The Crucifixion

Posted on July 10, 2016

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https://ontherusk.files.wordpress.com/2016/06/otr-9.pdf

 ON THE RUSK, No. 9, June 2016

The Crucifixion                                                          

Robert Joe Stout

          Sparks snapping from his skateboard’s wheels Rene Aronld caromed past the cactus-embroidered houses of the canyon subdivision where his parents lived towards the oleum creeping through the cleft in the San Rafael hills. To him Los Angeles was an alien jungle infiltrated by wild beasts and cannibals, stacked with look-alike houses and hamster wheels of continual traffic. It was the enemy; its lack of personality magnified itself until it crushed and buried everything that came into contact with it. Including him—him and his friends, people who had personalities, had individuality, had ways to live that were different from the impersonal force that surrounded them.

“We will show them! We will be noticed!” he called out to the streets as he veered into and out of residential driveways, picking up speed as the curving road sloped downhill. Despite the half-joint he had smoked his focus was clear enough to remember where he was going and who he was meeting and how nervous and excited Teresa, his best friend–his “love mate”–had become when they and their friends had made their plans. Tonight the city would take notice. Tonight it would see something it never had seen before.

A crucifixion…

He stopped, momentarily startled by images the thought brought to him.  Plastic-rimmed glasses held together with adhesive tape gave his square face a lopsided, innocently leering blandness. He wore the cutoffs essential to Los Angeles summer, a ripped white pullover and a headband fashioned out of a yellow print curtain ferreted with blue binding tape.

Crucifixion… he tried to keep the image in his mind, tried to get back to the feelings the first mention of it had given him. Had given Teresa and Dick and Dirt and Cholo and their other friends. Nothing plastic he remembered them saying nothing tinsel and commercial and fake… It had to be real…

Real.

He shook his head. Los Angeles wasn’t real. His parents—and Teresa’s parents—weren’t real. They were…

He didn’t know. He just knew that deep inside him things happened that didn’t happen to either his or Teresa’s parents. That didn’t happen to the millions of wild beasts and cannibals that thrust their cars through tunnels of night, the millions who didn’t even know that he, or Teresa, or any of their friends, existed.

 

Teresa stood up and waved when she saw him careen over the curb onto the 7-Eleven parking lot where she and a collection of young people were exchanging 99 cent Slurpees, nacho specials, microwave popcorn and clove cigarettes.

“Tonight…do you think?” she sidled against him, as always unable to frame a direct question or statement. She was pretty in a tall, ungainly, slope-shouldered way, fine-boned, slightly freckled, never quite sure of herself except with her closest friends. Understanding her to mean, “I might be afraid, I might want to go somewhere and hide,” he nodded and awkwardly put his arm around her shoulders.

Like steel filings flicking into a magnet’s pull the conversations flitted toward the issue at hand: Tomorrow Los Angeles—the monster, the impersonal alien force—would wake up to something more meaningful than Guess? jeans and traffic jams. Hundreds of young people like them would climb the Golgotha. Hundreds would be making the sacrifice….

“C’mon! C’mon! It’s time! Let’s go!” they milled around each other. Rene and Teresa and nine others piled into Dick’s old station wagon. Five others rode with Dirt. Dirt told stories about hitchhiking to Alaska and survival in Colorado but Rene and Teresa knew that Dirt hadn’t been past San Bernadino on his own and got money from his parents when he didn’t want to work.

They stopped twice on the way to the rendezvous point, once to peer at lights spread like a sparkling blanket from the ocean to the San Gabriels, the other to let someone out to pee. Finally the two old cars lumbered into a parking lot beside a closed laundromat. Their headlights flicked across twenty or thirty young people grouped around a makeshift platform enclosed by large dumpsters and an old ice cream vending truck.

A teenager with violent green hair and a companion half his size wearing a cascade of hooped earrings shoved past them as Rene and Teresa got out of the car. The pair was dragging a 2”x 8” along the fire lane.

Shouts of “Hey! Make room!” and “No, hey man! Put it here!” sent the two teenagers into a clumsy Three Stooges imitation. Finally, after bows, catcalls and shouts to get the show rolling they dropped the 2”x 8” across another nearly twice its length. Abruptly a young woman wearing old Army fatigues pushed past them. Rene recognized her but didn’t know her name–she was from Glendale somewhere, a twenty- or twenty-one-year-old who talked with sharp-toned anxiety. Deftly she slapped a carpenter’s square against the 2” x 8”s, marked them and reached for an electric skill saw. It shrieked briefly, then stopped. The green-haired youth knifed through onlookers to re-attach an extension cord and the saw shrilled again. On hands and knees the fatigue-clad young woman notched the 2” x 8”s, warding off both would-be helpers and onlookers as she lifted the shorter plank and rapped it snugly into place against the longer.

“C’mon! Get ready! We’re about to start!”

Compliantly Teresa turned but Rene seized her arm and pulled her towards the fire lane, where half-a-dozen youths were shouting “Let us through! Make way!”

The compact group, knotted around a figure wearing a loose cotton tunic and diaper-like loincloth, pushed towards the woman huddled over the crossbar. Her shoulders twitched in rhythm with crackling shots from a staple gun. A dozen or more youths crowded close to watch. Between them and the darkest corners of the lot, where Dirt’s car was parked, little clusters of skateboarders and pot smokers and hangers-on whirred and laughed and called to each other, only peripherally aware of what was going on around them.

“Aye!” Teresa forced his attention back to the knot of people crowded around the cotton-clothed figure. His tunic twisted off his shoulder and he fell to one knee to avoid being hit by the newly made cross that a dozen or more hands unsuccessfully had tried to stand on end.

“No, this way!” “Here! Get under it!” “No, man! Shit, man!” hands grabbed him to help him up as he clutched at the lost garment. His eyes seemed to be floating through a lake of dreams.

“He’s high,” Teresa whispered. Rene nodded: He knew the face and the boy-man it belonged to. His name was Terry although most who knew him called him “Artemis,” the signature he put on graffiti. He blinked, confused, as the woman who’d made the cross tried to get him to slip his hands through handles she’d fitted onto either side of the crossbeam. Wobbling slightly, he crouched beneath it and tried to hoist the cross onto his back. The green-haired youth and several companions grabbed the crossbeam to help him. Rene tried to steer Teresa away from them but other hands clasped hers and pulled her into the flow of participants heading out of the parking lot onto the dark street.

Rene stayed beside her, his skateboard in one hand, the other around her shoulders as the rest of the procession swung in around them, the whirs and clattering of their skateboards rebounding off the walls of the frame houses that lined the street. A taggle of hangers-on straggled up the slope after them as here and there porch lights snapped off and on and occasional car headlights swept across them. Twice Rene heard the whining of sirens and his fingers tightened around Teresa’s shoulders but the sirens–disaffected and ethereal parts of Los Angeles–faded without bringing police in pursuit.

Half-a-dozen times Artemis lost control of the cross and the knot of attendants had to pull him to his feet. He was panting; when he stumbled again Teresa caught and held onto him and Rene, more concerned for her than for Artemis, grabbed them both to keep them from falling.

“Help him! Help him hold the cross!” a voice beside Rene coughed clove cigarette smoke into his face.

Startled, Rene caught the crossbeam. “Are you all right? Are you sure you’re all right?” he heard Teresa whisper and he nodded and grunted, “Yeah, yeah, I think so, yeah…” then realized that she was talking to Artemis, not to him.

In the momentary bright sweep of headlights Rene noticed that Artemis’ elbow was crusted with blood; grains of asphalt clung to one knee where he had fallen and scraped it.

“Are you going to make it?” Rene murmured, shouldering more of the cross to ease Artemis’ burden. The youth’s eyes flickered wildly–like a trapped bird’s–and Rene quickly assured him, “Just a little further,” knowing as he said it that he didn’t know where they were going or when they would arrive.

The street curved sharply to the right at the top of the long suburban hill. Panting from the exertion Rene turned with it, glad to sidestep the fine, mistlike rain sweeping against his face. But Artemis lurched in front of him and Rene had to clutch Teresa to keep from falling, then grab the cross. His knees banged Artemis’ head and his glasses slid off his face and struck the ground.

“My glasses,” he mumbled, dropping to his knees and fumbling for them with one hand as he held the cross with the other. Teresa, beside him, found them and handed them to him. They had broken again and one of the lenses had slid from the frame and cracked in two. For a moment the three of them tottered together, then hands helped Teresa to her feet while Rene, blinking myopically, shoved the pieces of his glasses into his pocket and re-lifted the cross.

“C’mon! Up here!” a voice commanded. “No, this way! This way!” hands tugged at his shirt. He was carrying the cross by himself now; Teresa supported Artemis. From behind them, down the slope, Rene could hear the laughter and curses of participants and hangers on trying to catch up to them.

“That’s all, I’ve got to stop,” Rene gasped, dropping to his knees to let the cross slide from his shoulders.

“No! Over here! Bring it–him! No, this way!” voices around him urged.

Helping hands grabbed the cross to guide him through the darkness. “Here!” Rene thought he heard and gasping both from the weight of the apparatus and the length of the climb he let the cross slip from his shoulders. His first thought was to call for Teresa, to find her, but the undulations of millions of lights visible through a gap in the hills momentarily flooded his awareness. Despite his myopia, he could see Los Angeles–the monster, Los Angeles–quivering beneath the mist sweeping in gentle gusts against his face.

“Look!” he wanted to exclaim to someone but “No, the other way…face the city,” voices behind him insisted. In the flickering beams from one of the flashlights he could see a huddle of participants trying to get Artemis to lay down on the cross. The young woman who’d built it strode towards him, the staple gun in her hand.

“Here! No, spread you fingers out..!”

“Stop them! Stop them!” Teresa flung herself towards Rene as krak! krak! the gun reverberated. Krak! krak! again and Artemis cried out, loudly.

“The handles! Hold onto the handles!” somebody shouted. Other voices cried, “Some help here! Where’s the shovels! Watch out! He’s falling!”

“OhshitGodplease!” Teresa squealed as Artemis, his hands nailed to the crossbeams, moaned. A flashlight’s weak beam flickering across his face picked up the terror in his eyes. His mouth was foaming and his legs kicking spasmodically.

“Something to drink! Get him something to drink!” someone behind Teresa shouted. She turned, confused, then grabbed a container that someone thrust towards her. Slowly those holding the cross let it tip towards her. Teresa offered the contents of the container to Artemis but he couldn’t drink from it. Finally she tilted the container to pour the fluid directly into his mouth.

“Don’t let it fall!” voices shouted as the cross lurched forward, jarring her arm. Instead of a few sips of liquid, she dumped the contents of the container into Artemis’s mouth and eyes.

His head flopped back and forth in agitated pain. He tried to cry out but choked, then thrust his head back and screamed.

“What did you do? What did you give him?” Hands pulled the empty container out of her grasp. She relinquished it and stumbled backwards. Rene overheard voices whisper, “It was tequila! She gave him tequila!”

“Stop them, please! Stop them!” Teresa pleaded in Rene’s ear. He grabbed shoulders and arms, in a hoarse voice insisting that they needed to stop, that what they were doing was insane.

But hands, elbows, legs pushed back at him. The entire procession had caught up with them now and in the darkness the new arrivals were shoving and cursing and calling to each other. Someone among them had picked up the white cotton tunic that Artemis had been wearing and was handing it back and forth between two companions playing rocks, scissors and paper. Laughter skittered from voice to voice up the slope towards them as competing choruses of acid rock and heavy metal throbbed from separate boom boxes.

Again, more loudly, more desperately, Rene shouted and shoved bodies away from the cross. It swayed as he grabbed it; the hole wasn’t deep enough or the earth around it was too soft and wouldn’t hold Artemis’ weight. Blood from his punctured hands dripped onto Rene’s cheek and drops of the spilled tequila dribbled along his arm.

“Here, here, I’ll help you…” Rene slid one shoulder under Artemis’s feet. His arms around the cross he pulled it towards him, intending to drag it out of its hole and release Artemis.

“No! No! Let me stay! I want..! I want..!” the youth pummeled Rene’s head with his bare feet.

His grip on the cross dislodged Rene stumbled backwards. Hands grabbed it before it fell on top of him and shoved it back upright.

“What are you doing?” the voices grew more urgent. “The ground’s too soft! “Need to brace it more…get bigger rocks!”

Unable to keep hold of Rene’s arm Teresa clung to his shirttail, choked little sobs vibrating through her throat like the cooing of trapped pigeons. So intent were those around the cross on pushing the unbalanced apparatus upright they seemed not to be aware that  Artemis existed.

“Hey! No, watch out! It’s starting to…what? Over here! The flare! Bring the flare over here!”

Like a live thing afire the highway flare–dropped, picked up, dropped again–illuminated startled young faces.

“Here! Watch out! It’s hot!” the shouts continued as someone dumped the flare directly in front of Artemis. Its spluttered burning hurled a menagerie of shadows across his face. As the green-haired youth and a cohort stomped rocks and dirt into the hole supporting the cross Rene put his arm around Teresa. Above them, face a waxen yellowish-gray, mouth agape and head rolling from side to side Artemis sobbed and blubbered, more like a child pleading for his mother than a supplicant beseeching God.

“Let him down!” Teresa lunged through the circle of light vibrating from the flare. The earth supporting the cross gave way and Artemis plunged into her lifted arms. For a second she clung to him and the cross he was carrying, then she collapsed beneath him, her single-syllabled cry for help vibrating into the dark Los Angeles night.

 

Rene and Dick and Dirt and Cholo, taking shifts and pausing frequently to rest, carried Artemis back across the field to the roadway. Three men carrying high-powered flashlights intercepted them and in harsh, suspicious voices demanded, “What’s going on? What are you damned kids doing?” but, being outnumbered and more indignant than brave they let the procession pass without creating an incident.

Once on the street, at the suggestion of the young woman who’d built the cross, they fashioned a travois and skateboarded Artemis down the hill to the parking lot. There under the laundry’s glimmering neon they washed his face and hands and found some oranges for him to suck on. His lips were puffed and one side of his mouth was swollen where he’d bitten his cheek; the gashes in his hands where the staples had gone through were jagged and ugly.

As they packed him in Dirt’s car Teresa squeezed through to caress his face, ask him how he felt. Slowly he shook his head, the ghosts of things past swimming through his expression. “I–I should’ve…I should’ve…” Unable to finish the sentence he coughed and in a weak, little childlike voice whimpered that he wanted to go home, his shoulders hurt and he wanted not to think.

Halfway back to the 7-Eleven Dick stopped the old station wagon on a turnaround and he and his ten passengers got out and sat on the fenders and hood to pass a couple of joints back and forth. Beneath them, a glimmering pizza-shaped slice of the monster Los Angeles stretched towards infinity. Rene felt Teresa’s eyelashes flutter against his neck as she sighed and let her head drop against his shoulder. Holding her, the familiar noises and scents and vocabularies of young people like him surrounding him, he fingered the broken glasses in his pocket and asked if she were okay and she nodded, “Yes, now, now I think I am.”

Then, arching her delicate, fragile face up towards his, “What did it—did it mean anything?”

He shrugged and stared at the lights and shook his head.

“A few people got carried away and…”

“And?” The word, barely an exhalation, seemed to come from somewhere outside of her–outside of them–and hang suspended before him.

“And now it’s over,” he replied. But he wasn’t sure: He wasn’t at all sure what over or anything or our world or Teresa or Los Angeles, the monster, the alien world–or, for that matter, what Rene Aronld–meant or had meant or could mean.

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