Thursday, July 9, 2009

Roadhouse Madonna

In the first place, it was not really a roadhouse. In those days, still in the wake of the strange legislation that arose out of the hysteria of the temperance workers on our continent full of confused pioneers, the natural combination of food, live music, and alcohol was not often found under one roof, in the province of British Columbia, especially in the rural communities, even in a rural community so full of legend and romance like the Cariboo. In the founding decades, in the gold rush days, these blessings existed side by side, of course, for even in Toby's heritage there had existed a grandmother who had played her violin in the hotels of the Klondike. But subsequent legislation by leaders educated in systems other than the cathedral norms of good old Europe in the Old World and the southern hemisphere in the New, had left the heart of man puzzled and at a loss. Toby had grown up assuming these were universal standards, until one of his immediately recent roommates had told him how things were in his younger days in England, where his father took his beer in the same place as his young son took his lunch, while they were traveling and had stopped at a pub, and Toby had been hard put to figure out the morals of the difference, for all that his own father had usually taken his evening pint in the same place where Toby ate his supper.
So, there was no live music, nor any hope of any, unless Toby were to illegally take his banjo out of his duffel bag, and there was no booze. There was only a clean, modest, small cafe on the north side of the road west, an hour or two short of Alexis Creek, where they were to stay for the night in the lone hotel there. The Alexis Creek hotel had a dining room, and a pub, so it was said, but the dinner hour was upon their stomachs at the nearer location, and the three vehicles pulled at the humble cafe.
This decision had been made somewhat earlier, overlooking the spring green valley of the Chilcotin River. David and Toby had been leading the pack since they had left Williams Lake at noon, loaded with groceries, leaving the spotty rain in the valley for the gradual clearing and then utterly clear skies above the Cariboo plateau, and they had been chatting all the way on all manner of subjects - including the rising young film actors sketched in a magazine David had picked up along the way - until well on in the afternoon when the truck had bent a sudden left in the highway and emerged from behind a wall of jack pines to suddenly behold, to their left and behind them, the awe inspiring surprise of the valley, some few miles wide, lying hundreds of feet below them and extending east for almost as far as they could see. moreover, on the top of the hills to the south, lay the buildings of the fabled Gang Ranch. In Toby's mind, this historic institution was not quite on a par with Rich Hobson's wilder location further north, but it was still a striking sight, a mightily poetic connection with all the westerns he had read in his younger years. David had all but slammed his laden vehicle to a halt, and leapt out with his camera, to shoot and shoot again, and in his own habitually quiet way wonder in amazement at Toby for his lack of a camera.Toby laughed. "I'm a writer. I have a memory. If I can't recover this scene on my typewriter I'll have to get a different job. When I write my book, however, I might ask you for a photo. That is the most profoundly wonderful view, and all the more for being so goddamned unexpected. Behind those trees, we didn't have a clue. Not a clue! I've never seen anything like it!"
The jeep and the sedan drove up, and likewise disgorged all the other camera owners, and Mortimer said they would stop for supper something under an hour further along the highway, instead of waiting until they reached the Alexis Creek hotel and its dining room. There was a unanimous murmur of approval, then they got back into their vehicles and rode into the sunset.
So the view of the valley, you might say, had set them up for what was to come. And of course they were a group of men, mostly young, now stopping for dinner on their third evening on the road, which has to bring to the situation a certain sense of the special. All of their meals together had been lively celebrations, with the jokes and the stories flowing, and no one relying on reaching into the gutter to get a laugh. They were all too busy getting to know each other, for the sake of the long isolation ahead of them, and none of the university men were the least bit interested in being snobs about their educational good fortune. To a man they came from working class families, even if Toby's father had somewhat risen to higher levels through the education he had received during the war, and they all had enough sense to be grateful to have well-paying, well-fed summer jobs, and to respect the trade skills of the professionals at their sides. To respect and to learn from them. It was a very nice mixture of men, Toby had thought from the beginning.
And he had been mightily prepared for the experience, although by spiritual and literary experience more than by formal doctrine. The concept of "the common priesthood" he would not actually hear in sermon form for three or four years, but the actual practice of it had been banging through his mind and sensibilities all his life, in quieter fashion, and at least in the last year, simply as a bloody riot. Mentally speaking, no running with the bulls in Pamplona could have done more for his psyche than the shocks of the spirit, sometimes aesthetic, ecstatic, and otherwise all the sensations of the soul the poets look for; sometimes downright brutal and annihilating, the things the real mystics look for, even when a big part of them doesn't really, naturally, want to.
And yet - and this was a contradiction he would be enduring for several months ahead - he had no vocabulary for these events, no index or glossary at the end of his life-book of the moment. It was true, of course, that like anyone educated up to and beyond the high school level in his culture he had been somewhat informed about those earlier cultures when the saints purportedly exercised all sorts of fantastic privations in order to acquire perfect unity with God and the universe. One simply read in history class of the rigours of anchorites and prayerful men at the top of poles. Everyone knew of such things. But at the back of Toby's head lay a prejudice against outward show, and whatever actual hard core spiritual life he had, he preferred to keep it undiscussed. This was just as well, and in no way ungrateful or disrespectful of what he had already been given, simply because he knew no one at that time qualified to give him spiritual direction. And in fact he would later find that out that such ability was in great shortage in even the Catholic culture of the city of his birth and most of his education. So the common language for the spiritual life, which is, of course, much different than the ordinary devotions of both Protestants and Catholics, and indeed any religion, he had no awareness of, for all that he had already been given a good deal of it. Nothing is more desirable, for instance, than a regular dose of aridity mixed in with all the consolations that come from nature, good reading, reasonably virtuous friends, and even the slightest contacts with organized religion, and particularly from his adolescence on, he'd known the beginning skirmishes of the dark night of the senses with enviable regularity.
But, as I said, he did not know that he knew this in the way a formal and detailed theological education would have given him, nor did he talk about these events with anyone he knew, and the light that came and went, had in fact been coming and going throughout his conscious life, even before the aridities he assumed were something everyone else experienced, and just didn't talk about, or else somewhat unique to him but still not a subject for conversation.
It was in so many ways a ridiculous situation, but man must pay for heresy and rebellion against the order God intended, and so Toby was, in those days, a victim of his heritage as well as a benefactor by the divine will to overcome it.
And, on occasion, that will manifested itself with remarkable effect, sometimes sheerly on its own, sometimes through persons or things. So far, from the landscape of the province as it flowed by on their journey, things had led the parade of instruction, as in the fourth stanza of John of the Cross' Spiritual Canticle. Something of mankind was about to take over, and the sometimes remarkable play of the intellect and even the spirit to manifest themselves.
In retrospect Toby was to remember that the little cafe lay in terms of the points of the compass pretty much as had the inn, as it called itself, that lay high above the strait on the road north of Sechelt. Both buildings thus faced enough to the west to get the full effect of the declining sun, and both had full windows to make the most of the opportunity.
There were a couple of significant differences: Toby was by himself when he'd driven from his grandparents' place on the Inlet, to down a couple of draft on a gorgeous evening just less than a week previous, in a pub with the most expansive view, of the strait, that he'd ever seen from the windows of a beer parlour. The clientele, however, was utterly humble: a few local whites, a few local natives from the nearby reserve. Not a high roller in a fancy suit in sight. Having just spent an entire year being out and about in high society, with a car and money from two different jobs to bank roll his writer's sense of research, he'd hit some of the best leisure locations on the Coast, on both sides of the strait, where the drinks were priced accordingly. But none of them, for all their furnishings and classy entertainment, could boast of the view at hand, to be had for the price of a couple of bier ordinaire.
The other difference was that nothing of an especially spiritual nature had happened while he sat in the pub. True, his painter's eye - such as it exists in a novelist - was mightily filled up by the light of the falling sun and the green of the forest below and the blue of the strait beyond, and the more faded green-into-blue of Vancouver Island beyond that, and perhaps there was an extra slice of metaphysics, a brush with the intuition of being that had been coming now so regularly and intensely since he had started to get serious about philosophers, but nothing to shock him, pleasantly or otherwise. It had been a peaceful thing to sit quietly in the pub, absorbed by the view, the convivial quiet, the sense of adventure awaiting in the upcoming job.
But just as he drove back into his grandparents' private road and was parking his car, something odd, and not at all pleasant, had come into his soul.
It was more than a mere interference with the process of ordinary thinking. This he had known at least since he became something of a frustrated Latin student, immediately on his first day of class, and then known much more thoroughly from the time he began law studies. As he was to learn later, the ligature of the faculties, that impediment which simply hurls a soul on to a notable rung of the ladder of perfection, had taken an irremediable hold on his mind. But this had hardly been unpleasant. Indeed, it was more like a comforting, quietly joyful, stupidity that still let every form of life about the campus, including the law school and its populace, be utterly acceptable and the only place to be, yet without any indication whatsover that he was about to become a scholar of the Law. His sense of the intellectual life continued to come from literature.
But this intrusion was unquestionably a bitter thing. It was as if someone was quietly filing on his brain and ragging his spirit, so that he felt that there was nothing worth knowing and nothing in all of life worth tasting. He was puzzled, and somewhat frightened, and on re-entering the house, not much comforted by rejoining the company of his grandparents. It took something of an effort to relate to them, and he was relieved that they, like he, were off to bed.
But he was only relieved for a little while to find comfort in the sack. His youthful imagination had just nicely gone somewhere it did not really belong, when he found himself in Hell, although not in his body, but in his soul alone. For as long as the exercise took, he did not have a body. He only knew his spirit, and that was unquestionably something he really did not want to know as long as it was in the place it was. He had neither read of nor imagined any pain or horror or darkness like that he had been plunged into, and it seemed to be going on forever, although it is unlikely that it lasted for more than a minute, if that long.
Then it went, and Toby lay quietly for a while before he fell asleep, yet not actually thinking too much about what he had just gone through. It had been a winter and spring of things he had never really read about, or heard about, more joyful and inspiring than otherwise, so this must have been just one more first exposure to the whole story of what it meant to be his kind of writer, whenever he could figure out what that was. When he started back to the city in the morning, he was especially conscious of how beautiful the forest was along the highway to the Gibson ferry, and really did not remember at all what had happened to him during the night, so high and wide and appreciative of creation flew his soul for the moment.

1 comment:

Southview said...

Ken..... Are you telling us that, in Heaven there is no BEER? :~)