A History Lesson
The following short story comes from the Ancient Paths archives, Issue 15. It was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2009.
A History Lesson by Mark Clark
"It's’s Peter,” I said.
The short Japanese woman turned to regard me with something of a blank expression on her face. She had been arguing with her husband over the subject of a large oil painting on display in the sanctuary of the Cologne Cathedral. If I startled or annoyed her with my interruption, I couldn’t tell. Her gaze was steady, but not hard.
They were from California. I don’t know how I knew that, but I did.
I cleared my throat in the way of an apology and made to leave, but she kept looking at me so I continued. “He asked to be crucified upside down out of humility,” I explained. Right, humility. I was thinking about what a crock that legend was when my mouth ran away with me. No one knew why Peter asked to be crucified upside down. Not really. No one had ever gotten the chance to ask him. Still, everyone who knew that he had been crucified upside down thought they knew why; as if knowing something happened and knowing why it happened were the same thing.
“Ohh,” she said. Both her voice and her eyes betrayed complete boredom. She stared at her drab gray pumps while she waited for me to leave.
I guess I attracted the interest of the husband, however, because he turned to me, smiling, and placed his long hands on his khaki hips. He was thin, with a salesman’s posture. I guessed his age at mid forties by the distance from the upper rims of his wire frame glasses to his hairline. His name was probably George or Ted, and I’m sure he never wore anything but khaki pants and polo shirts.
He sized me up with an easy smile on his face. I imagined he was trying to figure out if I was going to start preaching at them or hitting them up for a few dollars. My jeans were a little ratty, and I had butted into their conversation like I didn’t know the first thing about manners.
In all honesty, I don’t know a lot about the sort of manners I believed would be important to the Californians. I never had money and I never felt comfortable with people who did. I always think I’m going to say or do the wrong thing, and they’re going to know that I never wear khaki pants. I wouldn’t have said anything to the Californians if they hadn’t been disturbing my reflections on Peter. Since they had stopped chattering, I was going to use the silence to turn back to my thoughts. I felt stupid for putting so much stock in their opinions of me, anyway. I didn’t even know them.
I didn’t buy the humility bit, because Peter didn’t have a humble bone in his body. I don’t mean to drag the guy down or anything. He had his good points. He was loyal, almost to the point of death. He was eager to do and say the right thing. He was the bravest among his peers. He was not, however, humble.
“Well, I guess he did what he had to do,” said my new friend in the khaki pants.
“I don’t think he had to, I think the whole point was that he didn’t have to do anything.” I said, and that was probably a rude thing for me to say. Khaki Pants was only trying to make polite conversation. I’m worst about forgetting my manners when I’m lost in thought. I didn’t even know this guy, he was twenty years my senior, and I contradicted him.
I was surprised when he tried to gain my approval again anyway. He just wrinkled his brow and then smiled. “Well, I suppose he felt like he had to do it anyway.” Khaki Pants watched me, the muscles in his eyebrows forming a worried little crease, as if I might smack him. I felt like it a little, but I don’t know why.
I nodded. “Yes, I suppose so.” I don’t know what that had to do with anything but I was eager to find something to agree on. Of course Peter felt like he had to do it, but that doesn’t really say anything. The question is why Peter felt like he had to do it. Truthfully, I don’t know, but I think about it sometimes. Peter took his reasons to the grave with him, and until the catacombs split open on judgment day, he’ll keep them there.
Still, I wondered. I wondered if Peter heard that cockcrow more than twice. I wondered if it woke him up in the middle of the night for thirty years. I wondered if the pressure and the guilt were so great on some nights that he couldn’t sleep at all. Did its voice change over the years? Did it ask, in the end, “Whatchagonnado?” instead of crowing “Cockadoodledoo!”
Jesus was Peter’s teacher, but more importantly, he was his friend. They worked all of that out the night He washed his feet. Did Peter ask himself how it would go if he had it to do over again? Would he buckle or would he stand? What would it say about his life if, ultimately, he was unable to acknowledge his friend in the face of adversity? I wondered if, in the midst of all that pain, the tears streaming down his forehead were tears of relief.
My eyes began to water as I stood and stared at that renaissance painting, until the distinctive lines blurred through my tears, and I could just as well have been looking at a Monet. There were no lines anyway. Some grade school art teacher told me that, but I didn’t realize how terrifying the truth contained in her statement was.
Something about Peter, wonderful Peter, made me wonder where Angel had gone. Angel was a girl I had known years ago, though she must have been a woman by the time I recalled her in that dark cathedral. I hadn’t heard from her in years, but I had started to dream about her again.
Religion does funny things to the past. Or, maybe the past does funny things on its own and religion is just a human response to the way it behaves. If only it weren’t so permanent, or if only it wouldn’t keep seeping into the present I could . . . oh, forget it.
Two thousand years and two thousand miles just isn’t enough distance. I smiled at Peter and wiped my eyes. I had brought my own past dangerously close to his, and I couldn’t get them untangled.
“Now was he the carpenter?”
It was a female voice that spoke, and it seemed to come from an incredible distance behind me.
“I’m sorry?” I said. “I didn’t catch that.”
I turned to face her. God, she seemed far away. The enormity of the cathedral and its gray stones swallowed her. The dim light streaming through the stained glass windows high above our heads wasn’t enough to bring her into focus again. I wished to God that I could see her in California. She had narrow shoulders and wide hips, a motherly frame. I’m sure she was a mother, and I wanted to see her doing motherly things in the sunshine. I couldn’t take squinting at her in this dim German cathedral anymore while I was thinking of Tennessee, and Rome, and Jerusalem. Sometimes you just get too far from home and the world seems too big.
She twisted her mouth. “Peter,” she explained less confidently. “Was he a carpenter?”
“No,” I shook my head, less to emphasize my point than to clear the memories.
“He was a, a . . .” Why couldn’t I think? I knew what Peter did. He was a fisherman. Christ promised to make him a fisher of men. That’s what I thought I was going to be when I went to Tennessee. I couldn’t think of that though, so I finally said “apostle.”
“Ohh.” She nodded and accepted my answer, stupid as it was. That he was an apostle, apparently, made everything clear. Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe she was just as confused and hazy as I was, but there was no way to tell.
I left them then. I’m not sure if I dismissed myself politely, or if I left without saying a word, but I got out of that cathedral. I pushed through the new revolving door, beside the old wooden ones and took a deep breath. I expected the air to be lighter but it wasn’t. I fled through the courtyard, and sat down on the steps that lead to the shopping district. Pedestrians from the city of Cologne, doing their best to look Parisian, swarmed about me. Everyone wore scarves and tight blue jeans.
Skateboarders buzzed along, attempting tricks on the steps and the artwork. They fell every time. I looked at the fast food restaurant opposite the courtyard. Everything seemed plastic.
Resting my forehead in the palms of my hands, I tried to compose myself. I felt the judgmental eyes of the past boring into my back. I wanted to curse it, but I couldn’t. It was too big, and I was too small. I knew I could be crushed, but my eyes turned my head around anyway. I wanted to see the cathedral’s body with its skeletal spires reaching toward the lowered finger of God, the foundation fixed in the stones of the courtyard, the cross above the door. I filled my lungs with air to reassure myself that I could, and turned around to face what was there.
It overwhelmed me.