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Today in Porn, Augustine’s Member, Chapter Two

I have no idea who wrote this – some stranger from the past, I suppose. I do know that the last part of the text has been lost, and what remains is oddly incomplete, even for a chapter. Reader discretion is advised.

[Chapter One may be found here.]

Francis’ stay in the state of grace was threatened the very next morning, at Mass. There, surrounded by stained glass and statues, seated beneath the image of the crucified Christ, in the company of his fellow Christians… but they were the problem, those Christians. Specifically, that Christian, standing directly in front of him, bearing upon her person the most wonderful backside Francis had ever seen. It was the backside of Portnoy’s Monkey – “with the swell and cleft of the world’s most perfect nectarine” – draped in dressy, flowy, clingy black pants. The grocery-store girl’s ass had been but a forerunner, a herald. Francis had always considered himself a tit man, but here was an ass that could convert the world. Rounded, not flat, pushing out and back to precisely the right degree, its ovular glory unmarred by panty lines – Do you have to wear a thong to Mass? – it practically sang to him.

The ass had not been there when Francis arrived; he tried to be cautious in these matters. He sat up near the front of the church, with the old-timers and the parents of big families seeking to shame their children into silence. (“Father is right there; he can see you.”) He kept his eyes closed during the Communion, careful not to study the slow parade of bodies headed toward the altar, bodies he expertly and unintentionally sifted for alluring specimens. But then she sauntered in, a succubus sent for his personal torment, begging pardons and scooting past wrinkled rosary-clutchers on her way to the spot just in front of him.

She had just managed to rest her sweet self upon the seat and shimmy her heavy blonde hair into place when the lector greeted the congregation. “Hello, and welcome to Our Lady of Sorrows. The Opening Hymn is Number 730 in the Music Issue, ‘Sing to the Mountains.’ Please rise.” And so Francis rose, and she rose before him, and her ass rose with her. He found himself wishing he were some sort of Protestant, peacefully sitting throughout the service behind this young lovely, also sitting, her glory hidden against the wood of the pew. Here, in a Catholic Mass, the ass was summoned into motion time and again, according to the ritual’s peculiar calisthenics: up for the entrance through the opening prayer, down for the readings and responsorial psalm, up for the Gospel, down for the homily, up for the creed and on and on. And every time her ass came into view, it made a new demand upon his senses and imagination. Where were you last night, sweet thing? What were you up to?

In the grocery store, Francis had surrendered in his entirety to the craving of his eyes – the flesh was willing and the spirit was weak. Here, in this holy place full of holy business, he was more conscious of the war in his members. Time and again, he directed his eyes to take in the priest on the altar, the words of Scripture in his Missal, the tops of his shoes – or simply to remain shut, to leave off distracting him during his prayers. But the moment his concentration slipped, his wayward eyes returned to their feasting. The rest of him followed soon after, and it was often several blissfully unconscious moments before he would catch himself and start the battle anew.

It was bad, and then it got worse. The priest began the Eucharistic Prayer, in which he would transform bread and wine into Body and Blood, the sacrifice acceptable to God as reparation for the sins of man. As a sign of reverence, the members of the congregation knelt, dropping down onto padded kneelers that swiveled down from the pew in front of them. There, on his knees, Francis was no closer to the ass than he had been when standing. But he still felt a closing of the distance between beholder and beheld. She knelt before him, her pelvis pressed forward to rest against the pew-back in front of her, her buttocks tensed ever so slightly as she held herself in submission to God. A fog of lust descended upon him, sinking him into a moist torpor of desire. His heart slowed its beating and began to thud with increased force in his chest and temples, as if the blood it was pumping was now thickened by some evil sludge. The ass became his world, his philosophy. The priest’s words sounded like so many clanging gongs unless they could be fitted to the ass. “Take this all of you and eat it; this is my body, which will be given up for you.” Oh, yes. His sin sang in his blood.

What saved him was not so much a pricking of his conscience as the dull hammer-force of habit. After the bread, the priest consecrated the wine: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it. This is the cup of my blood…” At the elevation of the chalice following these words, Francis was accustomed to ask for the grace to be chaste and temperate. Unbidden, unwanted, the words came to him now. Francis heard himself think them, heard himself ask God for help in avoiding the very sin he was committing. The disparity was too great; the ass’s command of his attention quavered and was lost. Francis sank back against the pew, eyes closed, and begged forgiveness. The thudding heart subsided. Shame did its usual head-thrust-in-the-sink-full-of-icewater number on him, and he readied himself to receive communion.

He managed to keep his head down when she rose to join the shuffling line up to the altar, and managed to keep his eyes on the crucifix overhead after he had followed suit. The breadline of the wretched trod forward. Francis approached the priest, waited until he saw the wafer held aloft and heard the priest say, “The body of Christ,” and murmured a quick “Amen.” Then he closed his eyes, opened his mouth, and said a silent “Aaaaah.”. A moment later, he felt the host against the broad center of his tongue, and braced himself to taste Father’s index finger, which so often brushed against the tip. Mercy – the touch did not come, though the man did end up pressing the corner of Francis’ mouth with a hairy knuckle.

Francis crossed himself, letting the divine wafer hover in his mouth for a sweet moment before chewing and swallowing and heading back toward his pew. But should he head back? Even fortified as he was by the grace of the sacrament, should he willingly re-enter the ass’s sphere of influence? Should he simply find another spot? Should he just keep going back, all the way out of the church? No. “If we boast, we boast in the Lord.” Though he walked in the valley of the shadow of the ass, the Lord – who Francis now carried in his belly – would be his strength and his shield. He returned to his pew, closed his eyes and knelt to say his prayers of thanksgiving.

“Let us pray.” At the words from the priest, the congregation rose for the final prayers and the blessing. Only the recessional hymn to go. So close to triumph… The voice of the cantor floated down from the speakers. “The recessional hymn will be number 459 in the music issue: ‘Sing of the Lord’s Goodness.’ Number 459 in the music issue.”

Then it began. On an organ, in a church, in the morning, it took a moment to figure out why the sound was so familiar, the origin of that borrowed bumpy rhythm.

Ba-DUM, Ba-DUM, Baaa-DUM
Ba-DUM, Ba-DUM, Baaa-DUM
Ba-DUM, Ba-DUM, Daa-Daa-DUM…

But a moment was all it took. Not many songs had entered the canon in 5/4 time. It was the piano line from Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out,” tweaked for Sunday morning worship.

Sing of the Lord’s goodness
Father of all wisdom
Come to him and bless His name.
Mercy he has shown us
His love is forever,
Faithful to the end of days…

And then, echoing the joyful saxophone that breaks in way up high over Brubeck’s piano, the chorus:

Come then all you nations
(La-DA, la-DA, DA-da)
Sing of your Lord’s goodness
(La-DA, la-DA, DA-da)
Melodies of praise and thanks to God
(La-DA, la-DA, DA-da, DA-DA-DA…)
Ring out the Lord’s glory
Praise him with your music
Worship him and bless his name

The song continued in this vein for three more verses. Long before the end, the ass – only human, after all – had begun to move to the hiccuping beat. It wasn’t exactly dancing in place, nothing so dramatic or purposeful. It was more of an animal response, the swaying of a cobra to the foot-taps of the charmer. The black pants slid over the shifting flesh beneath in mesmerizing countermotion. For Francis, it was first distracting, then tempting, and finally, hypnotic. The sacrament, whatever its effect, had not left him insensate, had not lifted him out of his body into purer realms. By the end of the song, he would have followed the ass anywhere. Once more, he happily gave in to sacrilege, relishing the taut fabric that resulted from her departing genuflection. He hurriedly did the same and turned to leave.

But it is not so easy a thing to escape a church building on a Sunday morning after Mass – particularly if, like Francis, you attempt to leave by the center door. Though there were exits at the end of every aisle – left, right, and center – the great majority of the pious throng converged on the center, turning from the sides to the middle after they reached the space behind the rearmost pews. Some went to bless themselves with holy water from the free-standing marble fonts, so much more noticeable and attractive than the wall-mounted cups along the sides. Some went to receive their Sunday bulletins from the hands of the ushers, preferring the personal touch over the piles of bulletins on the shelves in the vestibule. And some went because that’s where other people were going, shuffling amiably along with the crowd.

The ushers and the fonts he could deal with; they stood to the sides of the door, leaving a relative softness in the center of the crowd. The real trouble came after, at the door to the vestibule. There, smack in the center of his path to freedom, stood the old priest, smiling, shaking hands on either side, all God Bless Yous and Good mornings. Everyone wanted to shake his hand, everyone wanted a kind word. All in all, it made for something close to gridlock at the center door, a gridlock that the clever, shapely ass somehow slid through before disappearing into the dispersing crowd outside.

Had he had his head about him, Francis would have darted to the side door and sought to outflank the ass as it made its escape. But had he had his head about him, he would not have been following the ass at all. Blindly, miserably, he plunged into the mass of husbands and wives, old women and children. “Excuse me. Excuse me. Sorry. Pardon me.” Violent urgency rose up inside him; he wanted to force his way to freedom, a man on a desperate mission amid an uncomprehending mob. But his mother had taught him better than that. You didn’t push to get out of church. Inch by inch, half-step by half-step, he made for the exit, his eyes casting past Father and down the church steps. To no avail. By the time he stepped into the sunshine, the ass had vanished.

What to do? Spite whispered that he ought to go out and find some porn, finish the job the ass had started. But here, under the perfect blue sky, with Jesus still dissolving in his belly and the ass safely out of sight, it was wearying to be spiteful. It was wearying to be resolute as well, but it still felt better, like exercise. What to do? Take a walk. Several of the older priests had recommended walking as an aid in the struggle for purity, as if lust was some kind of toxin you could sweat out of your system, squeeze out through the vigorous contraction of many muscles. And he had to admit, the advice was not utterly useless. A walk sometimes forced his heart out of its thudding overture, stopped it from pounding in rhythmic assault on the crumbling walls of his will, and started it doing its proper job, pumping blood to hungry cells.

His favorite destination, close at hand, was Balboa Park, a great green rolling sprawl that housed the Zoo, the city museums and a half-dozen playgrounds. There were always kids there, and kids could sometimes serve as an antidote. Kids were the loud, unruly consequences of sex. Often, their screams of happiness, anguish and rage were pitched at a frequency that shattered his infertile fantasies. Other times, just the trees could save him, great liquid ambers rising smooth-skinned and mottled out of the fairway-trim carpet of lawn. With their green-gray limbs and gray-green leaves carving up the blue of the sky, they put him in place, gave his beastly nature a wholesome terrain in which to roam. Sometimes, amid the kids and trees, the heat in his flesh would dissipate, and the phantasms that plagued him would become tinged with silliness. So he walked.

The Museum of Man welcomed Francis as he crossed the long bridge over the freeway and into the park. Like most of the park buildings lining the Prado, the Museum’s exterior sought to evoke a mild old-world nostalgia tinged with religious feeling. Besides the Museum’s churchlike dome and spire, Francis had spotted bishops’ miters amid the buildings’ frilly cast-concrete trim, and the covered walkways along the stucco exteriors of the buildings looked very much like a super-sized cloister walk. But the piety was all in the packaging; a banner over the Museum entrance touted an exhibit titled Intolerance: Instruments of Torture from the Inquisition and Beyond.

Francis sneezed, hard. Then he sneezed again. And again, a third time. They always seemed to come in threes, these attacks, except when they came as a proper fit, one after the other until he lost count. Their causes, whether exterior or interior, seemed too many and varied to group under any heading less general than Irritation. Francis found a tissue in his pocket, blew his nose, and headed for the squat travertine box that housed the Timken Museum, a modern house for true religious antiquities.

The Timken was free, like a church. Francis nodded to the old men in blazers who manned the entrance, paused to admire an El Greco painting of the Crucifixion – its elongated agony, as if the cross were also a torturer’s rack – and paid a visit to Rembrandt’s St. Bartholomew.

The portrait was swathed in shadow; the light that illumined the apostle’s hand and half his face seemed an intrusion into the gloom. Bartholomew had turned his head, as if to seek the light’s source, and it played over his gaunt cheeks and wrinkled brow. Francis tried, as he always did, to decipher the saint’s expression. Sometimes he thought Bartholomew was gazing at nothing, merely staring into the distance as he meditated. Sometimes, the face appeared ready to crack with sorrow. But today Francis had a new thought. Was that surprise in Bartholomew’s unshadowed eye? Was the eyebrow furrowed with concern, or cocked in sardonic appraisal? Was he beholding his executioners? Had they opened the door to his darkened cell? “So. You’ve come to strip me of my flesh. I will not protest. I have the knife here; see how lightly I grip the blade, how it rests between my thumb and forefinger. I was testing it just before you arrived, contemplating it as the instrument of my martyrdom. It will suffice.”

Francis gave a sympathetic shudder, and then left Bartholomew for the museum’s icon room. Russian and Greek, centuries old, the gold leaf glowing against the sage upholstery on the walls. The largest, and Francis’ favorite, depicted the last judgement in all its roiling, seething, terrible import. At the center of the tempest of activity, Jesus weighed souls in a balance while black devils sought vainly to tip the scales toward damnation. Sinners wallowed in liquid fire, packed together and endlessly prodded with barbed tridents by their tormentors. The ranks of saints looked down from above, pitiless. All of the figures bore the weird, otherworldly angularity that made icons so fascinating. Often, he stood before the icon for twenty minutes or more, trying to seal it upon his memory. Here was eternity, here was punishment and reward, here was reason to resist.

“Excuse me,” said the woman as she jostled Francis out of his stare. He saw immediately that she had not meant to bump him, but was simply moving with the crowd as it milled from image to image. The museum, often empty save for the old men, the bored tourists and the occasional scribbling student, was bristling with people. How long had he been standing there? Where did they all come from, and why? Francis made his way to the room reserved for Special Exhibits.

The exhibit, “Choices and Inspirations: The Temptation of St. Anthony,” consisted of two paintings: the eponymous work by Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, painted around 1527, and Hieronymus Bosch’s “Last Judgment,” painted in the early 1480s. The two works shared certain elements in their depiction of demonic activity – The Mill-Wheel Creature, The Lop-Eared Beast of Burden, The Man-Eating Fish-Bird – and the museum had used the common elements as the reason for the exhibit. Francis left his familiar Judgment for this newly arrived depiction, slipping in singly amid the throng of happy couples.

The first thing he noticed was Jesus, serenely saving and condemning from within a bubble of palest robin’s-egg blue that shielded him from the chaos below. The moon Around him hovered four trumpeting angels and a tiny band of saints – the apostles? Below Jesus was the smoking nightmare of hell on earth – agonies and monstrosities everywhere you looked.

“Ow – that’s gotta hurt.”

The speaker, not much older than Francis, was marveling at the image of a man straddling the blade of an enormous knife. Blood ran from the man’s crotch.

“‘Ow?’ Gosh, sweetie, were you an art major?” chided the speaker’s lady friend.

“What? I’m sympathetic. Let’s see if we can find someone getting her breasts cut off.”

“Defensive much? Did somebody say ‘castration anxiety’?”

“That’s right, darling – your efforts have not been in vain.”

“Ha ha. Christ, will you look at this? Those harp strings are running right through that woman’s body.”

“Probably a medieval pop star. And this guy getting basted on a spit must have been chef to royalty, poaching foie gras while the peasants starved. It’s all very Dante.”

Francis did not join them in perusing the torments of the damned just yet. He began with paradise. The delay was, for him, a kind of spiritual discipline, saving the pity, fear, and fascination of hell until after he had contemplated the part he was supposed to love best. And even before he took in heaven, he took a moment to read the gray-on-cream placard mounted alongside the painting.

“Of the eight or so surviving triptychs by Bosch and his workshop, each prominently features scenes of sinful behavior, torture, or punishment. For this reason, it has been suggested that most of Bosch’s triptychs, although firmly based on Christian themes, were not meant to stand near a church altar table as most earlier triptychs had done. Perhaps Bosch simply adapted the folding altarpiece format to another tradition that prevailed in Northern European regions – one in which pictures were designed to teach Christian virtue and social conduct, partly by counter-example, in a location other than the church.”

At first glance, heaven appeared to be sparsely populated. Many are called, but few are chosen. A few angels flitted in the sky above a great plain, dotted with lakes and trees as it stretched toward the distant ocean. An ornate white tower rose up from the plain’s center, a wrought spire at its tip and an overflowing fountain at its base. Here and there, naked figures showed pale against the olive-green earth. One carried a tree branch. One rode a bird, another chased a bird with a net.

But when Francis stopped trying to take in the whole scene, and instead let his eye be drawn to the panel’s splashes of color – four of them, all the same rosy shade of pink – things got both more interesting and more populous. The first pink, in the right foreground, was that of a woman’s robe. It spread out around her as she sat and played a harp before a naked trio, two of whom knelt before her. The second pink, to the left of the first, inhered in a sort of gaping plant husk. A black sphere rested in its hollow maw, like a cherry, or maybe a pearl. while a man shimmied along an overhanging thorn and sought to pluck a fruit growing near its tip. A couple hid behind the husk, watching. The husk might have dropped from an overripe fruit; the curving thorn was cruel – what was this doing in Paradise?

It was the third and fourth pinks of heaven that made Francis wonder. The third belonged to a lavish canopy that covered the deck of a boat. Angels stood in the prow, blowing their trumpets. A few saved souls stood outside the tent, gazing like sightseers at the wonders of their new country. But the real action was underneath that canopy. The pink folds of the curtain were parted enough to reveal a throng of bodies within. Seated as they were, packed together and facing one another in a private (if crowded) space, their nudity regained some measure of its earthly, sexual connotation. What were they doing in there? Was that man reaching for that woman?

Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    Terribly long, I'll try and come back to it tomorrow.

  2. Matthew Lickona says

    It's not just terribly long, it's flat out terrible! Kidding. Maybe? Yeah, seeing it in blog form makes it very much a too long/didn't read thing. But that's okay.

  3. Matthew,

    It occurs to me as I read this – what about introducing a second character (I hope you don't think me presumptuous!) who has his or her own sort of complimentary complex of neurosis – maybe a frigid woman or a homosexual? Or even just a transient or a child molester with a toothache. Someone he's paired with that he knows is either unobtainable or undesirable and yet proposes an alternative set of lurid circumstances to challenge Augustine's lust.

    (Remember the sabertooth tiger in the cave in Second Coming – and the toothache that pulls Barrett out of his suicidal revery? I think your story could afford to string something like that along throughout.)

    I dunno – maybe you've thought this all out already – but I think of Henry James' prologue to Portrait of a Lady where he speaks in the language of quasi-physics about the various pressures of the other characters on Archer. He said something to the effect that in the crafting of the story the challenge was to find the right balance among them.

    It seems Augustine could use a little tempering so we're not looking so steadily at him looking so steadily at his sin.

    Just a thought….

    Please to take in kindly spirit!

    JOB

  4. Matthew Lickona says

    JOB – I don't know what you're talking about. I already said that I had no idea who wrote this.

    That said, yes, of course, the effort is full of weaknesses. The author may have intended to say something about the isolating character of porn/lust by giving you All Francis All The Time. You, the reader, are as trapped and miserable as Francis! But just because he did it on purpose doesn't mean it was a good thing to do.

    You are not at all presumptuous, and you are quite correct in your suggestion.

    I rather suspect, however, that whoever the author is, he will not be revisiting this story. Just thought it might be fun to post here.

  5. Rufus McCain says

    I beg to differ. This is good stuff. A hyper-Catholic Binx Bolling. The solitariness works — for one chapter, anyway. I don't think it would work beyond this. As Flannery O'Connor said, either he's going to have to get out of bed or someone's going to have to get into bed with him.

    I didn't go back and re-read Chapter 1, but I don't think it grabbed me the way this one does. The lacings of humor are what keep me reading here. "The valley of the shadow of the ass" — that is just glorious, wonderful stuff. And the description of the Rembrandt. Nice. All very deftly done.

    How much more do you have?

  6. Matthew Lickona says

    Once upon a time, there was heaps more. But that was several hard drives ago. I think it's pretty much all gone now. Glad you found something to enjoy here.

  7. Jonathan Webb says

    I'll read it when I have more time. Thanks Matthew.

  8. Matthew,

    Put another dead-horse beating sort of way, think of how different Confederacy of Dunces would have been without Jones.

    At any rate, I too encourage further development here!

    JOB

  9. Dorian Speed says

    1. I usually refuse to read blog entires that require more than one tap of the "page down" key, but this is quite good.

    2. I think the references to particular hymns are kind of inside baseball, but maybe that is because I am a cranky liturgy dilettante who is immediately transported away from the story itself when confronted with "Sing of the Lord's Goodness."

    3. I hope you realize you are setting back the anti-anti-pants modesty crusade several years.

  10. Quin Finnegan says

    Good stuff. Nice hat tip to Philip Roth – that's only one reason I'd like to find out what becomes of Francis. The Dave Brubeck comment is fantastic, and smacks the reference to the hymns outside the park, so to speak.

    The last two paragraphs are sublime. I suppose a fair measure of the sublimity is hitching a ride on Bosch, but still, the combination of precision and mystery in the description is very fine.

    Whoa! How time flies … off to mass …

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