Sunday, 6 October 2013

I am the Local Atheist: Sample

If I hadn’t known any better I would have thought that God was washing the streets of Invercargill down, or at least, making a valiant attempt at it. Sometimes I admired God’s resolve to wash as much crust off the earth as possible in one foul swipe, but here it looked like rain had been an afterthought without any enthusiasm. The gutters, on the other hand, ran their streams of water down the street like there was no tomorrow. For them judgement day had arrived far too early, so they had filled up and put as much effort as they could muster into their man-made purpose. The bus stop was left to fend for itself, giving as much shelter as it dared without encroaching too far onto the footpath, as though that was dangerously close to feeling the wrath of the gutters in all their pleasure. And I was left to sit on its light blue bench with my feet being spat at from above. Thanks.
I tried to tuck them under me but the seat had been attached just low enough to make it uncomfortable. So I just sat there looking out at the rain, noticing the swaying of trees under the weight of their saturated branches in the park over the road, the falling of droplets from the cross beams framing the bus stop. It was unusual to see them fall like that – like I had never paid attention to such a simple thing before. Each droplet that fell transferred itself from one place to another – in this case, from the bus stop to the ground – and forever changed its very nature.
It was suicide.
Just as the newspaper had reported: “… girl kills herself by jumping off the overpass into oncoming traffic.”
A year later and that headline still made me feel sick.
I looked up the road to see if the bus was in sight. Nothing but tired bursts of rain pelted the streets. I sank back into the shelter.
It was so strange hearing about suicide in such a small tight-knit community, especially when God was supposed to be watching over those of us who were in His care. The shock-wave passed over at least half the town’s population, not just a small segment of family and friends like it might have in a larger city. Mum had told me that the churches were “praying together” though she didn’t actually see any of them get together: “I guess it’s the thought that counts,” she said, blowing smoke and looking sideways out of her kitchen window.
I was completely unaware of what anyone else had to say since much of the details had remained behind closed doors – doors that had been closed to me for as long as the article had been burned in my memory now; longer in fact. It had quoted an outspoken congregation leader who was more than happy to pass the blame onto the girl’s failure to attend church (“a lack of faith”), peer pressure and drugs as though that was all that was needed to explain it, as if one person’s crises could be condensed into a few catch-phrases. But one person’s transition from a natural state into a falling fragment of a larger issue could never be understood if blame and finger-pointing were all that was required to assert some kind of resolution.
I hated the way church leaders got themselves up on a pedestal once a microphone had been stuck in front of their mouths.
I didn’t like thinking about it either: It reminded me too much of the crises that Lisa had been through a year earlier and the attempts I had made at trying to help her.
The splashing of tyres ploughing puddles out of the way brought me out of my reverie and I stood up to attract the bus’s attention. The drains flooded over and washed ever closer to my feet as the bus slowed down to a sneak, almost as though the driver wasn’t sure about who they were picking up: a standard passenger? or some crazy hitchhiker waiting to take out his vengeance on a world that had deserted him?
The doors opened and I tried to keep my head low, eyes staring at the ground.
“Art Gallery please.”
I placed my coins into the dish of the ticket dispenser. I hated those damn things – I could never tear the tickets off properly. And this one didn’t do me any favours. I tugged at it, but it didn’t rip, so I twisted it and tried to tear it sideways but it only pulled more ticket out instead.
The bus driver got impatient and reached his hand over to help but I said “I can do it”.
He didn’t care and replied “Here, do it like this…” but I was too concerned about proving that I could do it that our hands began competing for the pull of the ticket.
“Just let go, kid!”
Fuck him. “I can do it!”
“Just leave it.”
“It’s alright!” Both our voices were nearing shouting level.
“Y’ fuckin’ ruining the machine – leave it!”
I let go and took a step back. My heart was beating a strong thud that echoed in my ears. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t care y’ little shit. Just take the ticket and sit down.”
I took the extended ticket from his fingers, feeling as though his eyes were about to throw fire-balls at me.
I moved down the aisle as faces turned away in quiet astonishment, a few eyebrows raised as attention wandered elsewhere. I sat as close to the back doors as possible so I wouldn’t have to move past anybody when the bus stopped to let me out.
The steel bar that separated my seat from the doors was still cold from the morning’s frost, as though an afternoon that was supposed to warm everything up had nothing to say for itself. I placed my arms down on it and buried my head in the folds of my jacket trying desperately to calm the thoughts that wanted me to get off the bus and just go back to my bedroom where I would be safe again, unmolested by a world that constantly demanded answers from me.
I found solitude and silence, but once my thoughts became quiet, the world outside began to rise into recognition and conversations took the place of my abandoned thoughts:
“Where you off to today?”
“Heading to town for food. So cold in the flat.”
“So sick of being cold too.”
“I know, Chris was gonna steal some wood from the neighbour’s wood pile because we ran out and our student allowance doesn’t cover warmth. Tertiary education? Yes; Food? Yes; warmth? No!”
“The government is way to stingy to provide that kind of help. New casino? Yeah totally, we’ll help pay for that…”
“That store is the shit man, they got the best games at cheap-as prices.”
“Dude I don’t know man, I got some pretty cheap games off the net. And most of those cheap-as games are second hand.”
“Yeah but postage is crap, especially from overseas – I ain’t payin’ for that. I’d rather just walk into town just to warm up and have something to do than sit in my crappy uninsulated student flat ordering online and trying to coax as much heat as possible from the computer’s processor…”
“The gallows, of course, were originally designed to be an example of punishment being met and justice prevailing, but as Dickens was quick to observe, those who turned up to watch were only there for their own perverse viewing pleasures and the gallows were no longer about punishment but about propagating a system of belief. The gallows lost all their ability to become a deterrent from crime after seeing so much of it: if you got caught you got caught, if you didn’t you were lucky and could live to thieve another day.”
“Dickens was a pessimist.”
“No, he was the supreme optimist, who believed in the good of man prevailing. Not only does A Christmas Carol show this but practically all his other novels in one way or the other.
“I can’t be bothered with old fat books that do nothing but exemplify nineteenth century attitudes…”
I couldn’t be bothered paying attention to a discussion that exemplified people’s opinionated beliefs. I wanted to be in my bedroom wrapped up in blankets, staring at the wall – doing anything but facing a world that hated me; that I hated for hating me.
Though I knew it was near, the gallery seemed too far away, occupied by people that I had to hide from, make myself inconspicuous and not draw attention to for fear that they find out who I was. I had thought that there would be consolation knowing that Lisa would be there, someone I knew and had spent valuable time getting to know, someone whose life I knew I had had a positive effect on and helped bring light that had lifted her out of darkness, but thoughts of her and our quiet estrangement over the past year and a half only created more anxiety that I had to deal with.
The bus lurched sideways and screeched to a halt, knocking several passengers against the walls. I stood up and got off as quickly as possible without bothering to thank the driver, as I used to so often do, thinking that they would appreciate it. Did they care? I don’t know. I didn’t care – and that was all that mattered.
No one was entering the art gallery when I got there. No one had gone in as I had crossed the road and walked up to a building that loomed over the street corner with the scars of age peeling from its pale exterior; I had the feeling of complete emptiness surrounding me – a dead town with a ghost walking the streets.

The entrance was a subtle corridor of steps that raised the level of the building above ground zero; paintings had been hung to each side – simple pastel portraits that did little but diminish the inner glow of their subject (too many greys). The inner room opened up to me with a deep red lining the wall behind the hung paintings. Numerous bodies shuffled about on a light brown carpet, dodging the occasional painting that sat on the floor or leaned against a wall as though it were too cool to be hung like a martyr for everyone to stare in wonder at.
I let myself disappear as best I could behind a group of people, slowly making my way around to the wine table of which was just a wooden barrel off a farm that someone had attached a round plank to. A large bowl of grapes centred the weight allowing the glasses to sit precariously round the edge and the wine bottles inside of them. I kept my head low, not daring to meet any eyes as I filled a glass to the brim and returned to my place against the wall behind the same group. The wine was very smooth, almost palatable enough to appeal to a wide range of tastes – hardly a drink to offend people with or cause any winces of distaste. I winced as it slid into my empty stomach and highly regretted not having something to eat before I left the flat.
My attention turned to a number of paintings that hung close by, each exhibiting random collections of shapes that left trails of black dust behind them. I wondered what the artist had been thinking. Random shapes? Black dust? The painting said nothing; perhaps abstract expressionism had betrayed the artist this time around and shown what they lacked instead of what they were trying to bring forth from deep within. A larger painting was nothing more than colours smudged into each other – and not even colours that stood out or attracted the viewer towards it. How it ended up on a wall in a gallery was anybody’s guess.
The paintings were boring. The rest seemed to meander in defining the artists’ abilities rather than invoking a sense of the paintings’ subjects. I did not care for these works. Even the angels frolicking in their wispery garden couldn’t let go of their own self-righteousness to portray anything beyond human grasp, anything worth striving for, anything worth believing in: serenity, peace, happiness; they did none of this, merely danced and held each other’s hands in the light of watercolour desperate to show something but failing to portray anything. I hated this town!
I moved along the walls among the rest of what the gallery had to show for itself, trying not to edge too close to the special ribbon that marked off the area where the new artist’s exhibition was to be unveiled. I ended up in a corner, peering down at a collection of small amateurish-looking paintings that seemed to be gathered in their very own space – why I don’t know, I can’t even remember the stupid things; perhaps they were trying to absorb the conversations that drifted by, a means of becoming something that they simply weren’t. I became the corner too.
“Very impressive detail.”
“I like the subtlety of light that exemplifies the structure of the building.”
“Yeah, I was actually talking about the snacks on the table here. You know I didn’t come for the art, right…?”
“It is true though, he was avoiding the meeting. I tried to convince him to change the time but he’s so stubborn. I’m glad though, it meant he got to spend time with his son some more, and I’m cool with that…”
“There were some paintings I saw in New York once – did I tell you that I went to New York…?”
“Art today seems so void of inspiration, true divine inspiration. For me, it’s just one big nod towards the loss of piety in the world.”
“In other words, the world is going to the dogs?”
“Yeah, and Art along with it. Atheists can pretend to be good all they like, show virtue and respect, but at the end of the day, good will towards fellow human beings won’t guarantee them an escape from the afterlife.”
I looked for a way to move myself away from the nearby voices, but couldn’t get out of the human trap of surrounding bodies that I had cornered myself in.
“Pessimists and free-will advocates will always try to tell you that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are merely human judgements and nothing more, yet our redemption through the saving power of Jesus is proof that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are real concepts that exist as part of God’s great plan.”
“Bad day at work, Jim?”
“Huh. Just sick of atheists trying to pretend that good will represents some kind of be-all and end-all of behaviour. I respect them for having that moral code, but not trying to lord it over the rest of us as a defining good.”
“Are you implying that atheists are inherently bad?”
“Well, if they have chosen to ignore the call of Christ, and allow their souls to perish in hell, then yes, that is bad. Would you dare let your son grow up without Jesus in his life?” There was a round of “No”s from the rest of the group – the women clasped themselves in astonishment, as though the unthinkable had been spoken. One of them seemed to get up enough courage to say “No. Then I think that would be bad of me, and unfair to not allow him that opportunity of knowing Jesus – it would be bad to deny any of my children that opportunity.”
That would mean that my mother and father had been nothing but good, as they had insisted that I be at church every Sunday morning getting to know Jesus. I wondered though what that made me. Had I deserted Jesus, or had Jesus deserted me? I wanted to believe that it was the latter, but knew deep inside that it wasn’t. Knowledge of this made me feel terrible, so guilt-ridden and ashamed. I hated Jesus for making me feel this way.
The woman, on the other hand, was obviously feeling quite righteous as she let go of her husband’s arm and began taking a stand for her own opinions. “It would be nothing short of immoral, degenerate!”
“That is right. Atheists are handicapped from living a full life because they have no support from a higher being, no one who will love them unconditionally. Putting faith in Jesus allows us to live the greatest human experience without fear of falling. And without Jesus to lean on, atheists fall. A long way. They fall into the never-ending spiral of moral decay, and it is only Jesus that can ever save them from that.”
“Why, no wonder there are so many young people on drugs, so many homeless…”
I stopped listening. Some conversations can’t help but reduce themselves to displays of ignorance. Not knowing Jesus had nothing to do with why people did drugs, or why there were homeless in the streets (I had no idea what she was talking about in the latter case – she must have been thinking about the homeless in other cities, other countries…); but knowing Jesus had certainly given me focus and something to believe in outside of myself.
But where was that now? I felt like I had nothing. Handicapped and unable to bring myself out of this hole that had been dug for me.
A streak of wavy light brown hair caught my attention: it belonged to a girl standing amongst some fellow companions. And all of a sudden my heart raced. The head began turning; I knew who it was: Lisa. She saw me; we both turned away.
When I had stood in the same place for long enough staring at the same painting without any recognition of its artistry, I glanced back to where she had been standing but there were only strangers there. I thought I was as far into the corner as you could stand, but I felt a finger tap me on the shoulder. It could only be one person… and she was no longer standing where I had last seen her.
I turned – ever so slightly – remembering everything as they came into my vision: the shoulders, square with a woollen jersey casually hanging from them and falling down to a large waist; feet firmly planted on the ground in loose fitting sneakers – the shoelaces hidden under the ends of casual slacks.
“At least you’re not staring at my breasts.