backs away, looking like a dog who’s been caught with tomorrow’s roast. “I’m sorry, I really, thanks, I’d better…”
She makes a vague gesture and leaves. I watch her go until she’s gone.
Photo by MJV