“He uttered a triumphant cry: IT IS ACCOMPLISHED!
And it was though he had said: Everything has begun.”
With those words, Nikos Kazantzakis closes his novel; THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. And with those words, I closed his book and ended my first reading experience with Mr. Kazantzakis. I was 20 years old in 1971. It was a delicious, hot, muggy summer in Lexington, and I was more than a little befuddled by what I had just read.
I liked the book. Kazantzakis’ descriptions of biblical geography were interesting. The characters were many and varied, and moved through that geography with pace and purpose that pulled me through the story. I did find myself wishing I had paid a bit more attention in my Southern Baptist Sunday School class as a child. The place names might have been easier to follow if I had.
What bewildered me were the hallucinatory passages in the novel, especially the extended passage at the end of the novel in which Jesus experiences and rejects the Devil’s final blandishment. My 20-year-old reaction was something on the order of; “Whoa! Where the hell (or heaven) did that come from? And why?”
I had read it and now I had to return the book to the upperclassman who had lent it to me with the usual unambiguous instruction that almost always accompanies a book lent unasked for; “You’ll enjoy this.” That phrase always sounds so amiable, but when it comes from an older friend whose apparent intellect and experience you aspire to, the phrase carries the weight of stone tablets from the Mount.
Returning the book meant a trip to the Geek House, usually a mind broadening if not mind improving occasion. The Geek House was a small cottage on a two-way street near the University of Kentucky. Like many of these small cottages it was infested (infested… yes, I think that is le mot juste) by students. Years later when I saw the film ANIMAL HOUSE it occurred to me how lucky Lexington was that the Geek House was a small cottage and not a large house. The population of Geek House was capped at four… or five…… or six………or… (it was a liquid situation) because of the limited space available. The rotating roster of the house included two or three theater majors, two brothers from Pike County (one was in pre-law and the other was a convicted felon who was a hell of a mechanic – it sounds like the making of a great team – I wonder where they are now?), and a graduate student from the Philippines. The graduate student had an amazing name that no one could pronounce. He shortened it for our convenience to Pu Pe. Of course that turned out to be an unwise choice of truncation. “Poopy” he became and remained for as long as I knew him. I learned a valuable lesson in diplomacy from Poopy. I knew he was a graduate student and a bright and well-spoken guy. Yet his English seem to desert him when it came to being properly offended by his nickname. He got along just fine with everybody.
One of the more charming traditions of the house was the weekend poker game. It would begin on Friday evening and continue with a variety of participants coming and going until it petered out on late Sunday afternoon as the last bleary participants wandered away.
This was a serious poker game. There were snorts and grunts that indicated calls and raises. Cards were held close to the chest, or dropped to the floor as the weekend wore on and small motor skills decayed. Challenges to manhood were common and personal financial statuses were altered. Sometimes you would even see a dollar bill in the center of the table on top of the quarters, dimes, and nickels.
It too, as you can imagine, was a liquid situation – mostly beer. I think that’s why they tolerated my spectator-only presence at the game. I was ground control. If any authority figure knocked at the door, I was sent to answer. Usually after a brief reassuring conversation, the authority figure would go away confident in the knowledge that a sober 20-year-old adult had this situation well in hand. It was an innocent time.
One memorable Sunday afternoon, the game was continuing but grinding down. There was a knock on the door. I answered. It was the parents of one of the theater majors residing in the house. They had driven in from Madisonville to visit relatives and thought it would be nice to drop in on their son, Carson. Well, Carson had been participating in the poker game off and on for most of the weekend and he looked like it. He leapt to his feet, swiftly visited the bathroom, his razor, and his closet (where he found his “cleanest dirty shirt” as Kris Kristopherson so poignantly describes it), while I chattered away with his parents discussing all the people in Madisonville I didn’t know (not having ever set foot in the town) and while the other poker participants discreetly (again, the perfect word) transferred the beer bottles from the tabletop to the floor. Carson’s parents pretended to be oblivious. Carson presented himself as shiny as a newly minted penny (in his dreams). They left. The house was silent for a minute or two. Then Poopy turned to the pre-law brother and said; “Well, I certainly am glad you kept your filthy fucking mouth shut.” There was general agreement with that sentiment and the game ended about 10 minutes later with a prayer for Carson.
Often on Friday evenings before the game degenerated to Neanderthal-ness, the discussions around the table could be coherent and instructive. It was during one of these intellectual oases that my friend, Ray Skewes was expounding on the genius of Nikos Kazantzakis. He had finished reading THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST that week and was dying to discuss it with someone. No one was interested, but since I was the youngest in the room I was chosen to be the other member of his instantly created book club. Ray went to his bedroom and fetched his battered paperback copy of the book, placed it reverently into my hands, and instructed; “You’ll enjoy this”.
Well…I had duly followed my instructions and now needed to return the book to Ray.
That August the house was practically deserted. The denizens had all dispersed to their various summertime activities. A couple of the actors had summer theater jobs, Carson had been ordered home to Madisonville for a period of debriefing and reorientation to the wisdom of making better use of his time, and the brothers had returned to the mountains to do something murky, into which it would be best not to inquire too deeply. Thus, everyone was gone except for Ray.
I drove to the house and bounced up on the porch and knocked on the door. There was no immediate answer until, after subsequent knockings, the blinds on the window next to the door twitched ever so slightly. Then the doorknob turned and the door opened about 6 inches and Ray peered at me. He was looking pretty rough. His hair was long and stringy and did not suggest that it had seen water for a while. His shirt and jeans were wrinkled and sagging and did not suggest that they had seen water for a while. He had about a three day growth of beard and it did not suggest… Now this look was not rare for Ray. Today we might even say that this was Ray’s “brand”. But that afternoon there was a haggard quality that suffused his usual fashion statement.
I explained my reason for being at his doorstep and held out the book. He looked at it for a moment, processing the information. Then his eyes lit up and he threw open the door and invited me in. He closed the door behind me, put on the chain, and adjusted the blinds for perfect opaqueness. That’s when the smell hit me. It was a sharp, dry, and dusty smell, and it was intense. Ray returned to his position on the couch to continue the project he was working on when I banged on the door. There was a garbage bag (filled with marijuana plants) on the floor in front of his feet and there was a grocery bag (almost filled with marijuana leaves) next to it. Next to that a soup kettle (for the stems he explained). Ray described his project.
“I was hiking in the Red River Gorge a while back and we came across this little field filled with marijuana. I made note of our location and went back last week and harvested all I could carry and brought it back here. Carson’s bedroom is filled with bags. I’ve got to get this stuff processed and outta here before the guys come back to school. Plus, I think it’s starting to stink (starting?). And now there’s fleas! I’ll never get all this done. Hey. How’d’ja like the book?”
I’d like to say I was cool.
Cool was what I would’ve liked to have been.
I was not cool. I was stunned.
I was scared to death.
I was appalled by the filth and the smell and the fleas.
The car stopped.
Cars were coming and going to and from the University all the time on the street, but they normally didn’t stop in front of the house.
The car door slammed.
Ray froze with his hands in the middle of the dismemberment of a plant, his eyes wide, and a sick, gray crept into his face.
A team of big men in dark suits and dark glasses and badges burst through the door. They put handcuffs on me and Ray, and proceeded to haul all those bags and us out to their vehicle and un-gently crammed us all in. They took us downtown in a blur and in an even faster blur we were in a jail cell. The trial was quick and decisive. Sentences and fines were meted out. They were paid and served. I emerged from incarceration to a world that did not wish to hire me for anything ever. No female would come near me. I never married. I meandered into a penniless, barren old-age.
The car door slammed again as the pedestrian being picked up got on board, and the car drove away.
Ray sagged in relief and resumed his activity. He gave a nervous shake to his head, grinned at me, and said “So, how’d’ja like the book?”
I believe my exact response was; “It was great but I can’t stay and talk about it now I gotta go I got something to do I got rehearsal I’m in a show but I can’t stay and talk about it now I’ll get with you later thanks for the book.”
As I recall, that response was delivered in a manner that was eerily reminiscent of a patter song from Gilbert and Sullivan. I then moved with great pace and purpose to the door and out of the house. I bounced off the porch and to my car and drove directly home, directly to my bathroom to take three consecutive showers – showers every bit as spiritually cleansing as Janet Leigh’s shower in PSYCHO. No, I was not attacked by the knife wielding mother of Norman Bates, but I felt like I deserved to be.
I never returned to Geek House. I only rarely ever saw Ray again and we never had a chance to discuss his book. I never inquired as to the final disposition of his summer project.
It was a long time before I felt clean again.
I had heard the phrase; “the nearness of sin”, but I don’t think it ever really registered with me until that day.
I understood it fully after that day.
I also had a better understanding and a deeper appreciation of Nikos Kazantzakis. That understanding and appreciation leaves me very comfortable with the possibility that none of this story actually happened and yet all of it is true.