Ted Brand usually met Brother Frank at the Halal truck off Sixth—the one that cast its roasted chicken spell over a good part of Midtown. Because it was pouring, Ted said he’d come to wherever Frank had come to roost, and Eisenberg’s in the Flatiron was the place.
Ted found Frank seated at a table near the wall, facing the door. He held his cup of coffee in the manner now familiar to Ted and others at Hap—with his jittery hand bent and pointing toward his chest, like a prisoner protecting what little he had.
“I thought your picture was up here,” Ted asked, surveying the wall’s gallery of near-celebrities standing next to the owner in glossy black and white.
“A girl absconded with it I’m told.”
Frank smiled. He was dressed in a style that told you unequivocally what he was: a homeless priest. Homeless but not roomless, which meant he didn’t need to push his worldly possessions in a grocery cart.
“My God,” said Ted. “Did you just hear me say sweet? Hazmat man is taking over.”
“You play a role, Ted, and eventually the role plays you.” He paused. “Or, if you prefer Nietzsche, ‘When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.’ ”
Ted took in Frank’s wisdom like steam in a sauna. What else could you do in the presence of The Whiskey Priest? Granted, Ted had been the one to launch the site and Twitter feed and make its anonymous guru lots of Facebook friends, but it was still Brother Frank who provided the content.
Frank’s room was somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen, but the priest was known for being vigorously peripatetic despite physical fallout from his addiction. He knew all parts of the city and its ailing constituents, although he stayed away from the friars at St. Francis of Assisi on 32nd—cut the block from his habitat range between Eighth and Fifth. He had been one of them, a Franciscan, but fell off the face of clerical respectability many years back.
The Family had met him through Hap, who considered Frank his sage and spiritual advisor despite Frank’s reputed ouster. Frank still wore the collar in the way that some divorced women still wore their diamond. Intemperance had been Frank’s deadly sin, but there had to be other emotional disorders and doctrinal transgressions in play. The Family had convinced themselves that because the most depraved members of the priesthood seemed to have reached positions of power and comfort, Frank’s destitution meant he was the one true saint. Hap had dubbed him The Whiskey Priest and Ted took it a step further, took Frank to the people.
Usually Ted met with Frank weekly to talk and act out his role as Boswell, but the two had been unable to connect for a month, and this lack of communion made Ted anxious.
“We’re all getting played, Frank. Things have been so unsettled since Ethylynn.”
Frank lowered his eyes. “She was quite an exceptional young lady.”
“I think Hap’s having serious bereavement issues. It’s not like him. I don’t get it.”
Ted could feel that Frank was feeling exasperated. “Ted, it’s called love. Ask any Paulist.”
Ted knew all the emotions that were said to derive from particular apostles and saints, whether or not he’d ever be able to feel any of them. Still, he shook his head. “I keep asking Why Ethylynn? Mariette’s the bitch.”
Frank’s personal hygiene habits meant that he didn’t smell all that great under ordinary circumstances, but whenever he got exasperated, as was the case now, Ted could swear the smell get worse. “Mariette is also an exceptional young lady.”
“You know what I mean, Frank. You’d think if there was a God, in all fairness he would have sent his garbage truck into Mariette and not Ethylynn. Mariette would probably like to go that way anyway. What she wouldn’t want is anyone piling cellophane bouquets and white teddy bears on the spot where it happened.”
“They leave white bears?”
“I don’t know. It’s Harlem. Maybe they’re black bears.”
“Did you find a replacement yet?”
“Yes and no. We’ve got this girl—in Hapspeak I suppose it would be woman—we’re probably going to make an offer to. I’m not so sure about her.”
“As a member of your Family?”
“I think we’ve closed the door on that family shit. There were four of us, and now one of us is dead. You can’t just go out and buy another.”
Frank laughed. “You’re buying this woman?”
“We recruited through an agency. Hap wanted to do it. Jude thinks that with Hap it’s like in Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart’s obsession with Kim Novak. He’s never going to find another Ethylynn no matter how he dresses up this Daria person.”
Frank smiled. “Jude always has a lot to say.”
“Like that the thrill was gone. That’s what he just told me about Hap.”
“And you believe it?”
“Maybe he’s right. Maybe it’s already over.”
“Have you proved what you set out to prove?”
“That’s just it: we had nothing to prove.”
Frank smiled. “Oh, I think there’s something to your project.”
Ted felt compelled to clarify, more so to himself: “Not that I care that we had nothing to prove. The fact that we pull it off is enough to keep me going.”
Frank laughed, showing two broken teeth.
Ted laughed with him even though he didn’t know what was suddenly so funny. “Why do you tolerate us, Frank? We’re kind of creeps, aren’t we?”
“You have contempt for artifice. You’re searching for the absolute.”
“Am I really searching for the absolute or just Absolut?”
Frank made a bargainer’s face.
“The vodka I mean.”
He laughed. “I know my liquor.”
“What is Hap anyway?” Ted mused. “I know you and Hap go way back, but even though we all understand this . . . this project, none of us can explain it to another person who’s not us. Who knows what Daria thinks about Hap. We all feel what we’re doing has some kind of meaning, but if we can’t articulate it, I’m not sure it has relevance. The more successful we get, the more absurd the whole thing becomes.”
“I’m certainly not the man to tell you what Hap is. But lately I’ve been thinking about the river Lethe from Greek mythology.” He paused to laugh. “Bear with me here, my friend.”
He took a gulp of coffee from his jittery cup. “Keats’s ‘Ode on Melancholy’ begins ‘No, no! Go not to Lethe.’ Some Greeks believed that souls were made to drink from the river before being reincarnated, so they would not remember their past lives. Other Greeks believed in a second river, the Mnemosyne, from which souls could drink and remember everything, achieving omniscience. And these Greeks thought they’d have a choice of rivers to drink from after death: remember nothing or know all.
“It occurs to me that what Hap is pushing on people is the need to drink from Lethe to be happy—wipe the slate after twenty-one days. But you people who run Hap somehow believe you’ve managed to drink from Mnemosyne already, without having to die first. And thus you feel yourselves authorized to remove people’s option of Lethe or Mnemosyne.”
Ted laughed at this and took delivery of chicken salad on rye toast; Frank, a Reuben. “That’s pretty wise, Frank, but would your Jesus approve of mythology?”
Frank’s jittery hands checked his coat pockets as if searching for a parking stub. “I don’t seem to have my own Jesus with me.”
“You know why he’s yours and not mine. I can’t say Jesus without the possessive pronoun. I would be like I believed in him—it, whatever.”
“So that must mean you say your Santa Clause, your Easter Bunny.”
“Actually I never say Santa Claus or Easter Bunny. At all.”
“I guess that proves it.”
“That any shared lexicon we have outside marketable products is tragically going under. Take the word martyr. People throw it around without thinking that a martyr is someone who’s willing to die for his beliefs, not kill for his beliefs.”
Ted looked around with a philosophical expression that he seemed too young for. “We have this Columbia student who’s been texting me since my talk there. He’s doing the gratitude ritual for twenty-one days, and one of the people he’s thanking is me—for giving the talk. But every text of his veers off into some monumental problem he feels he can’t overcome. Yesterday he wrote that he didn’t have a single belief that he would die for.”
Frank mulled this as he chewed slowly. “Many people feel the same. If this country were attacked I’m sure we’d need a draft to get people to fight.” He tapped on the table with a jittery finger. “The draft riots right here in 1863—not that much of a leap.”
Ted stared at his plate. “I can’t get it out of my head what the kid wrote: the number 2 plus die plus the number 4. 2 die 4.”
Frank smiled. “Praise God, I wasn’t a witness.”
“In any case,” said Ted, “the kid shouldn’t be wasting his gratitude on me.”
“Listen to you, my son! Gratitude can never be wasted precisely because it is not a commodity.”
Ted didn’t look up from his plate. Frank noticed how Ted had already begun to line up the crusts of his toast like they were railroad ties. “You sound like you’re unhappy at Hap.”
“No!” Ted objected. “That’s just it, Frank. I’m not at all unhappy at Hap. I’m very happy at Hap. Or at least as happy as I’ll be anywhere. But Jude’s obviously unhappy there. And that means Mariette can’t be far behind. I hate to see a good thing taken down.”
Frank drank a half cup of coffee in one forced gulp.
“Don’t take The Whiskey Priest down on me,” Ted pleaded.
Frank laughed. “My part in this deal is to stay alive. As long as I’m breathing, nothing gets taken down.”
Ted already had his iPad propped on the table. “You’re going to have to tell me that stuff about the rivers again.”
Frank sighed and then belched as he watched the young man’s fingers tapping out their mysteries.
“The Whiskey Priest should Tweet, Frank.”
“The Whiskey Priest should stop drinking, Ted. But you know what? We can’t have everything.”