Suddenly, Frankie had a real pang of nostalgia for the simple life that had been his only seven or eight months earlier and the stupid shit that mattered to him: the bar, Pam, getting drunk, getting in fights, going to his grandma to get healed.
Taking a minute on a blue and gold autumn day to reflect on the hot summer past, thinking ahead to fresh apples and pumpkins—he loved Halloween. Thanksgiving at Grandmas—what a lousy cook she was—eating dry turkey and lumpy potatoes, and celebrating Christmas and New Year’s by getting paralyzing drunk the entire month of December.
He remembered that the December before the scene at Billy Martin’s house, his friend Tyson came home from the Air Force. His stint had recently ended. When he originally joined, it was because he’d been offered a deal, either the military or jail. Tyson chose military. He brought home all this booze from Greece—Ouzo, the real stuff. It tasted like licorice. They lost the entire month of December that year: total blackouts, waking up with a broken nose, spending a day trying to find his car. It was amazing: Ouzo, tequila, and a whole crap load of Seconal. That was the way to have a merry Christmas and New Year, too.
He spent the better part of the next year finding out things he did that winter. There was nothing as miraculous as the first shot of that magical fluid or as disappointing as waking up the next day with no idea where he was or how he got there. One day, in early March of that next year, Frankie took off into the woods to find himself, alone and stone-cold sober in the cold, dark woods.
He sweated a lot, in spite of the cold air; he threw up a lot, but after a week he felt almost healthy. He took long walks in the dead forest, fighting sleeplessness, aware of his solitude. He tried to meditate but found it useless and boring. There was something calming about the dark, naked forest, something almost primal that he needed in his loneliness. When he was younger, a child, he had always sought solitude and loneliness. As he grew, loneliness scared him greatly. Maybe it was the fighting, being knocked out so many times. The terror of waking from a good head shot, the room spinning, the confusion, then jarring reality: was he still under attack, or was he safe?
Maybe he was simply afraid of his own thoughts. Frankie could lie to anyone, anytime, about anything, but he could not lie to himself. That was Frankie’s great failing; he couldn’t bullshit himself. He knew exactly who he was and what he was and where he was going.
Where he was going was open to conjecture. It really depended on what or who he chose to believe that day. After a long talk with Alex, he’d feel fine, that his soul was safe, that he actually had a soul, but after he’d talk to the old woman or some of his really religious friends he’d find himself in a total panic once again. He feared death more than anything else, yet he chose to live his life as if he cared less.
Preachers terrified him. If he pondered it at all, the entire
Heaven, Hell, eternal damnation thing scared him beyond words, to the point that he had to do something, anything to get it off his mind. He could run, or fuck, start a fight or get deeply drunk, but he could not face the thought of death. He was comfortable with the concept of nothing. Absolute, complete gray nothing. He’d often ponder nothing. Nothing and nothingness, complete and total endless nothing he could deal with and accept—that permanent and endless nap, perfect and endless silence. It was the other options that terrified and drove him, often to the edge of madness. His greatest fear was that his disbelief was wrong and he would find out too late, that the deeply religious were right and he was doomed to an afterlife that was more confused and painful than the life he plodded through now.
They had such conviction, the religious, unwavering. No matter how hard Frankie tried, he couldn’t feel it. The time alone in the woods was not good for Frankie. I think the idea came to him from some TV show or some hippie girl he might have fucked. He went there to get clean, to sober up after the bender that started around November and seemed to find its end in late February.
It was a hostile time in the woods. After a week he seemed to feel cleaner, a little lighter, not so heavy or worn down by the constant obligation to be drunk. But the solitude was not good for him. There were places in his mind he just did not go, like that secret closet some people have in their house, or the room that is always closed off and strangely colder than the rest of the house. The longer he was alone, the closer he came to opening some of those doors.
He had played around with acid a few times, nothing serious. Usually, he’d done it at parties, where it was mixed with a lot of other drugs and huge amounts of booze. Frankie had not had a drink in over a week. He’d been out walking that morning and the sky was becoming overcast. It was late March, but the air had that unmistakable feel and taste and smell of snow. This trip into solitude had no plan, no beginning, and no end. He thought as he walked that it might be time to get back to life. He needed a job. He was about out of money.
He got back to the tent and lean-to, under a grove of tall pine trees, just as it started to spit snow. He could hear the snow hitting the dry grass of the field that surrounded him. It made a sound that, if he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine was the sound of a summer field full of life and bugs, but the rapidly dropping temperatures and the cold whipping wind betrayed all that. This was a late winter day.
Frankie reached into his backpack looking for some matches so he could build a fire; his hand found an aluminum square. He pulled it out and he remembered: purple microdot acid. Not part of his plan for the woods, but what the hell. He wasn’t quite sure what day of the week it was, but it didn’t matter. He’d been sober far too long. This was a good time to get rid of this stuff. There were six tiny pills in the aluminum packet, so he figured he’d start with two. He started a fire and slid them down his throat. Then he pulled a joint from his pocket and put it to his lips and lit it. As he sat on the rock and watched, the fire started to grow, and he realized nothing was happening other than the effects from the joint. Disappointed, he took the remaining four hits of the acid.
He sat there, watching the fire. Suddenly, Frankie noticed the fire glowed brighter. He could hear the snow falling; it was becoming loud. He started to feel different, awake, alive. Everything was bright. He could see the snow falling from the sky; everything was perfectly in place. Frankie heard sounds he’d never heard before. He needed to run, to get up and run as fast as he could, maybe forever. He took off in a sprint. The snow made the grass slippery, but he could run perfectly. Everything was clear; everything he did was perfect. As Frankie ran increasingly faster, he commended himself on how perfectly healthy he’d become during his short time in the woods. He felt an incredible power as he ran. He had to warn himself not to run too fast; he was certain he could fly, but he’d do that later.
At the edge of the field, Frankie saw a woman. It was Sarah, the ancient woman he saw from time to time in the cemetery. He stopped running; he walked up to her and stood silently. She was very old and pale and opaque. She took his hand without saying a word and walked him to the other end of the field. Here, she stopped; she raised her hand in a sweeping motion and Frankie appeared to himself. He stood there, directly opposing himself. Staring at the face before him, Frankie had never before seen his ugliness. He could see his fears, he could see his hate, he could see his weakness and his anger.
Sarah raised her hand again and at the opposite end of the field he saw a fire; he looked more closely and a terror grew inside him. The face he’d been staring at had disappeared, but on top of a pyre he saw a body; it was his own body in death. He looked at Sarah and started to cry, “Why do I need to die? I can’t die, not today! I’m not ready, Sarah, don’t let me die today!” but she was ever silent.
In the air around him, Frankie heard a voice, but it was not Sarah’s voice, it was his own voice. It was loud and it grew louder and stronger. “It’s your sin. It’s your rage. It’s your selfishness! It’s your pride, it’s the countless lies, it’s every crime you’ve ever committed. It is the sin of every day of your life! Every single second of your life is alive with sin, but your soul is dead; let’s burn this bastard son of a bitch and be free of him!”
He watched in increasing horror as the fire under the pyre roared to life. Frankie screamed at Sarah as he felt the fire begin to engulf him, “What about my goodness? What about the good I’ve done?”
Sarah’s eyes glowed fire-red, and he heard a roar like a great north wind, and the sound resonated in his body. He could feel it more than hear it and the ever-silent Sarah screamed, “THERE IS NONE! You are completely devoid of any redeeming quality. This is how you’ve decided to life your life. This darkness is all and everything you’ve ever embraced. Why now? Why now, when the flames are starting to cook your empty carcass, do you cry for redemption? You need nothing; you need no one. But now, now as the fires of Hell are starting to cook your flesh, now you decide you want to find God. Frankie, you are dead, boy; this is all you’ve ever loved and embraced! Don’t cry for your God now, boy, you gutless, soulless, cowardly scum. Let this empty carcass burn. Take your poisoned spirit and set it free. This is the Hell fire of your dream, boy; let out the scream, that eternal lifelong scream, the silent scream of your dreams. Let it go as you burn. Let go of the scream you held inside your entire rotted life. There is no God, boy, no God for you, boy. This is your dream; let out the scream and set your spirit free.”
Deep inside, Frankie felt it coming. It was building, ten- thousand-thousand terrors building at once. It was the rush of the surging ocean as the tide comes in, the relentless power of the unstoppable waves, a surging, unstoppable rage of the orgasm, the storm that lives in all men’s souls, but is softened for them and maintained by the soul, by the good. Without a soul, the power is free to explode with its full and unrelenting vengeance. “Release your spirit to the universe, boy. Let the scream go!”
Frankie began to shake and convulse on the pyre. The fire licked his body, and still the scream was silent. His body began to smoke as flames surrounded him. He could feel the flames as he became consumed. The torment and torture reached a crescendo, and he released his scream. As his body collapsed into the pyre, the snow-covered field and surrounding trees echoed the scream, and his spirit was free. Frankie had become the lost and disembodied spirit he always knew he was destined to become. The world to Frankie would never be the same; the distance and separation he’d always felt were now perfected. He’d never come back from this night.
He looked and Sarah was gone. He collapsed on the ground exhausted, completely drained and broken, free, and then he slept until daylight. The first thing Frankie saw when he awoke was the glowing embers of the fire from the night before. He broke his camp that morning, weak and shaken, but almost certain he was still alive. He packed what he’d brought with him in his pack and stumbled out of the woods and into town and back to The Lovely. He needed to get very, very drunk.
He met this challenge with great success. As the day wore on until late at night, once he was very drunk and high, Frankie would wonder if one day, one time, he’d not come back from this madness, these imagined terrors. Were they only imagined? Were they simply the result of the acid? He wondered if someday, one day, he’d quietly slip over the edge and die and find out he was fucked entirely.
Would he find his safety in the realm of the ghosts? A part of him never left the field that night. Now Frankie owned a new terror; he knew somehow, some way that it was not a just a drug-induced hallucination. He knew now that during that night in the field, he had been exposed to something all men fear and very few ever see; he saw his own death, his own end. It was worse than he had imagined it could ever be, and now all he had to do was wait for it to come true.
Even armed with the knowledge of how it would end, how he would die, nothing terrified him more than the church and its sin and its death. He could not walk past a church without needing to walk a little faster, often breaking into a sprint. Ministers and priests offered him no comfort, only sin and guilt and fire and Hell and fear. How did he become so sin-filled?
The old lady repeatedly said he had no soul; if she was right, maybe he had nothing to fear. He would walk into a church and stare at that poor man on the cross. What a horrible way to die, hanging from a cross with nails in your feet and hands. One winter’s day, a raw cloudy day, when the air had frozen silent, Frankie, obviously drunk, very drunk, stood in the Catholic Church in Middletown, St. Joseph’s. As the priest approached him, Frankie said, “How the fuck do you find comfort in that misery and suffering and pain? How do you take these pretty windows and fine wooden pews and graceful arches and flowers and books of songs and in the middle of all this hang a dead man? All I see here is pain and suffering and sin and death and Hell fire.”
He turned, staggered, and ran as fast as he could from the building, slipping on the icy granite stairs and falling down eight or ten steps before landing in a drunken pile on the sidewalk. His forehead was broken open and bleeding. Blood ran down Frankie’s face and onto the leather of his jacket, where it became a frozen black mess. The priest stood there looking at him. Frankie got up, brushed the snow from his jacket and pants and started to run again, as if he was being chased by a demon.
He knew he didn’t understand, but it was because he couldn’t. He tried. He tried really hard; he even faked getting it for a while, to make the old woman happy, but she saw through him. It was after one of those failures, his notorious “religious period” in his late teens, that he started to embrace the darkness, his darkness. It was as if he could not embrace the angels, the cherubim, and seraphim. They made him nervous and uneasy, frightened, because he knew his failure to embrace them and all the other stories were just more proof of his failure and doom. Frankie’s battle with faith and God and understanding was a runaway train. The more he tried, the harder he failed; the harder he failed, the more he was assured of his spiritual doom. Frankie tried to not believe, to embrace atheism, but there was a core, a sliver, a relic from the old woman that did believe and he could not let it go.
She was such a paradox, a Bible-banging, church-song-wailing witch. She always said, “Don’t think; let the Spirit take you.” He never could catch the brass ring; it was always only inches from his grasp. It became easier and made more sense to embrace his darkness.
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