Sunday, April 15, 2007

"The Liquid Life" (installment twenty-one)


So Elendele was going to get to burn a church. She’d always wanted to. She’d never forgiven the sisters of the Order of the Virgin Belen from her days of conventing.

The hours walking blindfolded upstairs to develop the proper carriage; he trays of Brussels Sprouts of punishment for eating more than her fair share. The unmentioned crucifixion in the church basement of her friend who’d been caught on the town – in bed with a man twice her age.

It explained the light layer of aristocracy she wore, but which was often obscured by her flaired nostrils and mouth not tamed.

“Eighty or nine thousand would light a few nights, but even if he’d provided only dinner and month’s ration of Maria thrown in with the deal, Whitey’s plan gleamed white in the dank world of Elendele’s surreal mind. “Burning the church,” was all she talked about. She even had a quick-thickened file for it in her cabinet, well-hidden between the entries for employee stock ownership plans and Empresses of the Near East and distant past.

For Cassius there was no getting it. The symbolism, the politics, the history of it meant nothing to him. He actually admitted to finding the ideas distasteful. But he liked the money and figured it kept Elendele occupied while his faltering efforts at exploiting her silver stardom took on newer, more ornate forms. He too, was young and still learning.

“But what’s a church good for?” she convinced herself, standing on the coffee table while her close ones formed a semi-circle of attention. “As a sanctuary it isn’t worth the paper proposition it comes from. There isn’t a state around, past or present, that wouldn’t stomp into God’s house at a moment’s notice and soil his votive candles in the name of national security.”

If Elendele had believed in God, she felt it followed logically that he be a guy, however unlikely that might appear coming from her.

“The cops and the armies do what they want,” she reasoned. “When you see them coming, leave, guilty or not.” All of which hinted at the armed party approach to the project, which she birthed.

With its Sunday baskets, its guilty tax, she litanized, the church was good for revenue raising and then wasting it on more churches. This kind of economy was about as good as military spending, Elendele reasoned us. “No external benefits, no good stuff coming out of the pipeline for Jack and Jill,” she railed in her own street way.

“Church is something your parents make you go to until they get divorced and can’t justify forcing the issue in front of the kids because they’re ashamed anyway,” she raved on. “Church is a place that rises in your morning mind, to rob you of rays that are charging you still, after an evening without accountability.”

For me, pleasing certain women always required a degree of compromise, and I’d attended an occasional church, but burning one…

That Elendele was involved gave the whole scurrilous scene a glamorous cache. She spent hours before some sacred pamphlets of the Spanish CNT she withdrew from a safe deposit vault at the big bank, after her agreement with Whitey was sealed and the months ration of Maria delivered. They contained instructions on, “The Orderly

Dismantling of God’s House,” developed as part of a successful anti-cleric campaign, in Red Catalonia, in a time she tried every day to imagine, but could never quite get right.

Sure it was exciting. Sure it was for a good cause. Sure it was illegal. None of us ever internalized that last fact that. In the eyes of the state, church burning was not a form of protected political speech. It was high crime.

To keep things at a low profile in official circles Whitey would drop by the salon and smoke joints with her whenever any plans had to be made. Elendele was in control. And Whitey? Either he liked smoking marijuana suddenly at the age of 71 or he’d shrined himself a little Madonna in Elendele. The shady shadowy things they are it was probably a little bit of both.

She had brought a peppermint blast to his existence. Whitey would roll joints the size of the cigars he and his white-shod friends down a the local always smoked.

He’d ask her to play records and even borrowed her vintage, three-record, 78 RPM version of Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” without ever returning it.

The only thing to slow preparations happened when Elendele balked at the assistance of the bribable faction of the police union that Whitey felt was so necessary. But she furied him with a typical tirade, and like some housebroken husband, he promptly agreed to “keep the cowboys out” as requested.

He’d gotten his ideological organization.

Nobody involved could get an idea heard. She gave one mistake, and after that you were out. She was miserly with the operations money, paid poorly, and didn’t ask for other opinions. Then she overruled them when they were blurted out anyway.

And she was a friend of freedom.

Whitey didn’t know that Elendele had turned to the Li’l Criminals gang to provide the muscle she’d refused to accept from the law enforcement patriots. She had three reasons for embracing the notorious cell. First of all, the church was on their ever expanding downtown turf, and she didn’t want it on her head that something had been burned there without their prior approval.

Second, there wasn’t a scoundrel among them that didn’t have a knowledge of the church and its labyrinths, after having toiled through so many useless sermons about cleanliness and goodness during the timelessness of their childrenhood.

Better still (and number three), one of the higher-uppers in the gang was an altar boy. He had a working set of keys to most everything in the church, including the sacristy where Elendele secretively coveted gallons of stored holy wine. Half for her and half to trade with a full-blooded Comanche she knew in Santa Fe. He had blended his own potion from fermenting the coca plant, and holy wine was the only thing for which he was willing to trade anyone.

He was the money behind a drug store in town known as the Psico-Deli Rodeo, where you could find things you couldn’t anywhere else.

Whitey worked the inside. He got the help of the cemetery workers who found Elendele an empty casket and a grave plot. There they would store the incendiaries being developed, in a joint effort, by the gang members and their new friends at the Stage Props local union.

The whole thing almost came undone when Elendele and Saturn went to a meeting of the Writers Guild to see if that damn strike was ever going to end. They left the keys to the salon with Sammy from Li’l Criminals and the props people came by. There was a special running on Bock Beer at the corner liquor store, because it was the season, you see. They all got drunk and put little fake explosives and blood capsules in their chests and ignited them, diving around the room like they were getting killed, yelling and playing combat, staining the parquet floor. The props people were having a blast because the writers’ strike had left them idle, and deep down, they were really fire and gunpowder addicts. The gang kids were amazed. They had never experienced explosions without the accompanying whispers and tears and topsoils of death.

A neighbor called the cops and everything got scrambled, but not without Chivo getting caught on Eighth Street with evidence – a burned hole in his muscleman t-shirt. A quick check in the car computer and the police knew he was a parolee. They landed him back up in La Pinta for another five-year hitch. But he wrote Elendele that it was good to be back with old friends, to have time to paint, to know where the next meal was coming from.

The explosives were ordered by the union and paid for by a large studio – an arrangement worked out by Whitey. To accomplish the thing, he placed Saturnina as office manager at the props local – one of the most criminally underwritten unions in the county fed.

She was a craftswoman with white-out and copy machine; tricks she had learned in art school, and which left a path of invisible footsteps wherever the mad plan might have otherwise dropped is stain.

It was a summer evening during which it seemed the sun would never give in and go down, that the thing rolled off the assembly line. The salon was full of people who had finally decided to jump stage and get into routine because Elendele had brought lots of cocaine to lure them.

“I want a door off a confessional to paint,” was Cortez’ play.

“For me, what would be beautiful,” requests the loyal Saturnina, “is if one of the guys could smash me some stained glass and help me find a crescent-shaped blue piece and maybe some more to wrap around neon and things.”

“I just want to get in and then get out,” Trevor tosses.

“Please!” says the Elendele Express, “You guys…we can’t wait around for all these things. We only have enough time for me to get the wine out of the sacristy and then we’re off.”

“Saturn,” I ask, “How do you wrap stained glass around neon?”

“Just go up to the art school,” Elendele expedites, “ask if you can use their glass blower.”

“Elendele,” Cortez rallies, “if there’s time to get some wine there’s time to rip up a confessional and get a door to paint.”

“And make a buck on selling it, right Cortez?” comes her left cross.

“Yeah,” says Saturnina, “we could sell it.”

“Yeah,” confirms the Cuban, “maybe sell it to the mayor’s wife or one of her friends who like the arts. Whitey could help there.”

Elendele likes that idea after all. She agrees to let Cortez get a confessional door and Saturn a crescent moon of blue-stained glass.

“I just want to get in and out,” Trevor affirms the aforementioned.

“You don’t have to come, but if you do you can leave whenever it gets to be too much,” Elendele offers him and they sign their simple pact as Cassius, who’s still not going, shows up with some beer for everyone. “I hope I don’t end up an accessory to the crime,” he worries. After it’s all gone, and everybody has inhabited their proper swimworld of fearlessness, we stumble out into the street.

We load into a pick-up truck, with loud speakers in the topped flatbed cranking full, so no one will suspect anything. Chato is supposed to drive around the block after leaving Saturn and Elendele off at a house next to the cemetery. We’re supposed to cut through a hole in the fence and follow a map to where the gravediggers have left a rosewood casket filled with gasoline, gunpowder, and Korean fireworks.

“Elendele,” Saturn squirms, “I don’t know if this is such a good idea. I think maybe your crazy now that I think about it. Maybe Cortez and Dominique should go…or one of the gang kids, some men should go.”

“I’ll do it,” huffs the menace. “Let’s go Dominique.” And she winds her arm under mine from behind and back around across the front of my shoulder, as if I had just asked her to dance.

We run for the fence and she yells those guys to find their places in the church. Elendele pulls out a flashlight to help find the seam in the fence opened by some of the Li’l Criminals, whose job it was to get inside the cemetery earlier, before closing.

We crawl through and on the other side. She pulls out a map and compass and orients herself. We are supposed to meet at the grave of Clara Bow. The Crazy Lokes set of Li’l Criminals, charged with assisting the inside effort have left a trail of overturned tombstones through the cemetery that leads right to the grave. There are hundreds overturned and when we arrive they’re sitting on granite seats smoking cigarettes.

“It’s about time bitch,” says one of the bad boys with a stocking that holds some little curlers in his hair steady.

“Don’t you ever call me a bitch,” Elendele says and then stares him down when he puffs his chest and comes near her.

“Why did you do this to the tombstones?” was her immediate query.

“We got bored,” he returns, tossing a cigarette into the up dug grave.

“You got bored? Yeah, well, listen. You be real careful because our gripe’s with the living and we certainly don’t need to be rubbing the dead wrong. With the living. Got that?”

We raise the coffin in a few seconds cause the gang bangers had been practicing doing it during their wait. They had even blown off some of the fireworks at dusk.

“Does the word ‘secret’ mean anything to you guys,” she slashes mister stocking and curlers, after finding the evidence.

“When this is over,” she tells him, while pulling out the explosives, distributing to each his allotted supply, “tell Sammy from MCX set to give you my number. Call me up. I’ve got a couple of books for you to read.”

“I don’t know how to read,” he barks at her.

We run down a grass lee preserved yet for the undead or just barely dying. At the bottom, two Teamster friends of Whitey’s are waiting to drive us the long distance from the end of the cemetery closer to the church. They don’t even stop when we get there. Elendele hops out with the flatbed cruising mph and we all follow.

There’s no more talking. Everybody knows what to do. There’s a split-up and each goes to an appointed entranceway or window. There, more members of the cemetery workers local, dressed like nuns, open up from the inside. It’s hard to see at first, but I can hear footsteps running up and down the long aisles. Then a collision up by the altar and the sound of bodies falling.

“Trevor you idiot,” Saturn hisses him, “stop following me around.”

Elendele clears them away and waits there for each of us to blow whistles of different color and intonation as signal that our bombs have been dropped. As the rustling goes on she passes the time lighting all the votive candles on the altar, casting clear the shadows of nuns’ hats trailing the man-made wind of quick movements.

When the last whistle is blown she sticks a papier mache torch she’d fashioned after the one used in the i84 Olympics with a candle. It whooshes up into a paint brush of blood and dying sun. Cortez steps back in reverent admiration. She moves quickly, lighting first the stack under the front pews, then the stack under the hay of the baby in the nativity scene.

“Jeezus,” she sings, “Heeees mah friend…”

Then the confessionals. Half way around the church she stops for a gulp of holy water and fire ritualizes the other side, after her quenching.

By the time she has worked the horseshoe back round to the front, a fire has started full under the pews. “You’ve got three minutes to loot and then you got to meet out front,” is her loud command, “three minutes!”

Cortez is chopping away at a confessional for his bounty reward while I help him in the final pry. Saturn is looking for someone to smash her a window, but Trevor has enlisted all the fake nuns in his effort to dislodge the weighty, four-foot statue of St. Just he suddenly decides he wants.

So she comes up to me with her coyness in command.

“Dominique,” she begs in near nobility, turning half away, lowering her head so she can crash me with her smoldering uplook, “smash me a window, baby. Please?” as if we were in the bed back at the salon again.

I look at Cortez. “I’ll be alright,” he says, door under arm, heading for the truck, “Help her out.”

“Okay,” I relent and give her my arm as she tugs me across the church, which is flaming on three or four walls like Elendele has planned. That way we have a way out, if we take time gratefully and not greedily. But Saturn can’t make up her mind and she takes me twice around the church looking at windows like we’re in a gallery.

Finally she decides on the one about brief deaths, upon a hill at night, because it’s five-sixths blue, except for the brown green of Calgary, and the bone white of the lonely crucifixes sticking sadly out of them.

“This one,” she chooses, backing away, folding her arms to watch me do her dirty laundry. The window is 30-cathedral-feet high and arched. If I smash it while standing at the base, with the little statue of St. Anthony she has given me for the purpose, it will fall down all over me. So I back away into the center aisle and throw the statue through.

It is a glass waterfall that starts with the bottom giving. But the top, so up in the neighborhood of gravity, makes the splashdown first. Saturn wades the resulting pile, tossing the blue pieces around so she looks like she’s playing in swirl pools or in a mirror spot on a starry night sea.

After a few minutes Elendele comes out of the sacristy breathing heavy, but in control. “Man, get this stuff up and get out of here.”

Everybody is in the truck except: Saturn, who is still searching me, watching her trance dance; Trevor; and one nun still trying to help me move St. Just.

They take ten more seconds going about their business when the altar collapses as the fire gorges on its wooden roots.

“Saturnina!!!” screeches the field marshal.

Saturn is holding two pieces up to the fire light in a final ponder.

“Oh Goddamn it! I guess…I guess I’ll take this one. I can file it down later.” Then she hopscotches out of the church, her hands full of blood, the doorway falling in after she passes through it. Elendele points me out the other side to safe haven.

I watch from the entryway as she urges Trevor to forget the statue because it’s getting late. Everything is burning now and I only see them yelling and gesturing at each other because the church is corn-popping and creaking under the wilting, lilting flame.

Then a firebeam falls from above and lands on the cemetery worker, knocking off his habit and his head. Trevor wails unholy, and St. Just falls and smashes like the blue window did. Elendele grabs Trevor and runs for the door where I’m waiting.

The truck comes around because they saw the door come down after Saturn and thought we were stuck. We jump in, and while pulling away, St. Just moans like a swordfull bull. Sits down to sigh, and then lays over on its side and dies.

Whitey had gotten cab union members to set up a relay system and Elendele and her gang commandos had to make 14 car switches in a 20-minute period, double backing, going up and then down the same street twice, around corners forward then backwards, to throw off pursuit. He got that union’s president to call a protest for a fare increase and cabbies left their cars parked in the middle of streets important to firemen wanting to stop the fire, and to policemen on the trail of the curly-haired girl, who’d maybe taken her chaos just one step too far.

Everybody got scrambled in different cabs and Elendele, Saturn and I rode together.

We couldn’t get the bleeding on the step-sister’s hands to stop.

“Elendele. Jesus. A guy died back there,” I note, because it hasn’t sunk in. It’s true. She’s a general of the dreamworld; a buck private in reality.

“That kind of thing happens in this business,” she deep-freezes me, leaderly,
wrapping Saturn in satin, her shirt tight wound round the hands, held like a baby to her breast --Saturnina -- the only thing she’s worried about for the moment.

The cab relay finally brings us back around town and into a cotton warehouse just a few blocks from the flaming saint with an ideal for a name.

There, a party is spread, driven by the unfathomable futures of holy wine, loud with Brazilian music, scented with dwarf birch and woodrush found in the cemetery, and bonfired along with little statuettes, and pieces of stained glass; all pillaged booty of the left-leaning lootery Elendele had assembled.

It was a party that would glamour the press, after we were caught, and drape everyone in the safety of the public eye. But not that night. That night Elendele and her Li’l Criminals heard and felt the whaps and whelps of a blackjack athleticism they could never have imagined. And they were the skeptical ones.

“The only time I was ever scared enough to want to call the police, and it was them who were beating us up,” she said after the bailing and bonding were done.

Of course, acrimony soon took hold of the gangbangers over spending the contents in the money box offered them as payment. She had offered any number of the church’s treasures, but the Li’l Criminals saw value only in money. They were not so much interested in Elendele’s bazaar of values as they were in her ass and some cold, hard cash. So much so that they agreed to take the box, and their chances, that something would be in it. As soon as its big bounty was revealed, rival sets were formed and mister stocking and curlers pulled out a gun and fired shots at the now scramming street scammers.

He missed, but the cops didn’t when they later shot a boy leaning against the wall. They’d queried identification and then shot him when his wallet looked like a gun.

It wasn’t, but the score was a little more even now.

“It doesn’t matter to the gangs or the police,” said the provocateur Elendele. “To them he’s just another statistic on dead people.”

But that murder shocked everyone and it changed Elendele – true to its design.

Afterward, she was less bold and mostly frightened that she was being watched, because her pinch between the fingers of authority had left her surprised at how much of her story was known to them.

The Li’l Criminals were armed and dangerous and they had it coming. Elendele knew afterward that working with them was a mistake. Whitey made this clear anyway, roaring about, yelling in her face, making Elendele feel like a little girl.

“Maybe I should have held your hand…should I have held your hand? Ooooh mother of God this is the one. What have I done?… How did you hook me into asking you to do this?… Where could I have come up with this disease of an idea?… You…You seduced me!

Getting arrested cause of you wasn’t enough…I had to go back for more…Rule number one is never get involved with an internationalist,” he whips his self up, “and I break it as easy as that.”

“American unions never…” she started.

“Never mind that!” Whitey bellowed mighty over her. “Endelene, it’s always your way and the world is your doll house right? You know about politics, huh? You know about coalitions? You know all about a common, binding thread? Christ, for you people that’s a fashion term…”

Elendele had realized the gangs didn’t stand for barrio autonomy or anything else.

The problem with them, she determined, was that their killing and maiming was for its own sake, unchecked by any theoretical parenthesis.

“I gave them the benefit of the doubt,” she told a reporter wandering down the wrong halls of a self-chosen labyrinth. “What they’ve done inside me can’t be fixed.”

Thereafter, her associates were more conventional. She subscribed to at least one product of the mainstream press, and her ties with all gangs, not just east-siders, were severed completely.

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