Volume 28, Number 4

Interview with a Deity

Steve Borst

Most mornings, on the way to work, I would drive up to the speaker at the Latin Café and order a café con leche with a guava and cheese pastry. And each time, a melodic voice would answer “That’s gonna be $4.13, OK?” or “Your total is $4.13. Please drive up to the window.” One day it might be Alexandra from Venezuela with freckles across the bridge of her nose and a snaggle-toothed smile. The next it might be Maria from New York with her very serious look.

Just past the speaker stood a length of white PVC pipe, embedded in the pavement for no apparent purpose, and one day I noticed a sticker on it, about 3 by 4 inches. Maybe it was new or maybe I had just never noticed it before. On that sticker was depicted some kind of exotic deity, a figure both lurid and repellent. I studied it a little as I passed each day. One day I realized that the sticker was meant for me, and I decided to peel it off. The thought was exciting, but also presented a small problem. The PVC pipe was set back a little. It looked hard to reach, and I could not take too much time before driving up to the window because there was a line of cars behind me. I edged in close to the speaker stand and to my surprise, my side view mirror folded back, allowing me to pass closer to the pipe. To my further surprise, the sticker came off easily, and soon I had it on the seat beside me. At the window, Dolores from Ecuador handed me my order. She smiled and flipped her black hair off of her forehead. The first sip did not disappoint. It always reminds me of how I will never enjoy any other kind of coffee so much again, and the first bite is always delicious too; a perfect combination.

First chance, I pulled over to examine the sticker. The god stood before me in a slight crouch, menacing. On top of his head was something like a crown roast, a war bonnet of sawed bones tied together with the cooked meat retracted and clinging to them. His outsized face had abnormally coarse features and was framed on either side in ornate and tarnished brass. His beard contained two cobras, his tongue hung clear to his sternum. But here is the disturbing part, one which took me a little while to notice. There were two large breasts, deflated and pointing toward the ground with the nipples reaching almost to the top of his loincloth. And yet the face was that of a man, the shoulders were broad and the limbs powerful. I felt both thrilled and at the same time slightly nauseated taking in this repellant combination of attributes. One last detail about the deity: he (or she) was standing suspended in space just above the open mouth of a manhole. Obviously, someone you don’t want to provoke. For a while the deity stayed in my wallet, right next to the sticker of reggae skeletons titled “Rise and Shine.”

This was a dark time for me, a time of long shadows. At work, a guy was trying to get me fired while smiling to my face. We had two small children at home and were barely covering the bills. I kept feeling the urge to retrieve my unsent letters from the out box because I could not be absolutely certain I had not said something terribly hostile. Each morning of that mild winter, the sun tried to pull itself up and peer in over the ring of mountains surrounding our city, but was never quite strong enough to do so.

Over the next days, I searched the Internet, but nowhere could I find the deity from the sticker. The phrase “om-tat-sat” was printed beside him and clearly identified him as Hindi. But that’s as far as I could get. There were dozens of Hindi gods on Google, but none that looked like him. And so I forgot about him, and he sat in my wallet for a long time. Then I saw him again at a music festival, tattooed on a woman’s back. I couldn’t be absolutely sure because she was far way, and at times the image was hidden by her swaying hair. I tried to catch up with her but she disappeared into the crowd.

So, it appeared the god was trying to surface through me, and that is no easy trick for someone who does not actually exist. He was persistent; he had contacted me twice. But he was also coy and apparently wanted me to do some homework. I’d already searched the Internet. What other clues did I have? I had the number 413. My coffee and pastry cost $4.13. Back on the day when I had taken the sticker, Dolores had asked me to repeat my order. I probably hadn’t been clear. I couldn’t concentrate because the radio in the car behind was blaring. I heard a rich, deep voice intone, “Well you know he’s a farmer, and he’d sure like to fertilize you. But he’s got good family values; he’s a small-town country man.” When she repeated “Your order comes to $4.13”, she appeared to emphasize that number, to hang on it in a tempting way. I liked the way she pronounced it: four thair-teen.

I tried sitting cross-legged and reciting om-tat-sat 413 times until the phrase appeared meaningless and stuck in my mouth like peanut butter. Nothing happened except my jaw hurt a little. I tied a few tricks with numerology. I had been reading the Curriculum Vitae, so I turned to the four hundred and thirteenth turning of the wheel and read aloud.

Behold the cruelty of the material world! How it whispers to us without ceasing “you are nothing but a series of accidents, of DNA base pairs.” Achos, with your beard of serpents… Achos, pull back the veil! Achos, paint the finality of action! Like the galaxies above us, the atom too is mostly space and even its protons and electrons; they too are also mostly space. Where is there substance after all? It is only an empty promise that runs and hides. Just as our God of Light is also a God of rumor and allegation whose glory we see streaming from gold-rimmed clouds, but who shows us briefly just the hem of his robe and then disappears within himself. Collapsing reality goes out like a cinder, leaving only the void. What fear is greater than that of the heartless void?

As I finished reading, the room began to darken by degrees, and a field of stars was spread before me. They hung in the air shimmering. And as they dissipated, Achos himself stood before me, suspended about a foot above the floor. Beneath him was the same black hole that was shown on the sticker, about the size of manhole. That was it—the void—at once tantalizing and repellent. I moved closer and peered down inside. On impulse, I took a handful of change from the dresser top and flung it down into the void. I heard not a sound, no clinking, and for all I know those coins are still falling.

Then the god spoke. “Whoa! I just flew in from thirteenth-century Transylvania.” he offered, straightening an imaginary tie. “And boy, are my arms tired! Hey! How about a rim shot to go with that. And while you’re at it, can I get a refill on this gin and tonic? And this time, try putting a little booze in it. But seriously, thanks for summoning me, man. No, I guess ‘man’ will never do as a form of address. This is the year 2017, is it not? So let’s get with the program, people. The word ‘man’ now has a meaning that is entirely different meaning than when it was used by the English as a forthright form of address. Now it means something like ‘dear fellow hipster,’ perhaps. And I can’t say dude. Modern enough, but I’m afraid you are too old for that. Excuse me. How about friend? Thank you kindly for summoning me, friend, let’s make that dear friend. There you have it.

“You know I get out so rarely these days. That is the trouble with being a so-called minor god.” he complained, making the quotes sign on either side of his head. “I get less respect than a door-to-door salesman, though those I think those types have been absent from your culture for a few decades. Have you noticed? There is not one site on the Internet that lists me among the countless Hindi deities. Not one. But enough about my troubles.”

“So you are Hindi! The inscription Om Tat Sat below your picture made me think so, but I couldn’t find you on the Internet.”

“Tell me about it! Yes, I am Hindi, in a way. I am so many things: god, life coach, comedian, anagram. Of course, I was around for a great longtime before they noticed me.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m as old as the first time someone looked up into the night sky and felt insignificant. You humans are such small and temporary beings in a universe that is infinite and eternal. There are certain problems associated with that, which some among you try to address through religion. I, on the other hand, am immortal, but still small and that presents a somewhat different set of problems, which I won’t trouble you with. But I would like to emphasize one thing. Even if you do succeed in achieving some degree of temporary notoriety in one small corner of the universe, you cannot write your initials in the Milky Way. No one can do that. I have one other piece of advice for you. Be here fully in the present, instead of having one foot in the womb and the other in the next world, like a lot of people do.

“And, oh yes, by the way, I’d like to clear something up. It is true that I am the god of chaos, as you must have figured out. But I don’t create chaos. That is Kali’s job. I think you know her; she is very famous. You have seen her with the blue face and glowing red tongue. She goes out about town with anywhere from two to ten arms depending on her moods. She has been challenged for popularity only recently by this newcomer, this Mexican Santa Muerta that I’m also sure you have heard all about. That one is not a god at all, but a fictional saint, the representation of our approaching death. Even so, she is more like me than she is like Kali. It is Kali who scorches the Earth. Santa Muerta just walks in the ashes, fingering her rosary of skulls. But what they have in common is that each has an army of artists promoting her. Look at Google Images. Each one has page after page.

“I’m planning to get a new promotor. The one I have now, Bernie, isn’t worth a shit, to use the current vernacular. He sits all day and all night in his South Miami Beach condo eating egg-salad sandwiches with the crusts cut off and surfing the Internet for porn. But getting back to Kali; OK, she has a few publicity stunts that have captured the public imagination. She is often seen in public, drunk on the blood of her victims. And it is said that when she lets out a bored yawn, she can easily breathe the whole earth in and out of her slimy lungs. But what am I, chopped liver? Hey! I’m bigtime. I invented the electric prayer wheel. And what I have to offer to mankind should be so much more appealing. I have never destroyed anything. I simply reveal the chaos that already exists. That is a pure benefit for mankind. This is the point, my friend. This is exactly the point. And yet what is always the case with you foolish humans? You intend only to support only your own selfish interest, yet you don’t know where that interest lies. Present company excluded, no offense intended.

“And still, look who is popular and who is not. Again, let me ask you a simple question. Who is better? The doctor who diagnoses a case of poisoning or the poisoner? I think the answer is fairly obvious, and yet the popularity and of Kali persists. This seriously pisses me off. I do indeed hope that you are not this kind of person to be attracted to shiny objects in this manner.

“Specifically, what I reveal is inner chaos. Everyone knows about the outer chaos, the war, famine, slavery, witch hunts and all the various permutations of natural disaster and injustice. But the inner chaos, the hidden chaos, is a bit harder to accept. The fact that it is unpleasant goes without saying. If it wasn’t so, it wouldn’t be hidden in the first place. Again, what I do is for the benefit of humans. Benefit, I say. What is the benefit of seeing chaos? Why it teaches us, specifically it teaches you, to cherish order when you have the chance. This is the same principle by which in the same way that life has no meaning without the certainty of death. By the way, you may thank your God, the one with the white beard and robe, that you are not immortal. It gives me a headache to say the least.”

At this point, I had to cut in. “It seems obvious to me why Kali is so popular. She gives the people murder and disaster and always these things apply to someone else. The people want entertainment; they don’t want your highbrow…”

“Hey, Buddy! I’m a god. Do you think you can tell me something I don’t know? And by the way, who is it, specifically, who would prefer a secret enlightenment to mere entertainment?”

“I guess that would be me.”

“Give the man a cigar.”

“OK, I get it. So why did you choose to appear to me?”

“I reveal chaos to just the few who are already interested in such things.”

“Actually, I already knew that. I guess I’m ready when you are.”

Achos asked for a glass of water, and when I returned with it, he dropped a brass key into it and I watched it dissolve. I held the glass full of bight metal flakes up to the light and watched it shimmer. Without having to be asked, I drank it down quickly. Suddenly, I was filled with light. The light was pouring out of my eyes, and I could see into the darkest corners.

Suddenly, Achos tapped his watch. “Hey, man! Will you look at the time? I’ve got a 10:30. I’ve got to scoot. Toodles!”

Then as he began to fade, I received from his disappearing hand a red plastic View Master stereoscope. I had one just like it when I was a kid, and I would sit for hours looking at 3-D scenes from Pinocchio, Yellowstone National Park and the Flintstones. There was a reel of transparencies already in the View Master that Achos left me and over the next days I began to explore them.

The first slide took me to a neurologist’s waiting room. My entry was seamless. I turned around and saw that the door by which I had just entered was now gone. There was no way out. I didn’t panic. I took a moment to study the room which was plain and dreary and looked like something straight out of the early 1960s. I couldn’t imagine they used computers or even took credit cards.

“Have a seat, douchebag.” The rough voice startled me. The only other person in the room was a kindly seeming old man, who was reading a magazine.

I tried to salvage the situation. “Thanks, I usually go by my first name, which is ‘I’m no.’”

The man looked up at me. He seemed befuddled and a genuinely concerned. “Good morning. Carl Evans here.” He stuck out his hand. He certainly did not look capable of saying what I heard him say.

As I studied him a little, he started in again. “Stop staring at me, you ugly bastard. I know you’re here because there’s something wrong with your brain.”

My first thought was that he had Pick’s disease, a type of dementia that renders people unable to prevent themselves from voicing their hostile unconscious thoughts. But then I was confused because the man’s lips did not appear to move. So, I said nothing and watched him reading intently as if nothing had happened.

I stuck around for a couple more insults. “I can smell your socks, buddy.” “Hey, don’t be surprised if the doctor decides to euthanize you.” And now I was sure. His lips had never moved.

A door opened and the nurse called “Mr. Evans.” I set the View Master down, and the room began to spin. This man was completely normal. Achos had merely let me hear his inner voice.

The next slide showed me many versions of the night I was conceived. In one, my dad had stopped on the way home from work to swim the length of the beach at Greenwich Point as he did many summer evenings. In another, after swimming, he stopped at the salt pond to view the eagle statue, green and tall and tarnished, standing on the small island at its center. In a third version, he drove straight home from work. Then it was time for dinner. Out came the set of dimpled aluminum tumblers, in the purest blues and pinks and purple. Iced tea was served and soon there were beads of condensation running down the colds sides. One night there was a spill and a fit of anger that delayed things while he went off to listen to the radio. On another, there was a phone call from neighbors. The dice were rolled countless times, seen and unseen. And with each pass, a different conception occurred. Only one produced the little boy who was so introverted that the adults all talked about him. Sometimes he had red hair, sometimes brown. Sometimes he was extroverted and athletic. I saw several versions of what the boy saw. His young mother was sitting on a chair in the garage crying. “The four of you are driving me crazy. I should never have had you.” His big sister was trying to comfort her.

What I saw in the View Master was not limited to the seven pairs of transparencies on the wheel that came with it. Achos had seen to that. One slide took me to a comic book store in a run-down strip mall where the old man who ran it offered unlimited reels of transparencies. I could have stayed inside the void forever, but I did so for about a month of evenings. And slowly, I became satisfied. Having plumbed the depth of that ocean, I didn’t need to map every square inch of its floor. And I never did see Achos again, except inside the View Master.