It started with a whisper in the pew. The faint skirmish of sound reporting off in the distance of a Chicago morning. Eight o’clock mass with Fr. Kneucks at which this altar boy did not have to serve, mumbled along on the path of a dreary Sunday. The red haired Barney squirmed between the right shoulder of his catechism teacher Sister Mary Helvetica and the belly of Mrs. Patter, the wife of the pregnant Patters, from Des Moines. A murmur, it was his stomach he knew, came like the promise of a rumor, faint now but certain. A small squawk creaked in his gut like a prehistoric bird sounding as it rose from a pond. To Barney’s mind, the sound was distant, distinct, but headed straight for his insides.
So soon after that breakfast burrito too, he thought.
Barney started to look about the church for some willing saint to take his mind off his stomach, for other sounds to disguise his doom. It didn’t work. The rumble of his guts came more quickly. Barney thought of thunderstorms gathering in a Midwestern summer sky. One minute, all nice and quiet after a large picnic, belching blissfully below a blue sky; the next, hit with fat fluids that transformed themselves into noisome pellets, hail now beating down a syncopation upon him. The sky was dark but loud as it prepared to swallow him whole, no mustard. Those were the rumbles coming now. He knew it wouldn’t be long, not long before his stomach was preaching along with the priest, shouting out “Hallelujah,” to the congregation.
He tried silence. He prayed to himself as fervently as the recently saved, Out now devil, I say out now. Out, a little bit softer now, a little bit softer now. Out a little bit louder now, a little bit louder now.
He shut off the sound, clenching his sphincter like a dog chomping down on a bone.
The storm subsided. All he could do was wait. A little rumble began and quit. He tilted his buttocks a whisper inch off the pew. A knife piercing construction paper made its tearing sound fast, nimble, ripping as it ran across the stage calling out his stomach’s name and then was heard no more. He was too surprised by its speed to be alerted or subsequently relaxed by its absence. He let it go. The priest droned on about forgiveness or was it suffering? Or maybe suffering and forgiveness. Barney didn’t know. He couldn’t listen. He waited. The sounds came different to him now, more like distant bombers approaching some hapless little church in the French countryside.
He sighed like a man condemned to die: knowledgeable, resigned, shoulders rounded. A blast of trumpet sounds emerged from his nether regions. His shoulders, they rounded more. His breath, it sighed again. Another peal of thunder seemed to come from afar this time, long and low and grumbling, rumbling, stumbling on its way to the goal line and all Barney could do was fidget a bit in his seat as if the rustle of his corduroy pants, his old cords today, the shiny ones, the slick noiseless ones, “Damn the luck,” he cursed himself, could disguise the sound of his doom impending. A moment of peace, while the priest spoke about hell’s fire and what was that? Hot sauce?
No, he misheard, but the suggestion made him grimace. Another stirring of the steel pot called his bowels, half filled with marbles and gravel as they rolled and crunched, his stomach searching for the voice to warn all nearby of their misfortune: It’s coming. It’s coming for ya. Run away if you can.
He moved the position of his ass in this stew of intermittent sound. Why couldn’t he be at home he wondered? Why not have these uproars somewhere private, somewhere discreet? No, it was always at church or at his friend Boomer’s house listening to his pious mother discussing doily placement on the back of a sofa or the importance of plastic covers on lampshades and sofas. Why not when he was alone in the tub where he could watch the bubbles of his dissolution rise up majestically, exploding around the island mountains of his knees and belly? Godlike he could turn his placid bath into a roiling whitewater of farts and rubber ducky commotion. No, by the saints on high, no such luck.
He squirmed on the pew like a snake had gotten into the back of his pants, as if motion could disguise sound, as if one sense could override another, as if physics could work in his favor now over chemistry. He called to god: Save me from myself. I am a sinner.
He wanted to writhe on the ground or throw himself into the baptismal soup but: dammit, he was still a Catholic at Mass and not a thumping Baptist. Not a ditch of holy water anywhere in sight. A gripping cauldron of sound erupted from his bowels. He reached to the shelf in front of him to grab a Bible. He rustled its pages like his father did in the bathroom every morning, while the stench of the old man’s evening debauch seeped out from under the doorway. He stared blindly at the book praying to sweet Jesus for this moment to pass him by.
Jesus did not answer. Or maybe he did, in his own mysterious way, as the storm broke free of its mooring instead. A note, tenor and long, clear and sonorous escaped from him. Sister Mary Helvetica next to him turned. Her look pierced through one of his ears and stuck out the other. She waved the pink page of this week’s parish announcements to alert the rest of the church to her suffering and their coming doom. I am stranded next to a natural gas plant, she waved in papery code. I have sat next to a compost pile. See my flag of surrender. Martyrdom is mine she mimed.
Barney could do nothing but smile weakly at her, proud on the one hand of his prowess to take a nun’s mind off the punishment of the helpless for a trice, but too embarrassed to stand up and take a bow for it. On his right, the Patters from Des Moines got up to move. She, the pregnant one, complained of too much kicking so she murmured to the people in the pew behind her. Those worshipers smiled at her in sympathy and then the slow oily wave of infamy washed over their noses and mouths and they knew then that they too wanted the excuse of a round belly. They prayed: God grant me a miracle. Give me a baby child right now so that I too might leave this odiferous hell. Barney kept repeating these words for them as if his own felt shame could stem the tide, could hold back the flood, could keep the boats from rising on the stench of his borborygmi.
He calmed in despair and by calming relaxed. He let out a sound then, so flaccid, now bass in tone, a Falstaffed voice, garrulous, friendly to all, throwing a drunken arm around every shoulder and wrapping each nose in a towel of the Holy Ghost’s communion gas. The noise from deep inside him did not cease. It grew instead more steady like his mother’s favorite Sunday record album, Like the beat beat beat of the tom-tom, When the jungle shadows fall. Or was it a manic Morse code from someone deep inside his bowels tapping out the message, repeating, You, you, you. He squirmed like day being smothered by night. The sound slipped out again. He fidgeted. It doubled its volume. He coughed. His sphincter coughed back. It was a battle lost. He threw in his towel. He resigned himself then and there to a life of loneliness. Fr. Kneucks asked all to stand and Barney did so, his shoulders beaten, his spirits damp. What more could god do to him now?
God replied with a sigh of poisonous gas, a release of pressure, a pause in noise filled with an increase in odor. The nun fainted and sat back in the pew lifelessly, an arm thrown into the aisle for the assembled to witness. The congregants two pews behind them had all left, stranding the innocent, three pews back, with curious, ignorant, and expectant smiles. In their time, they too were undone. It was an Armageddon. It was a Revelation come to visit. Barney sat in its midst, now imagining himself rising, believing that he was being lifted up above it all. He pictured himself in robes of puce, his fingers held in a pair to bless, his toes sandaled, a chestnut beard appearing on his peachy pink cheeks, his red short hair now long brown and flowing, cascading down his shoulders in Breck curls, a bleeding heart appearing on his chest, as rising, rising, rising on the cloud of his natural if profane gas to heaven, lifting, lifting up to God he went. Was that song now he heard? Was it the angels and archangels now singing their aromatic praises? His gift to them all as he passed out of this life into another?
He heard the priest rustle his garments and say something to the congregation. Barney heard no words, lost in his assumption, and his eyes were held aloft until his left ear felt some pinpoint pain, some pricking of his reverie, some ouch, “Goddamn,” he cried. Some kind of sinister pain. Sister Mary had awoken and had him in the nimble pincer fingers of her right hand, pulling him off his cloud back down to earth. He jumped off it as fast as he could and turned to see her wimpled head and pruned face, one hand pinching her nose and her other thin but surprisingly strong arm pulling him closer.
“Mr. Rooney, after Mass you will mop the church floor front and back, every pew and aisle this very hour or I will have Fr. Kneucks show you his boxing skills once more, you foul and prodigious creature.”
Barney was happy about the prodigious part. The foulness he thought unfair. A foul ball, yes. It was a mistake, nothing more. A simple error in timing. He tried to let it go but clenched his thought instead until Mass was over, and he went in back of the altar for the mop and pail. At this point walking was a joy. Movement made his bowels happy. He was only too grateful to feel release from his call to heaven’s arms. He was alive, his bowels were working fine as his doctor would no doubt one day say to him. For now he was hungry. He mopped and dreamed of food.
Gary Rogowski is the nom de plume of the fictional writer, Giga Roodski. Giga, as he is known to the Bobs’ mailing list and one woman in Paris, has taken to haunting the streets near his favorite restaurant, Pizza de Venise on Rue Montreuil to catch a glimpse of the past.