It had been, for several years, a nagging problem; a high-pitched ringing in my ears that never seemed to stop. I attributed it to the barrage of noises I’m subjected to every day–squealing trolley wheels, urban traffic–or maybe to my misspent youth as keyboard man for crappy teen bands such as Otis & the Elevator Company, playing a red and black Farfisa Combo Compact organ.
“Hold on–I’m comin’!”
Whatever the cause, I made the mistake of telling my wife. “I think you should ask your doctor about it,” she said. When I noticed that the sound didn’t go away even on the quietest of weekends in the woods, I decided she was right.
“It’s probably just some nerve damage,” my doctor said. “Did you ever work in printing?”
As a matter of fact, I had. “I was a member in good standing of Graphic Arts Local 300, Revere, Massachusetts for three years,” I told him.
His face clouded over, and he examined my ear with an implement. “That could be a problem,” he said.
“You know William Blake?”
“The wacked-out poet who sought to break the chains of rationality? ‘Tyger, tyger, burning bright’ and all that jazz?”
“That’s him. He was an engraver, and he had hallucinations. They think it had something to do with the chemicals he used.”
“But I was a phototypesetter.”
“I don’t think it matters.”
I was still skeptical. “So what kind of hallucinations?”
“An angel appeared to him in a hayfield,” he explained. “Do you . . . have any hayfields near your house?”
“I drive past one every Saturday on the way to the town dump,” I said. I didn’t like the dots he was trying to connect.
He gave me a dubious look. “Do you . . . write poetry?” he asked.
“Well, I think I do but the editors of numerous publications–both literary and general circulation–apparently disagree.”
“Ok, so you’re a poet, an ex-printer, and you drive past hayfields. That’s three telltale symptoms.”
“So you’re saying I’m going crazy?”
“Not until you start talking to them, like Blake did. He used to have friendly one-on-one mano a angelo conversations with the angel Gabriel.”
I was stunned, and my face must have showed it.
“You’re probably fine for now,” he said, trying to reassure me. “But let me know if it gets worse.”
I left his office disquieted, wondering whether I was losing it. Blake was a commercial failure, always mumbling to himself. When asked by a lady where he saw his visions, he tapped his forehead and said “Here, madam.” I didn’t want to end up like that.
That night, after a few glasses of red wine by the fireside, I forgot my concerns and eventually went to bed. This morning I woke up refreshed and set off on my Saturday routine; half-mile swim, cup of coffee, take the trash to the dump, dry cleaners, etc.
I was heading past the hayfield to the dump when I noticed the ringing in my ears again; and then, beside me–an angel, fiddling with the seat belt.
“How does this thing work?” he said with frustration.
His wings made it unlikely that he’d fit into the standard front-seat safety device. “Can you do something with your wings, like fold them down or in?” I asked.
He gave me the look of a sullen teenager–I know that one well–then caused his wings to cling closely to his torso, like a pigeon in the rain. “Like this?” he said.
“Let me help,” said a voice from the back seat–a second angel. I could feel the hairs standing up on the back of my neck.
“Listen–I’m going to the town dump,” I said. “This is a very small town, and people talk, okay?”
“We’re discreet,” said the one riding shotgun as he clicked his belt.
“Mum’s the word,” said the one in the back, as he fooled with his.
“Just get out of the car, look straight ahead, don’t talk to anybody and I’ll tell you where the stuff goes, okay?”
“Not . . . a . . . problem,” the one in the front seat said, a trifle defensively.
Actual, unretouched photo of Jesus debris at town dump.
We drove into the dump and the angels were on the best–or at least good–behavior at first.
“The newspapers and magazines go in there,” I told one as he hauled our wicker basket into a room with a chute down to a dumpster. “Plastics and cardboard over there,” I told the other.
They were minding their own business when a young dad, probably new to town, hoisted his kid up on the ledge, the better to allow the toddler to throw stuff down the holes. You’re not supposed to do it, but everybody does.
“Excuse me,” back-seat angel said. “For safety sake, you really shouldn’t let him up there.”
The father turned around with a look that said who’s-gonna-make-me. Probably a venture capitalist, I thought to myself. Thinks he’s the smartest guy in every room he enters.
“He’s just . . .” the dad began, then he saw what he was up against. A 6’4″ supernatural being, with a foreboding manner and a wingspan like a California condor.
“Uh, you’re right,” the dad said after the angel gave him a grim little smile. “Come on Tyler–you’re not allowed up there.”
The angel gave him a nod, and came back to the car where we were finishing up.
“Don’t cause trouble, okay?” I whispered to him through gritted teeth.
“Hey–I’m like an off-duty cop, okay? If I see a problem, I intervene.”
“Just get in the car, would you?”
We headed back into town and I pulled into the dry cleaners. “Do you guys have anything to pick up?” I asked my new “friends.”
“Nope–dry cleaning’s not a problem for us,” the shotgun angel said. “We put Scotchguard on these things.”
They had on those long robes that the members of the mass choir on the Bobby Jones Gospel Hour wear.
“What is that, nylon?” I asked.
“Yeah–you humans are too hung up on natural fibers,” the one in the back said.
“I find cotton/poly blend shirts get dirty at the collar and the cuffs,” I said.
“Use a little Wisk liquid detergent on tough, hard-to-get-out grime like that before you wash,” the one in the front said.
I got my shirts and came back out. “You guys want a cup of coffee?” I asked, more out of politeness than genuine sentiment. I actually didn’t want them to come into the bagel place with me.
“We’re angels, so we don’t have to eat,” the one in the back said. “But we’ll come in with you.” Great.
We went inside and I got in line, while the angels grabbed a table. I got my coffee and sat down with them, drawing stares from my fellow exurbanites.
“Coffee’s a diuretic, you know,” one of them said as he watched me take a sip. “What’s the point of buying something you’re just going to pee out in a half hour?”
“It’s the experience,” I said. “The flavor, the caffeine–that stays with you.”
“Still, my guess is you’ll have to hit the head before we get out on the road again.”
“So does everybody,” I said.
“Ding-dong, you’re wrong,” the other said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We’re angels–we don’t go to the bathroom.”
The Vatican: You can tell the Pope’s human because he has his own bathroom.
I hadn’t thought of that, but I remembered the story about an architect who submitted a design for a Catholic church to the Vatican but forgot to put in bathrooms. It came back with a cryptic marginal note: “They aren’t angels.”
“Well, I’ve learned a lot hanging with you guys today,” I said as I opened up my Boston Herald and turned to the sports page. “”Big game tomorrow,” I said. “Patriots against the Redskins. Who do you like?”
“What’s the line?” the one from the front seat asked. The Herald, unlike the Globe, candidly recognizes that some tacky people actually bet on football, and prints the point spreads.
“Pats by fourteen,” I said. “You want to . . . make a friendly little wager?”
“Yeah,” he said, looking thoughtfully off into space. “I’ll do better than that. I’ll take New England by twenty.”
I looked at him skeptically, and was about to say “You’re on,” when the other one stopped me.
“Don’t do it,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Don’t ever–ever–bet against a supernatural being.”
Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Boston Baroques.”