God, Snow, and the Reverend Huhok
The water main sprung a leak just west of D Street. That was, as I later
found out, the reason why all the faucets in the house produced a dry
sucking noise this morning instead of water. I had to endure unspeakable
filth on my fingertips after one bathroom visit. The loaded toilet would
not flush. I used water standing in a cereal bowl in the kitchen to wash
my hands. I poured 500 ml of bottled water into the kettle for tea. The
world, in short, was coming to an end.
Meanwhile, outside, the water works men had dug a neat trench in the weedy lot across the street with their backhoe. One man was already in the mock grave, shoveling earnestly around the leaky water main. His companion squatted and kept watch at the lip of the big rectangular hole, taking puffs occasionally from a cigarette.
I decided to plan my morning around as little water usage as possible. The temperature outside was already climbing to 100. A walk to the post office still seemed feasible if I wore shorts and a light shirt. My hair was wacky from not having a shower. I stank. I would have to take bottled water with me on my walk, and that would diminish the small supply already in the house, so I decided to stay put.
A call to the City Hall provided little information. The woman there had no idea how long it would take for the water main to be fixed. I stared out the window at the men working. They seemed puzzled over something in the ditch. The cigarette smoker squatted and scratched his close-cropped head.
The lot, where the water men had dug their trench, belonged to the abandoned house on the northwest corner of D and Broadway. It was a large house, with many odd and shacky additions in which no earthly being had lived for a good fifteen years. Its front porch stood littered with piles of untouched, yellowed, deteriorating community shopper newspapers. Some were still in plastic bags. A mail box by the front door was stuffed with ancient yellowed junk mail and dry sycamore leaves.
Drought had gripped the environment for three solid weeks, temperatures in the hundreds, day after day. Leaves on the tips of trees were starting to crisp and would crush to a powder in one’s hand.
Two hours passed and I noticed the water men had finished and were now pushing the dirt back over their trench. I checked the kitchen sink and water flowed again. I soaped my hands and washed them. I washed an apple and ate it. I drank a glass of water. I visited the two bathrooms in the house, one upstairs, one downstairs, and flushed each toilet.
It was too hot to take a morning walk like I wanted, so I decided to take a shower.
When I look at my journal. I find I write about walks. Once, I walked to Howard Park near where her friends found Snow wandering naked down the railroad tracks. I sat in the shade and listened to the coal train roar through. I wrote this:
Across the street
From the demolished house
Behind me in a picnic
Shelter a woman
Tries to write something
A different woman
Walks by reading a letter
She stuffs it
In her handbag
And keeps walking
The cicadas all
Stop at once mid-sentence
Some pals from the artist’s commune snatched Snow from the railroad tracks and took her to warm up and have some soup in the studios. They gave her a flannel shirt, men’s corduroy slacks and some elfin moccasins. Snow is 21. Snow’s parents live here, but they gave her up.
When I asked God about Snow, his eye drooped sadly and a tear fell out.
Snow said stray souls took up residence in her body and craved cigarettes and grain alcohol. She walked naked once with a fifth of tequila. She balanced barefoot on the rails. This happened in our innocent little town.
I phone order Chinese from the buffet and drive out to pick it up. It is after work and I am tired. The neon of the buffet’s window cheers me some. There is a sign: No MSG, No Checks.
The girl at the cash register is friendly and insists that I take a free liter of Diet Coke with my order. “You take. You take.” It’s the way the Chinese say “I love you.”
Driving again down Burlington, I see Snow sitting on a bench outside The Dollar Store. She is smoking her Gauloises and the smoke is enormous, hovering above and around her like a malevolent ghost. Seeing her one place, moments later I’ll see her in another. In her little leather moccasins, in her little hooded cape, she walks, she smokes.
I saw Snow many days on my morning walks. I saw her with her stencils and cans of spray paint. She had the stencil of Johnny Cash which she sprayed on old sheds and garages. She had the stencil of a Celtic owl which she sprayed on brick walls downtown, in the alleys of the square. Snow was a good artist; she had hand-cut the stencils herself. The town was slowly becoming her art gallery, her continuous mural. Men in Hazmat suits suddenly started appearing spray painted on the sides of train cars, and her artwork was now mobile, traveling east and west between Omaha and Chicago.
As the weather grew colder, Snow wore her long brown cape with the hood, and carried her stencil and spray can supply in pockets sewn in the cape’s lining. She started to grow a reputation as “The Art Witch.” Occasionally, I would see her cloaked at the end of a long alleyway, shaking a can of sparkly black, and spraying a Johnny Cash on the side of a cinder block storage unit or garage. She’d peel off the stencil and then step back for perspective, tilt her head in appreciation, file away her supplies in her cloak, and then light a celebratory Gauloises.
Now it’s football weather for the bullies in the schoolyard, though high school football season has been over for weeks. They hut-hut loudly and crash into each other. One boy bleeds from the mouth. Dogs jump wildly around them. It is the weekend before Thanksgiving.
“What’s this I hear about God living under the staircase at the old Franklin house?” Bobby Jupiter asks me over coffee at Café Hemingway. It was a place where he would hold court. He had written two of his novels there in the upper room, scribbling at a table, sipping coffee, his hair like a bomb gone off.
We sat in the upper room, talking, surrounded by shelves of hardbound novels—the prominent décor of Café Hemingway.
“All I can see is his eye,” I said. “It’s under the staircase in the closet space. His eye looks sad most of the time.”
“It stands to reason.”
“I found him when I followed Snow into the house. ”
“That house is like a labyrinth inside,” Bobby said.
“You been inside?” I asked.
“I used to go there to bong up. There’s a room all decorated with Snow’s stencils, owls mostly, and her toxic man.”
“So that’s what she’s been doing.”
“An artist needs a place to practice, you know.”
The last time I talked to God, I asked him if what the Reverend Huhok said was true. Reverend Huhok was the minister at the United Methodist Church, not more that two blocks from the old Franklin place where God lived and where Snow had her decorated room.
“The Reverend Huhok says one can hear God’s voice in the passage of seasons.”
God’s eye seemed to smile at that one. He liked poetry most of all, and this seemed fair, if a little greeting cardish.
My impression is that God is honored by our prayers and tributes. He sends his blessings by allowing flowers to blossom, fruits to swell, and batches of kittens to be born. God is actually highly uncritical.
“Would you save us from the brink of our own self-annihilation?” I once asked him.
“Isn’t it more interesting this way?” he said.
“But you’re hiding under a staircase,” I protested.
“It feels good,” he said. And I thought, have I the right to ask any more or less of God than I would ask of myself or my wife or my children? It made me think. And then God closed his eye and disappeared for the rest of the day, leaving nothing but an empty closet space full of dust balls and fallen bits of plaster.
I walk by the old abandoned Franklin house, which is very near my house. I can see it from my front porch, I can stare into its darkened windows at night. I can beam a laser pointer at it as I sit listening to the crickets.
I walk by the Franklin house. I walk by the place where the Sufis live. I walk to the square where the Korean man has his noodle house. I walk to where the artists and the writers sit farting around the sidewalk café, to where the little art galleries are, to the office of the Sunflower (the newspaper) and finally to where the old post office is with its WPA murals of airplanes and river boats and sweating farmers scything wheat. I open my mailbox with a key and look inside.
This day I walk to the post office and there is nothing but a few brochures from a political party. I throw them away. I walk back, and it is grey. I walk past the movie theatre and look at the posters for the latest feature. A boy and a girl have run away together. Some badass fugitive balances on the I-beams of an unfinished skyscraper. I walk past the Greek pizza parlor and there is Snow smoking her fat cigarette. It crackles like a burning forest. She doesn’t look at me, but she sees me. She exhales, bobbing her head to some beat, some music only she feels inside. Her legs are bare, dirty, but beautiful. She wears an elf-like pair of leather moccasins. She is slouched with her hood over her eyes. She half sings, “Play a song for me… Jingle Jangle morning….” She is out of it, this world, she is in a different one. She looks into this world from hers as if through a dirty window. She stands to walk.
I walk home. I’m at the house where the old woman keeps the illuminated fake aquarium in the window. I cut to an alley that will take me straight home.
Snow must have outflanked me, because at the end of the alley, across the street from my house, Snow is spray painting a Johnny Cash on an abandoned garden shed. It is the garden shed of the old Franklin house. Snow seems to glitter. Her face is perspiring, even though it is a bit cool outside, and she looks satisfied and happy with what she has done.
I am close enough for her to hear me.
It’s like therapy, I say to myself. She is happy and mesmerized by her Johnny Cash who is now perfectly sprayed in black on a square of plywood that covers a window space on the old garden shed.
“Hey!” she says to me. “I remember you. You read to us.”
“That’s right,” I say. “How have you been doing?”
She digs in her bag and pulls out a yellow Bic lighter and a pack of Gauloises. She lights up, an excited firework.
“Sometimes I have been me, and sometimes I haven’t. Can I show you something?”
She waved for me to follow her. We crunched over some dried trumpet vine, and she pried open a knobless, lockless side door to an attached garage of the old Franklin house. What seemed like fifty feral kittens scrambled for even darker corners of an interior littered with rusted circular saw blades, hammers, and a whole symphony of neglected and abandoned tools from the 1950’s.
She opened a door that attached to the house proper. She used no key; it was unlocked. I followed her up two soggy, carpeted, rotting steps from the garage, up into what was an old mud room adjacent to the kitchen. The light was dim and murky, streaming feebly from a filthy kitchen window. The mud room was still home to a couple pair of desiccated, leather, men’s work boots and a row of dingy one-piece, blue mechanic’s overalls, all hung and lined up on pegs on the mud room wall.
I followed her through the kitchen where two dust-filled coffee cups rested on the plaster-splattered kitchen table. I followed her through a swinging door into a dining room which had no furnishings but an old Persian carpet faded and full of worn spots and holes chewed by tiny animals.
I followed her to the front of the house, past the staircase closet where God lived, past the staircase and to a room near the front door, where she paused and then opened the room’s door. It was once a bedroom. There was a closet that gaped without a door, and there was an old dresser without any drawers.
But most remarkable were the walls which Snow had covered with her stencils: patterns of green spray-painted owls on branches; black portraits of Johnny Cash; purple figures the Hazmat man repeated hundreds of times in an intertwining lace of images.
Snow let her cape drop from her shoulders. She pulled her dress over her head and let it drop to the floor. “Hold me,” she said.
When I met my wife, Syl, it was in an old house on the west side of Des Moines, near Drake University. The old house was being used as a meditation center. Syl was there to see for appointments. She would check and see that everything was going smoothly with the meditating.
We would sit in a quiet room with the door closed and she would instruct me to close my eyes and feel my thoughts.
Before long, I found the courage to ask her out to concerts, pie and tea at the pie shop, trips to the art center, and so on.
She had soft, wavy brown hair and kind brown eyes. The shape of her eyes might be described as Persian or almond. She had long slender legs. The curve of her hips and breasts were warm. We made three children together, all girls.
I tried to fall back to sleep last night after a particularly strong dream. In the dream, I was at the confluence of rivers near an eroded rock formation. An elderly German couple was climbing on the rocks with their Americanized grandson. Knowing that the rocks sometimes became flooded and violently covered by water, quickly and unpredictably, I yelled to the German family to warn them.
“Danke schoen!” they called back, not really moving like people who realized they were in danger. “Danke schoen!” The water came and the rocks were covered. The German family was no where to be seen. I awoke and could not get back to sleep.
I felt anxious about our oldest daughter who was far away in Vermont in graduate school. What if there was an invasion or crazy revolution and we were cut off? I don’t know why, but at that time of night, revolution seemed like a clear possibility.
Syl slept soundly at my side, the curve of her hip making a hilly landscape. I sat up and tried to say The Lord’s Prayer silently to myself:
Who art in Heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in Heaven
Give us this day our daily bread…
And what came next? A blank! I for the life of me couldn’t remember any more. There was nothing there. The prayer had disintegrated. It should have been there. It was permanently (or so I thought) etched into my brain during Lutheran confirmation classes. My head was a blank. I could remember Terry Molar, the pigeon-toed girl I had a crush on during confirmation, but I couldn’t remember the prayer. I stared at the foggy moon from the window. I was out of bed now and standing in my underwear. Sleep would not be a possibility for hours.
The Reverend Huhok was in his last days as pastor of the United Methodist Church. The parishioners had found him lacking in integrity. One of Reverend Huhok’s transgressions was that he appeared at the parsonage door during trick-or-treat dressed as the devil. His wife, who had long white sexy legs, was dressed that night in a cloth diaper and bikini top. She sucked on an adult-sized pacifier and clutched an oversized baby bottle. Children who came to the door for a Mars bar were dumbstruck. The parents were either amused, uncomfortable, or outraged. Debate ensued. Soon Huhok’s resignation was called for.
Huhok and his wife were also known for extra-marital flings and partner swapping. But these transgressions were kept below the board because they also involved members of the church trustees. The Huhoks were too hot to handle and they had to go.
I went to the Reverend Huhok’s final sermon. Lettered on the church marquee: “We are all just animals in God’s zoo.”
The reverend Huhok should never have been a minister. He was the spitting image of T. S. Eliot. He should have been a poet or a bartender.
I imagine we are all pulled into the things we do not because we want to be challenged, but rather we discover a zone of comfort and laziness in our chosen profession. We choose what we choose because we want to hide, and hide well. Don’t let the extroverts tell you otherwise. If they do, they are just trying to hide something.
The Reverend Huhok had a pained look of sensitivity that bordered on the posed, the self-conscious, the maudlin. We sat in his office in the church basement.
“I have committed a grievous sin…” He started, and lit a cigarette and sat back in his leather chair and raised his eyebrows and blew smoke to the ceiling. All his diplomas and certificates and trophies and medallions and banners and assorted honorary drapery had been stripped from the walls of his office and been hastily stuffed in cardboard boxes that lay jumbled about the stuffy office. A small window, like in a county jail lock-up, was slid open to let in a few puffs of outside air.
I told him about Snow pulling her dress over her head. I told him how God hid beneath the stairs of the abandoned house and how his eye was cetaceous, a blue lens packed in a wall of white flesh.
“Like Moby Dick…” Huhok muttered.
“One might say so. Would you like to see?” I asked.
“No.” Huhok said, and he held his palm to his greasy, plastered head. “I am leaving here soon, as you can see.”
A chickadee began calling outside. If you have ever heard a chickadee sing, you know how beautiful and bravely lonely those two notes are. How complete they are repeated over and over… “lone-ly, lone-ly, lone-ly…”
Later that afternoon, after Huhok and his wife had departed in their rented truck, and the interim pastor’s name had been affixed to the church’s marquee, I ran into Bobby Jupiter at Howard Park, the park near the abandoned train station.
In its day, the park was a place for travelers to stretch a bit before re-boarding the train for Chicago. It was still a lovely park, but its lanterns had been smashed by vandals. Now its walks were punctuated by a series of headless lamp posts. There were still places to sit. Bobby Jupiter sat on a long green bench.
“Snow left,” he said. “It’s been about a week. There had been talk of Denver, maybe, but nobody really knows.”
Her last batch of stenciled graffiti was a series of owls. They were stern looking owls, spray painted in layers of black and silver. They appeared all over town.
“She had a thing for walking all night long, I hear. I believe it. I once saw her crawl from the railroad underpass at 3 a. m. I think she had been perched there in the struts during that big rain,” Bobby said.
I had walked all over town one morning, jittery and out of sorts. I had been past the park and past the building that once was a Catholic grade school and was now a studio space, and home for homeless artists and teenagers. Snow had stayed there often. I saw her smoking under the branches of a tall juniper, a short-haired pixie smoking in the cavity of the sheltering branches. She shivered and looked upward through the lace of daylight.
I walked past that place and then up, north, on Second Street, through the little tunnel that was the railroad underpass. Snow’s stencils were there also-- Johnny Cash; the toxic man—and there was an owl, vibrant in silver and black. A train roared quickly above me, and I saw the places above in the support beams where a person, someone thin and supple as Snow, might perch unsteadily from nature’s downpour. I stared and stared and saw another owl stenciled up there. It almost looked real. At its feet, at its talons, under its angry, silver eyes were stenciled in black block letters the words, "WHO CARES?"
Copyright © 2017 Rustin Larson
Rustin Larson’s poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The Iowa Review, North American Review, Poetry East, and The American Entomologist Poet's Guide to the Orders of Insects. He is the author of The Wine-Dark House (Blue Light Press, 2009),Crazy Star (selected for the Loess Hills Book’s Poetry Series in 2005), Bum Cantos, Winter Jazz, & The Collected Discography of Morning, winner of the 2013 Blue Light Book Award (Blue Light Press, San Francisco), and The Philosopher Savant (Glass Lyre Press, 2015).