Dante, Part 3

You’ve all been heroically patient, so now I will tell you how it ends.

When I got back to California, I put off calling Austin (that being the name of Dante’s son) for a long time. I didn’t know what to say, or who I would be saying it to. Dante had specifically instructed me to talk to Austin, and not Austin’s mother. God had apparently not forgiven the woman yet.

Finally I did call. And who picks up the phone? Austin’s mother. Of course, Dante left his family behind when Austin was only four years old. There was no way Austin had his own phone back then. So I told her who I was, and why I was calling. I described Dante, and told her exactly how he was doing. She was sad, but not surprised. She’d seen him a few years before, after his time in Mexico, and the man she saw then was very similar to the one I was describing, but nothing at all like the man she’d married.

He’d been cleanshaven once (He was, after all, a hairdresser by trade). Now he sported the kind of beard only prophets can get away with. And something that had once been in his eyes was gone. When they met, he had been joyful. By the time he left, he was confiscating Austin’s underoos and mutilating them with scissors because the cartoon characters on them constituted idol worship. She told me she respected his faith, but she also pitied him, was afraid for him and of him.

I told her I wanted to speak to Austin. She put him on the phone, though she was doubtful that he’d want to talk to me.

“What do you want.” said a sullen teenaged voice.
“I’m calling because your dad wanted me to call you.”
“Okay.”
“He wanted me to tell you how he’s doing.”
“Okay.”
“How are you doing?”
“Look, I don’t want to talk to you, okay? He left.”
And that was the end of the conversation.

His mom got back on the phone. She said Austin was still pretty mad at Dante, which I could have guessed. But she also suggested we have lunch some time, her and me and Austin, to talk a little more. I agreed.

Three months later, my spiritual journey across Spain finally culminated at a Chili’s in Orange County. I had discovered Taoism during my pilgrimage (a little ironic, since it’s ostensibly a Catholic pilgrimage) and I had a nice hardcover copy of the Tao Te Ching that I wanted to give to Austin. Unfortunately I hadn’t been able to find it before leaving for Orange County, so I came bearing nothing.

I arrived at the Chili’s a few minutes early, and sat in the parking lot, reading the first few chapters of A Farewell to Arms (which, if you haven’t read it, is a beautiful little book about the absurdities of war.) Soon the two of them arrived, and we went in together. Austin didn’t talk much, and his Mom mainly asked me questions about my life – what I’d been doing (traveling), what I planned to do (go to grad school for writing). We talked a little about Dante, but nobody learned anything they hadn’t known before. Finally I asked Austin what his future plans were.

“I’m planning to join the Army,” he said.
“Oh?” I said, “Why?”
He shrugged. “It’s something to do.”

The conversation went on, but I was only half listening. It occurred to me that perhaps I hadn’t been able to find the Tao Te Ching for a reason, that perhaps there was a reason for every part of this meeting – Dante in Spain, this Chili’s, the things I just happened to bring with me…

We finished eating, and Austin’s mother paid for all of us. As we prepared to leave, I turned to Austin.

“Hey,” I said, “Your dad told me to get in touch with you, but I’m not here because of him. I’m here to meet you, because I feel like I was supposed to meet you. And I wanted to give you something, from me.” I handed him my copy of A Farewell to Arms. “I think you should read this. It’s a really good book about war.”

He nodded his thanks. We said our goodbyes, and I left. To this day, I still haven’t finished A Farewell to Arms. I haven’t heard from Austin or his mother, either. I don’t know how the story ends. But I was part of the middle, and isn’t that where all the interesting stuff happens?

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Dante, Part 2

Yes yes I know, the Satyricon is unfinished yet. But in my benevolence I could not bear to keep you in suspense about Dante. So let’s see … where was I?

Dante was a deeply strange person. What I mean is, Dante was a deeply religious person, but his religion was something he had custom made. I suppose everyone is an adherent to their own custom made religion, to a greater or lesser degree, but in my experience most people’s religions do not prevent them from eating in the morning until god personally assures them it’s okay. Sometimes he would fast for days. And there were other things.

His religion seemed to be a mix of all the harshest regulations from the old and new testaments. “Soy Judeochristiano,” he would say to our Spanish companions in his exaggerated Californian accent. His religion prohibited the eating of pretty much everything we put in front of him – fish, salad, pork obviously … the only things I ever saw him eat were bread, beans, and honey. He would not walk the Camino on the Sabbath day, much to the chagrin of the innkeepers, who insisted pilgrims only stay at their hostels for one night. The bulk of his luggage was taken up by a bulky harp he’d acquired in Mexico, which he played improvisationally because of a deep feeling of kinship with some biblical prophet.

When I first called out his name, he stopped dead in front of my bunk. He didn’t move from that spot for the next twenty minutes, as I asked him questions about himself and he answered. Most of the people on the Camino de Santiago are doing the pilgrimage as a kind of vacation, walking for a month or two before going back to their real lives and their real jobs. But Dante was a pilgrim for life. He’d been on a pilgrimage for ten years, by his reckoning, and he fished a battered datebook out of his backpack to show me his route.

On the little world map that sometimes comes printed inside the front cover of those sorts of books, he’d traced a serpentine route in red pen. From California to Mexico, and around Mexico for many years, living with what he called his “Spiritual family.” Then across the United States, where he performed miracles of healing. From there he went to Israel, and from Israel to London, where he fell in with a band of travelers calling themselves the Twelve Tribes of Israel. He escaped their group when he discovered that they were not truly the Twelve Tribes, and by then he was in Spain.

Dante had always been a Christian, but his religion had not always been so strict. Over dinner he explained how he had been brought up in a reprehensibly lax sect, whose adherents danced and drank and flirted with each other. He’d fathered a child with one of the other members by accident. And he’d stuck around to raise that child for six years, though, as he explained, his wife was using their son to manipulate him.

But God came to Dante’s rescue. He spoke to Dante, and told him to leave his wife and child. And what kind of person ignores the voice of god? Dante left, seeking work as an itinerant hairdresser (which was how he learned to sharpen knives), and fell into a deep depression. One night, in his shabby apartment, he cried out to God for aid, and God came.

“I remember looking at the moon,” he told me, “And then God spoke to me in a clear quiet voice. He said, ‘Go to your bible.’ And I was filled with energy, so much that I didn’t need to blink. So I went to my bible and opened it. And the bible opened to a description of a prophet having the exact experience I was having at that moment. So I read, and kept reading, and every passage I read I understood in a way I never had before. I fell sleep, and dreamed. No, I didn’t dream. It had a different quality to it. It was a vision. I simply woke up – in the vision – in a bed in a room I’d never seen before. Over the bed was a painting of a rose. I got up and went to the window. Then I woke up. Two weeks later a friend of mine offered me a room in her house. She showed me inside, and over the bed was that exact painting of that exact rose. I fell to my knees and wept.”

A few months later, God instructed Dante to sell off all his possessions and become a pilgrim. A pilgrim, according to Dante, was someone who was simply walking in order to pass the time til judgement day. So he walked. And walked. He’d walked so long that his body was failing.

He told me he admired my youth and my simplicity, how little I managed to carry with me. And he did what he could to help me. He gave me money when I had none and found me shoes when mine wore out. The last night I spent with him was Christmas eve. We ate dinner together, sort of, and he prayed for fifteen solid minutes, saying over and over again
“God, you are so … good” With as much passion as if he were getting a blowjob from Jesus Christ himself.

I left him in the morning, while he argued with the innkeeper about the Sabbath. But before I left, he wrote down a phone number in my little notebook. It was the phone number of Austin, the child he’d left behind in California ten years ago.

“When you get back home,” he said, “Call my son. Tell him I’m okay.”

And I did. But what happened then is a story for another time.

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Dante, Part 1

Hey guys,

I’m boycotting google this week for no good reason, which means I’m boycotting youtube and basically the entire rest of the internet, so no Satyricon today. Instead, let me tell you about a thing that happened one time:

One time, I walked across Spain.

This is a thing that a lot of people do. There is a trail across Spain called the Camino de Santiago. Actually it is several trails and they run through all of Europe and not just Spain, and much of the trail is taken up by either tourist traps or long stretches of highway that you have to walk on the shoulders of. But for the sake of simplicity, let’s say there’s this trail across Spain, and one winter I walked on it.

Before I spent my months in Europe, I didn’t really think about having an American accent. I knew abstractly that American accents existed, but in my head they were generally just classified as “anything that wasn’t a British accent.” After several months spent forcibly deprived of American English – and oftentimes, English altogether – I began to understand what I was missing. It was like having spent my entire youth in a closet full of my own farts, and then being cast unceremoniously out into a field of wildflowers in the midst of spring. I missed my own farts.

Which is why, after two weeks on the Camino, my ears perked up at news of a fellow Californian on the trail. His name was Dante. People told me he was a religious fanatic, that he argued with inkeepers and made his living by sharpening knives. But, more importantly, he was from California. He spoke with not only an American accent, but a Californian accent. I had to meet him.

Every time I stopped for the night, I asked the innkeepers if they’d seen Dante. They all had, and they were all a bit worried about the fact that I was looking for him. And worse, Dante always seemed to be two days ahead of me. In my desperation for a familiar accent, I embarked on a two-day force march up mountains and through driving rain in an attempt to close the gap.

It was the second day of my death-slog, and I was halfway to where I wanted to be by the end of the day. The rain was so merciless it felt like God had his divine firehose of a dick aimed directly at me. I passed a dry-looking little hostel nestled in the hills and said,

“Fuck it.”

The hostel was not only dry, but warm as well, and all my friends from the trail so far were there. Still, though, it sucked that I was never going to meet Dante.

I was in the sleeping quarters, catching up with a German friend of mine. He had just told me about how he’d had his dick grabbed while sick with stomach flu on the streets of Leon, and I was explaining to him my dilemma with Dante. My story was interrupted by the innkeeper showing a new guest into the room. The innkeeper spoke English with just the slightest trace of a Spanish accent, and I heard him say,

“You’re probably used to better than this, being from California.”

I trailed off mid-sentence and sat up. In walked a dangerously thin, impossibly tall man with very small, very round, very blue eyes, his jaw squared off by six inches of dense grey beard. He looked at me.

“Dante?” I said.

“Yes?” He replied.

“I’ve been looking for you.” I said.

He smiled beatifically and cast his eyes towards the ceiling.

“God knows.” He said.

That was by no means the end of my dealings with Dante, but I don’t want to bore you, so I’ll leave the rest of the story for another time.

To be continued…

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