The Mrs. and I were taking one of our thrice weekly walks yesterday, and no sooner had we rounded the corner of our street onto the main thoroughfare and crossed the front of St. Alphonsus, than I was turned upon by a wild-eyed man and accused of being Satan. I should say, he wore Bermuda shorts and a loose-fitting blue tank-top that advertised Mt. Pearl little-league softball across its front … Obviously, my delight at having found so unlikely a specimen (that is: a real hellfire and brimstone street corner evangelist—recruiting here, one assumes, because he had staked-out a rather too robust Papist congregation) was instantly spoiled.
I’m embarrassed to confess that it never occurred to me to say to him, coolly, something like: “What precisely gives you that impression? Because I’ve always had my doubts about this little imperial I’ve been cultivating around my mouth.” Or: “At your service, Lancelot. I trust you haven’t forgotten our little appointment … Once you’re done with all this rabble, of course.” Alas, no. I freely admit that my wit isn’t even that quick. Whether by dint of all the Scots blood coursing through my constrictedly English veins, or because I harbour some deep-rooted and, apparently, comprehensive complex of guilt, I am compelled in situations such as this to become just blindly, incoherently, idiotically insulted ... Indeed, the charge struck me to my very core: Sinner, yes! thought I. That very morning, after all, I’d given the cat a disproportionately severe kick for only drinking out of the toilet. But Satan himself?
Add to my incapacity to rise to the occasion the untimely changing of the traffic light as this fellow chased us to the curb, and my mortification was complete. All I could do was stand there and stare at the blighter as he rained down hot gas and sulphur upon me—in, I hasten to add, just such a way as to suggest that I knew exactly what he was talking about, and could likely do a better job describing it myself.
Before long, Lenore had the good sense to take me by the hand and guide me to the adjacent corner, to wait for our light there—safe, at least, from the sprayings of spit that accompanied the man’s molestations. But the molestations themselves continued: Oh, you can cross the road, all right! But all roads lead to the same place for you! Get thee behind me, etc ...
Now here’s the rum part: after the light changed and we had made our way up the street a safe distance, I couldn’t help noticing (for he intoned loud enough to be heard entire blocks from where he stood) that he called no one else Satan as they passed him by. He hurled the most Old Testament bits of damnation at them, but no more direct accusations of being the actual Prince of Darkness.
So what is it about me exactly?
Well, let’s see. What my decrepitude has left me of my height makes me still, I guess, imposing at just over six feet. But I’m hunched now—I make a kind of long, flattened S—and I’m ludicrously thin. My hair was once dense, wiry stuff—besotted with cowlicks that could, in a pinch, have been mistaken for horns—and tinged an uncannily infernal red. But it’s just grey now—or white—and largely gone. And any colour remaining in my beard, I fancy, is more stain of nicotine than actual, natural pigment.
When I suggested to Lenore that, perhaps, it was the devilish glint in my eye, she just laughed and said that I had the doleful, drooping eyes of an ancient bloodhound that’d just been beaten with a newspaper for pooping on the rug. She elaborated: a faded Persian rug, she said.
“Why does it have to be faded?”
“Because that makes you all the more pathetic,” she said. “A threadbare old rug is prized more highly than you are, you see. You are tolerated, but only on the condition that, even in your sad, belly-dragging dotage, you don’t disgrace yourself on some tattered old bit of rag. If you do, then it’s smack! [and here she actually biffed me on the nose], and: What’re you any good for anyway, Fudge?! And: Next time, it’s off to see Dr. Baylis for the needle, and your remains to the four winds! …Heavens, the pong!”
I shook my head.
… It occurs to me, though, that this is not the first time I’ve been, at least, compared to the Devil. But as I recall, there was some cause for this then. Long, long ago, when the hair in my armpits was a bizarrely entitling novelty, and I had legs like long pallid lengths of rope with a single huge knot in their middles, I got myself into a bit of trouble with the sports master of my old school. (Teachers were called masters then, if you went, as I did, to a Canadian private school—where you were guaranteed either the very best, or the very worst of educations, depending (as a rule) on whether your school chaplain was an east or west facing priest. Ours was east—so you understand.*) Our class was taken to a private club nearby that had squash courts. We, obviously, were expected to play squash there. But rather than do so, me and a threesome of fellows (one of whom, I might add, is now a crown attorney of no small reputation) thought it would be more fun to tie shut with our sweatshirts the various doors of the other courts in use, stand inconspicuously in the observation balconies overlooking them, and poor glasses of water over our classmates’ heads when they tried, in vain, to leave.
I seem to remember being flinged out the doors of the place; informed that I was single-handedly responsible for destroying the school’s relationship with the club**. The master in question—Mr. Sparks, reputedly of the old Ottawa Sparkses—then leveled a long glare at me, and told me that there wasn’t a doubt in his mind that I had broken from Lucifer’s own loins.
Harsh stuff. And, I hasten to add, richly deserved. I can’t say that I’ve entirely mended my ways, but I’m always impeccably behaved on squash courts now—often deferring a win to some wet oaf who could no sooner hit his own head with his racket than the ball.
My Pentecostal friend had quitted his post by the time we returned from our walk … I imagine a motley crew of Carmelite sisters bullying him with rosaries like bicycle chains until he made good his escape.
*A totally apocryphal piece of pretentiousness, I’ve since discovered. I’ve met only one one-time east-facing priest, and I’ve a strong suspicion that he did so because he was drunk at the time; and keen to disguise a black eye he’d got that afternoon in a fistfight.
**Snooteigh's, we called it.For excrement living on increment.