Let me start by saying that second-person point of view is the most dangerous to write from. Why? Well it's extremely risky to try to tell a reader what he thinks or feels or does. It just sort of pisses the reader off. It is for this very reason that I love second person. I know plenty of writers who fear this point of view, who just can't stand it, and that, my delinquents, is invitation enough to use it gratuitously. When writing in second person I feel daring; I feel young and hip and modern. In second person, I'm the cool rebellious kid in a leather jacket. For me, the joy in second person is casting the reader as a character in my work--what better way to make a reader uneasy than to put him naked on a table in the embalming room of a mortuary? My credentials as a super-villain are secure.
Well I recently wrote what I consider one of my greatest essays to date, but in using second person, I managed to piss off most of my critiquers--those who didn't flat out hate the essay were left scratching their heads. (I do, however, have to admit that some of the hatred and head-scratching could be because of the content rather than the irritating point of view.) Either way, this is great news for you guys because I feel free to post the essay here instead of sending it out to magazines. My critique group's hatred is like a gift to you! Enjoy! (Unless you're a devout Christian in which case you probably should not be subscribing to my blog at all.)
When I was a kid there was this song we used to sing in Sabbath School called “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” I was a Seventh-day Adventist who was taught that we were the only true Christians, the only ones who really got it right, and looking back I can say we were a histrionic and paranoid bunch. At the time I’d been brainwashed to believe we good Adventist boys and girls would one day have to run for the hills to set up camp in a cave or in a dam in the middle of a fast-flowing river because of the immanent “Sunday Law,” a law that would force all Americans to worship on Sunday, effectively making criminals of those of us who observed the Sabbath with conviction. We Adventists could not abide such a direct dismissal of God’s wishes, and so it was necessary to be ready for our flight at any time. Did we have enough water and non-perishable foodstuffs stockpiled? Had we pulled out all those tracking devices the dentists called “fillings”? And which family member could skin a squirrel in under thirty seconds while identifying non-lethal varieties of wild berries?
Once the Sunday Law went into effect, it was entirely within the realm of reason that we’d be imprisoned or put in the stocks if caught worshipping on the Sabbath. Maybe we’d be stoned or burned at the stake. When we children sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” we were mentally preparing for the fight of our lives, carrying the cross as Jesus once did and committing ourselves to hang from it until dead while forgiving our executioners if it came to that. I was five years old.
So the other day I’m enjoying a satirical look at war in the movie Mash when what should Hawkeye and Duke break out with? Yep. “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Hearing the song again for the first time in many years got me thinking about all the martyrs undoubtedly suffering some major PTSD in heaven right now.
Just imagine: you’re a Sabbath-keeping outlaw hanging out in your cave—it’s not much to speak of but you’ve made it cozy with a knitted-yarn rug and a few silk azaleas that you got on clearance at The Home Depot. You’re minding your own business, painting giraffes on the walls or wildebeests on the ceiling, when suddenly you’re being knocked in the head with this canister of tear gas that just flew through the cave door. Well, shit, you think. I knew I should have gotten something sturdier than mosquito netting and God’s love to cover that opening. But let’s be honest; you needed the fresh air because you have no running water and your aversion to carcinogens prevents you from using aluminum-based deodorant.
You scramble out on hands and knees, all animal-stink and feral, all gnashing teeth and wolf-man hair. You’re coughing and puking your gourmet breakfast of wild rabbit entrails and quail eggs into the dust. You lift your head, look through burning eyes into the faces of your persecutors—a band of Sunday-worshipping warriors led by a ripped and sneering Joel Osteen. He’s even hotter in real life, all sweat-glistened muscle bulging through camo pants and a sash of bullets. His pecs dance and his thighs throb as he angles toward you, as he motions to his men and aims his weaponry. He wafts sex and violence.
Under other circumstances you and Joel might have been friends. After all, you think, he’s not even a real pastor, just a wildly popular self-help guru; perhaps you could have been the secret gay boy-toy sex scandal who would one day surface to destroy his career. But the National Sunday Law changed everything, brought war right here to American soil—Joel is just doing what he must to survive. You both know why Joel has arrived at your cave this morning, and so you lock his gaze in yours and start singing—all defiant like—“Onward, Christian Soldiers, marching as to war…”
Your words ring loud and true in the fresh mountain air, as if your song is a warning meant to echo from the hills and dales. You can kill my earthly body, hot Joel, but you’ll never kill my holy spirit! It’s all so wonderfully cinematic, and it’s right about here that some camo-clad beefcake takes his M-16 and pops a few dozen rounds right through your open mouth. The nerve of these dicks! You haven’t even reached the refrain! You’d like to cry out with something harrowing and melodramatic just like Jesus did—Why hast thou forsaken me?—but you don’t have much of a face anymore, so instead you just crash to the dirt where you’ll make a nice meal for a coyote come evening.
When you wake up dead in the trauma ward of West Heaven General Hospital, you’re surprised to find John the Baptist lounging in the chair beside your bed. He’s holding his head under his arm and leafing through the latest edition of Marie Claire. When he sees you stirring he leaves his magazine, puts his noggin between both hands and nods it toward you, a knowing and sympathetic sort of nod. He says—his accent high-pitched and British—he goes, “There, there, brave soldier. Everything’s all right now.” You’re surprised by John’s use of the Queen’s English, but he is an ethnic historical figure and you are a movie-loving American, so it seems to fit. He sets his head on the rolling table and holds a mirror up so you can see the damage Joel and his minions inflicted upon your face. John says, “It’s best to get this part over with straight away. Don’t despair, govna; the look suits you.”
Don’t despair! Don’t despair! “But John the Baptist,” you wail, “the top of my head is hanging by a flap under my ear!” Gristle and brain flop about as you turn your neck; bits of bone fragment crunch together; blood and pus ooze down your chin. John says, “We have a support group, lad… meets every Tuesday after American Idol.”
You’re the snack person today at Martyrs of the Cross Support Group. You considered Goldfish Crackers and juice boxes, but you really wanted to outdo St. Agatha and her fake tits—last week she brought those eco-friendly new applesauce pouches from Trader Joe’s, the show off—so you settle upon a variety bucket from KFC, practically a meal. Besides, you think, St. Valentine is allergic to gluten, and with this new grilled chicken KFC’s peddling, you’re sure to be the hero among heroes. Take that, Agatha!
So after calling in your Idol vote, you show up to the basement room under the health and wellness clinic on Milk & Honey Way, bucket of chicken under your arm. You try not to look with your dangling eye at the poster of the baby orangutan on the wall, the poster that always leaves the taste of bullshit in what’s left of your mouth. The little ape’s swinging from a vine above the slogan: “Hang in There!” Easy for him to say; he still has a face.
Valentine takes one glance at the crispy chicken and crosses his arms over his chest, pulls his eyebrows together in a scowl. You say, “Dude, it’s cool. Look, I got you a grilled breast piece and a corn-on-the-cob.”
In an instant Valentine’s expression has changed. He’s punching you in the shoulder, slapping you on the ass and going, “I knew there was a reason I loved you.” This doesn’t mean much from Valentine. The man loves anything on two legs—women, men, the occasional dancing bear—and though he swears up and down he’s clean, you’re almost certain it was he who was responsible for the recent outbreak of Chlamydia that swept through the Garden of Gethsemane Club last April.
Valentine grabs his snack and you take your seats on a couple of folding chairs in the friendship circle, pass the bucket around. John the Baptist lights the friendship flame and the meeting begins. Everyone’s gnawing on their extra crispy or original recipe, sharing the triumphs and failures of the mortally mutilated and playing their parts as gallant victims to a tee, when Joan of Arc walks in. St. Bartholomew, who’s stitched himself up like Leatherface, screams, “Oh shit, guys! Hide the chicken!”
But it’s too late. Joan’s seen everyone slopping down the crunchy skin, the baked flesh. Licking fingers, sucking on bone. And with a great intake of breath her scorched face crumples into a sobbing mess. She throws up her hands, all dramatic like, and lets them flail as she runs for the restroom. She locks herself inside. Valentine nudges your ribs and whispers, “Good one, dude.”
Everyone makes awkward faces and shrugging motions. This was your fault and none of them are willing to jump to their feet to rescue you. You sigh, stand and stride to the restroom door, knock softly. “Uh, Joan. Joan, honey. Are you all right in there?” You turn to Valentine and grimace, spread your hands. He whispers, “The orderlies at the hospital used to call her ‘Extra Crispy.’” Joan’s sobs drift from under the door; they sound snotty and laced with centuries of pain, they rack deep with memories of her time in West Heaven General’s burn ward. You go, “Joan… can I come in?”
“Just leave me alone!”
“Oh, God—I mean, gosh—I’m sorry, Joan. I didn’t realize how sensitive you were, you know… about cooked stuff.”
Two silent seconds pass and then Joan says—her words loud enough for all to hear— “I… I never told you guys this… but… but when they burned me at the stake…” Sniffle, sniffle. “The flames… well, the heat was… my… they had to amputate my vagina. My fucking vagina!” And she’s sobbing with abandon once again.
Everyone’s looking at each other like a polka-dotted zebra just walked in the room. Gasps and murmurs from the group. “Is that even possible?” “The poor dear.” “Jesus, Mary and Joseph bangin’ nails!”
Valentine goes, “So I guess this means no smores on our wilderness retreat?” And from behind the bathroom door, Joan screams, “Fuck off, genital wart!” Sobbing, sobbing.
John the Baptist is so pissed he leaps from his chair, throws his own head to the concrete floor like Moses when he fumbled the Ten Commandments. A sickening crack, a groan of pain, and the head rolls bowling-ball style until it hits the wall. John’s head growls, “This is supposed to be a martyr safe space, Valentine; you know that! And now I’ve got another fucking skull fracture. Son-of-a-bitch-dumb-bastard-mother… Christ-on-a-cross. Oh, bollocks.”
James of Zebedee—who’s got his noggin duct taped in place—concurs, “Dick move, bro.”
John storms to the wall to retrieve his head. He blows out the friendship flame. His voice weary, “Let’s call it a night, guys; give Joan a little space.”
The walking maimed file up the basement stairs, dragging their severed limbs and memories of dignity behind them. You rest your back against the restroom door, slide down until your butt hits the concrete. You sigh, say, “Look, Joan… I… I know how rough it is for you. I mean, look at me; I’ve got, like, half a head.” Silence for a moment. “Joan?”
A rustling. The door opens and Joan emerges. She wipes her empty eye sockets and seats herself beside you; she smells of musk and campfire embers. She takes your hand in her mummified fingers—skin like caramelized amber. Her touch doesn’t repulse you quite as much as you imagined it would. She says, “They don’t care about us, all the other righteous.” A pause. “Sure, when you first arrive there’s an awkward award ceremony. Everyone shows up to watch the big war hero collect a plaque and a purple halo.” She sloughs a few flakes of fire-roasted skin from her arm.
You nod, chuckle. “Yeah, my plaque said ‘In Appreciation of His Martyrdom at the Hands of God’s Followers.’ Can you beat that?”
She shakes her head. “I know, right? But even as you’re limping from the stage, the angels and Jesus, all the faithful who still have their genitals, they’re already turning away.” She turns to arrest you in her gaze, her empty sockets like black pits of tar; for a moment you imagine her at the stake, her eyeballs bursting with a boiling squirt as the inferno licks her cheeks raw. “They don’t want to see us. Our brand of heroism is only romantic on TV and in the movies. No one wants to sit down to a green bean casserole with this.” She waves her hands over her flambéed crust of skin; she looks a lot like a lasagna. “We’re the pride of heaven until we’re walking down its streets. The invisible warriors of Christ. That’s our cross to bear, I guess. To be revered in name, recoiled from in eternal life. Some days I just can’t stand it, you know? I just… I just want to be seen, that’s all.”
“Yeah, I get that. The other day I was walking down Of Gold Street and The Great I Am himself actually dived behind a cloud to avoid me. Kinda makes you wonder what the point was, doesn’t it?” You feel the trace of a smile on your remaining lip as you remember the better times, before the National Sunday Law. “I mean, I could have been Charlie Sheen’s replacement on Two and a Half Men—Ashton Kutcher was their second choice, you know—but instead I opted for cave life and got my face shot off.”
“Yeah,” Joan says. “I could have been an award-winning prostitute like my best girlfriends Betty of Crocker and Crystal of Light, but I was too dumb to ignore the voices, so here I am, Joan of Arc, patron idiot of France.”
The two of you sit in silent companionship for a few moments, and then you give Joan’s knee a little slap. “You know what we need?”
She looks at you with a face that says, New faces?
“Baskin-Robbins! Everything feels a little better with Jamoca Almond Fudge; don’t you think?” She doesn’t have any lips, but you’re sure Joan is smiling behind the ancient ruins of her teeth. And then you say, “Joan… I… I know what they used to call you. I’m so sorry about the chicken.” You rub the back of your neck with your hand. “But when I look at you, I don’t see ‘Extra Crispy.’ I see… I see an ‘Original Recipe.’”
You walk up the stairs together, arm in arm. The passersby on Milk & Honey Way lift their collars, pull down on their caps and try to avert their eyes as you skip by on your way to Baskin-Robbins, but here as martyrs hand in hand, you find that you and Joan have become something bigger, something stronger, a creature of substance impossible to look past. And each time another of God’s children crosses your path, Joan slows from your skip, reaches out her atrophied arm and says, “Hi there, friend. My name is Joan of Arc, and I laid down my life for Jesus.”
Remember me in your prayers or curses,