I had known in my younger days a bishop who wore open-toed sandals and an hibiscus patterned Hawaiian shirt—Father Bugleweed—compelling man, devoted to muscular Christianity, he found international fame as a young man in the forties giving speeches around the world on scripture and appropriate worship. I had heard, for example, that while on a train-tour of the Holy Land he spoke of the Book of Revelation—what he called ‘Coming Attractions’—and standing like a cowboy, with hands on both Old and New Testaments, he would say in sonorous prayer: ‘Beware the allure of listless worship; use a planner!’ (The crowd, punctuating, ‘Hosanna in the Highest!’) And echoing Isaiah: ‘As the heavens are higher than the Earth, your ways are low as hell!’ (‘Hosanna in the Highest!’) And firing his rifle into the empty valley: ‘Here lies Christ the Redeemer! I’d rather be living in Philadelphia!’ (‘Hosanna. In. The. Highest!’) And having worked the crowd with his blustering sermons, he’d dance the two-step and play pass the hat, generally winning favor from all except the Arabs, who would pay him in sumac.
Before my time, though. I knew him as a gadabout, a mainstay at the Episcopal church down the road from my house. His habit was to loiter near the entrance and insult Protestants. I’d been instructed to ignore him, and did so, until one day he threw at my head a statue of Lee Harvey Oswald nailed to the crucifix with the caption ‘Protestant Christ’. Needless to say, the image was compelling. Shortly thereafter he invited me to his bishopric, and I assented to meet with him on the condition that if he could give me five or ten good reasons to go Catholic, hell, I just might do it, but if he couldn’t, he had to give me his bishop hat. He said he didn’t want it, and gave it to me right there on the spot.
Several days later I entered the diocese in V_____, and walked through the hanging door beads into his office. He’d been listening to Hildegard and throwing darts at a poster of Cyrus Roberts Vance, his feet on a stack of literally soiled Mennonite literature, and he turned to me and stuck his thumbs into my temples and started in with—‘And so you agree that your head is full with animal concepts too limited to grasp the vast monadic logic of the Spirit?’—and there I was, barely had time to put down my Spiro Agnew lunchbox—‘And so you admit that your heresy is not the result of a failure of the Spirit but rather a crisis of the secular imaginary?’ Suddenly I felt a rush of spiritual energy, kind of felt like an icepick headache—‘And so you will banish the Spirit from your idiot head, and in its place fill it with thoughts of your failure, weakness, and impossible insignificance?’
‘I must do it!’
And by the next weekend we had both dressed up as Teddy Roosevelt circa Battle of San Juan Hill and taken a one-way flight to Vatican City, where we were to distribute pamphlets arguing that John Paul II would be much better if he were Mussolini in pajamas; and so we drank orange soda at the Coliseum; and so we popped soccer balls outside the Stadio Olimpico; and so we handed schoolkids copies of the New Testament in which the center of the book had been cut out and replaced with a flask of liquid codeine; and so we threw coins into the Fontana di Trevi; and so Father Bugleweed proposed that I slip into the Apostolic Palace to inform the newly-minted pope that I was his long lost son from back when he was still cavorting with courtesans at U. Jagielloński, maybe then he could sneak into the Basilica for the papal inauguration, big speech on the balcony, a whole thing; and I’m thinking they probably sold out of tickets?
Bugleweed placed his zucchetto upon my head with zeal, and we concocted a plan. Later that evening, I would tell the papal guards that I had a tummy ache, and that my parents were actually being baptized in the Pope’s bathtub, and so I had to bring them these Gingerbread scented Yankee Candles. The guards, turning out to be Y.C. aficionados themselves, said that the pope much preferred Cinnamon Stick, and noted that I could find a box or two in the appartamento pontificio, up two flights of stairs and through the third door on the left. No more than three minutes hence was I sitting on the new Pope’s lap, calling him poppa, and asking him to explain why he left me on the church steps in Kraków with all those nasty nuns. He, being a man of intelligence, quickly wrote me a check for twenty-five thousand dollars and told me to go nuts—but when he reached for a box labeled ‘flagellation components’, I determined it was best to knock him over the head with Bugleweed’s Oswald statue and steal his pallium—for both our sakes. The former I nailed to the wall by his rosary. The latter I schlepped back to Bugleweed before we split to the balcony for the main event.
‘Get Roby the Snakeman,’ and like you I was thinking, ‘Who?’ And sure enough here arrived this seven-foot tall Sicilian kid with scale-tattoos all over his face.
And so Bugleweed, looking like the Cowboy Pope of the World, strolled onto the balcony and started in on his sermon, first in a beguiling Latin that sounded like Portuguese, and then, repeating himself, in a brutally accented peasant Italian:
‘God fearing wops:
Deny, protest, you’ll rot all the same. One can’t deny the rot that living imposes on us, on the race, what the hemisphere in full faith and credit has strived to deny for millennia, through kingship and law, alchemy and proto-science, pagan treatises on human nature, Hellenism, yada yada, practical philosophical education, monotheistic treatises on human nature, subjugation by race, aristocracy, cities, atheistic treatises on human nature, mechanical reproduction, cities,’ peppering his face with a sweat rag, ‘you know, cities? Those navels of violence, priesthoods, ghettos, Godheads, monogyny, polygyny, misogyny, misanthropy? The city. Axis mundi. Exploding outward,’ he drew a circle with his hand, ‘omphaloi, scientia potentia!’—glitter coming out of his sleeve, he’s a goddam wizard—‘scientism and commerce; one, the same. They are the beautiful weapons of psychoanalysts, economists, administrators, informers and informed. Of those who impede with abject scrupulosity, who atomize and gradate concern, stupidly adhering to God-given fallacies, Truman Doctrines, war games,’ bearing his palm, ‘the wondrous sensual nightmare of history in five acts: destroy, deny, defy, delouse, deify—and don’t think I excuse the Inquisition, nor apologize for it! I am not God, nor is it He, but rather We!’
At this point he retrieved a pear out of his poche, and bearing it—
‘Imagine, this is your brain,’
Setting the fruit down—
‘This is history,’
Tying a rubber band around the base of it and reaching into his pocket—
‘This is your brain on history,’
A beat, and then—whack!—he jammed the awl of a Swiss army knife into the pear, showers of juice dripped out onto the expectant crowd, by then rotund and huddled at the base of the Basilica, veritably dry-heaving, fighting with one another for scraps of fruit, screaming heresies in seventy-two different languages; and there was Roby the Snakeman, his body contorting at the moment of penetration, audibly moaning in the background: ‘His-s-s-tory!’
‘Stinks like a Callery tree in here,’
And Bugleweed’s reading out of his diary at this point—
‘What do I know of Hollywood, aside from that I have not been there?’ and digressing, ‘A good martini has no olives, no lemon twist, no vermouth, just straight gin’; and it’s like fifteen minutes into it and he’s sweating through his everything; and some Vatican-types had already gotten hip to the fact that maybe this isn’t their new pope; and by God it was bacchanalia in papal square, and Bugleweed was in fact visibly aroused. Quickly, coppers arrived bearing clubs, along with a group of fascists outraged by any mention of Mussolini in the same breath as a Polack.
Sensing danger, Bugleweed cut short his speech and hoisted me over his muscular shoulders, and then a fading view of Italian psychosexual street anarchy as I was carried dutifully to the airstrip to catch a chartered transatlantic flight flown by none other than Roby the Snakeman, who it turns out is not just a Christian but also a pilot.
Bugleweed was glowing, and far be it from me to judge him for it. To see him relive his glory days in the Holy See was a treat for me and my Spiro Agnew lunchbox.
I turned to Bugleweed—
‘Father, that stuff you said,’ picking at my thumbs anxiously, ‘wasn’t necessarily doctrinaire, but maybe almost atheistic, no offense.’ Bugleweed, unfazed, took off his hat and tousled his hair, and, after a few seconds delay said:
‘I’m not a Catholic, Clownboy.’
My name is Carl Clownboy, by the way, and I heard what you’re hearing, said ‘H-h-huh?’
‘I’m a Spinozist, and so’s Roby here.’ (Hissss from the front.)
‘So… then… why are you in the Catholic church?’ I ask.
‘For the action,’ he said—and that was Father Bugleweed’s joke, one heroic lifetime in the making, and he never repeated it. He only said it once to me right there on the plane. ▲