Pascals Wager

In the dark of an early morning
I fumble the beads awkwardly,
reaching to the nearest and most familiar God,
never sure of the sequence of prayers,
and only obliquely in consequence.
I think more of the old man
I bought these rosaries from,
his staring in contempt at the party officials
politely wishing me good morning
outside the church door.

My roommate, Ren Qi Wei, laughs
when I leave each morning,
and speaks the few words of English he knows:
“Fie Xi Meng, the bed bugs have bite you.”
I laugh too. I’d tell him it’s only a sacrament
that underlies an inner grace —
but I have no idea how to say it.

I always want to continue the ‘Our Father’:
and deliver us O’ Lord from every evil,
and grant us peace in our days,
and in your mercy keep us free from sin
and protect us from all anxiety.
I can still picture John Tortorello—
the unrepentant and unlikely altar-boy—
sticking his finger in the chalice
while Father King held up the bread
thrilled to a pounding heart to know him.

For thine is the kingdom
and the power
and the glory

I look for god in the night sky:
there’s a nervousness I feel
finding and staring towards Orion
like I’m young and staring at a welder:
“You’ll go blind, you’ll go blind.”
Then you find you don’t.

Before sunrise Linda stops by
and we ride our bikes
down the wide flat streets,
in the heavy smell of sulphur —
the daily stoking of small coal stoves.
A song about Mao Ze Dong broadcasts
from tinny speakers, strung
like paper cups throughout the city,
tentacled into every dirt
and clay hot alleyway, stenched
by cabbage and nightsoil.

We stop in a park and buy
a bowl of warm bean whey, richened
with sugar and a doughstick.
I tell her I love the grease
of fried dough. She smiles. I know
she will soon break into talk
I’m not in the mood for.
I kick a soccer ball back to some kids.
They stare awhile and laugh, reciting:
“Thank you, thank you,”
and then charge back behind each other.

I try my own words,
but they only steam
into the cold morning air
and are never heard.

A horde of women
appear suddenly,
sweeping packed dirt —
students bang at each other,
playing ping-pong
on concrete tables,
over bricks laid end to end;
the ‘Lao Ren’, the ‘Old Ones’,
wrapped in heavy quilted blue
slap thighs and chests, and then
hold their arms open, breathing
deeply, slowly.
Little kids squat off the sidewalks.
My voice, trapped in viscera,
is guttural and chokened—

There is no now and forever.

I am a fraud in a foreign land
and haven’t the faintest idea
what grace really is.

  December, 1981

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