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                I grimaced as I scanned the bulletin board, sipping my morning coffee while reading a note that caught my eye. The coffee was cheap and nasty, brown dust swept up from the floor of a factory that had once dreamed of making coffee, but I had made a lot of changes in my life that seriously compromised my physical comfort. The announcement was torn from a spiral notebook, ragged fringes left hanging, each ragged tag individually colored with watercolor. The one line message was surrounded by intricate symbols that had taken hours to draw, with more arcane meaning implied than the actual note contained. It stated simply “Story telling; ten o’clock”. By word of mouth I learned that the location was to be a nearby ruin of a stone house. My inquiries had caused a buzz. The other students considered me an outsider because of my age and because I had spent many years gainfully employed. I was viewed as an outsider, an impostor. The typical student was ten years younger than me and had avoided work in order to perfect the more necessary pursuits of meditation, drum circles, and other-worldliness. One of the students, probably the one organizing the get together, approached me with a stiff and uncomfortable expression on his face. He stood by my desk for a full minute before speaking.
“Wearing a robe is required. Bring a candle.”
I nodded, sensing that he had more to say, but he turned abruptly and left.
I asked around, trying to borrow a robe my size and was amused to discover that I was the only one who did not own a robe. Many of the other men had only one or two changes of clothes but a nice selection of robes. The other students had arrived after passing through a similar series of spiritual disciplines before arriving at the yeshiva with a guitar or drum, a backpack full of robes, candles, esoteric manuals, and one or two changes of underwear. Toothbrushes were an oddity, a luxury that took up too much space in the backpack. I had arrived at the same destination much later in life, following a map that should have ended somewhere else. I was of a different generation and had dabbled in a different set of pop-culture voodoos. My spiritual paraphernalia had long since been lost or left behind, lying by the side of the road next to my innocence and youth. I arrived at the ruins late, wearing a black wool robe that was too tight across the shoulders and too warm for the muggy summer night.  The evening began with a candlelit procession to the spring. I stood reluctantly off to the side, watching as they took turns disappearing into the water, the pool a black circle in the ground, the stars reflected in its surface quivering every time a young man entered the water. Some managed to transcend the icy shock and meditate underwater but most slipped in and out as quickly as possible, shy in their nudity. I swore to myself that I wouldn’t participate in the foolishness but when my turn came, a sudden impulse caused me to laugh out loud. I surprised myself by pulling off the itchy wool robe and jumping in, bellowing as I surfaced. My shout had broken the silence of the starry night and whispered rebuke came at me from all sides as we shuffled towards the crumbling stone house. My antics were out of character with the solemn mood required for the evening. The stone house was abandoned but empty bottles and plastic bags bore witness to the house being used for less holy gatherings by the local teenagers. We sat in a circle, passing around a large goblet of syrupy red wine. The rules had been stated when we arrived. Only the person holding the chalice was permitted to speak. Each of us solemnly sipped from the cup before telling our story while the bottle surreptitiously got passed the other way, as each boy took his turn wincing at the nasty bite of the cheap wine. I tried to listen but the wine made my ears buzz and the mosquitoes had been drawn to the fruity smell. Half of the stories began with “ Once there was a wise and powerful king…” and quickly fell into intricate plots that trailed off, leaving the teller reaching for the bottle as he passed off the goblet in mid-sentence. One boy who had obviously been drinking before we left for the spring began a weepy monologue of first love gone bad and how true love was what we had here and how holy everyone was. The goblet was pulled from his hands and passed along.  A small flask of my favorite whiskey was hidden in a deep pocket of my robe and I had finished it on the way back from the waterhole. The third gulp of whiskey had finished the flask and left my head buzzing, not enough to make me drunk but enough to make me want to get drunk. I grabbed the bottle of wine as it came my way and sucked down half of it. The boy next to me gave me a stern look as I handed him the almost empty bottle. I was gazing up at the stars, beginning to enjoy the cheap wine effect, the unique blend of Kool-Aid sugar rush and liquor, when a large cup was pushed into my hand. I forgot myself and thought to slug down the entire cup, but as the cup touched my lips, I remembered the ritual. I stopped myself in time and sipped a little before speaking.
                “Once there was a king.” I smiled, hoping that my implied mockery had gone unnoticed. “He wasn’t so wise and he wasn’t so powerful. He was always sucking on mints because he had a problem with bad breath. He worked as an auto-mechanic because there weren’t any openings for kings in his town and he couldn’t afford to pick up and move to another town that might have had an opening for a part time king. And besides that, his wife had her bridge club and his kids were finally doing okay in school. Fred was cool with that. He had never actually worked as king but he had a feeling it was an awful lot of hard work and much more thinking than he generally liked to do. He wasn’t much for leading, preferring good friends to loyal subjects. But he did want the world to be a better place. So every morning on the way to the garage, he would stop and give the blind beggar a dollar. He didn’t tell anyone about it because they would have laughed at him, and his wife would have been angry. Giving away money was a silly thing to do and everyone suspected the beggar wasn’t really blind. Or so they said. But Fred did it anyway and he felt good about it.”
                The boy sitting next to me cleared his throat sharply. I looked over at him and he gave me a nasty look. I lowered my eyes, feeling slightly embarrassed, and saw the stars reflected in the wine. I smiled as I imagined a group of tiny boys swimming around in the cup.
                “And they all got free tune-ups for a year and lived happily after. The end.”
                I looked down again when I realized that I was the only one smiling. I saw the circle of stars reflected in the cup, partially eclipsed by the image of my face. In the clarity of my drunkenness, I saw myself old and bloated, my beard knotted and skewed. I felt like my life, all my uncomfortable secrets and failures were written on my face for theses children to see.  I had left many things behind half-completed and had begun a new path too late in life for it to be laughed off as an acceptable adolescent whim. I was at an age when I should be a leader in my chosen career instead of fumbling around on the beginnings of an impractical spiritual journey. I looked around and saw that I was the only one squirming around to find a comfortable spot on the rocky floor.  This evening was for younger buttocks. The young man next in line reached over to take the cup. His fingers grazed mine and I instinctively pulled away, spilling wine onto my borrowed robe. Anger swelled up inside me and I heard the same old argument being worked out in my head. A voice buzzed in my right ear,” You always regret anger and you know it isn’t good.”  A cynical voice answered from my left ear, “Yeah, but it’s honest and letting it out just might make someone listen to you who really needs it. Besides that, it feels better than eating your own guts out.”
                I sipped from the cup. “My turn again.” I heard some murmurs but I kept going. “Once upon a time there was a place. It doesn’t matter where it was but let’s imagine it was here. There was a bunch of guys who lived there. Let’s pretend that they were a lot like you guys. They were the most amazing and holy guys and if it wasn’t for them, evil would have won the war and taken over the earth. If it wasn’t for these guys the entire world would be Central Park after midnight.” Someone grabbed for the cup but I managed to pull it away. “It wasn’t because of any stupid candles or because you sat in a corner and closed your eyes, pretending like you were meditating and creating worlds in your mind. It was because you believed that the world doesn’t have to be one enormous cesspool that revolves around the sun. And because you believed that you would only do good things. And because you try to be nice to each other, even to jerks like me.” I took another gulp of wine.
Another hand tried to grab the cup away but I swatted it, a growl growing in my throat. The growl trailed off into a gagging cough as the hand disappeared. “Let me tell you a real story. Once upon a time there was a war. It was the worst war you could imagine and everyone was fighting. There, in the very worst part of the war, was a big fortress and in this fortress were the very best soldiers. They were always training and every morning they would do lots of exercises. They were all young and handsome and their uniforms were crisp and had big brass buttons. Their guns were shiny with oil and so finely tuned that they had to be kept spotless for the tiniest grain of sand would make them jam. Each soldier was an expert in a different type of combat and they all knew the details and strategies of every great battle in history. The fort was known to be impenetrable but the soldiers remained vigilant in their watch. One day, an old soldier came to the fort, begging to be allowed in. He was badly wounded and his body was covered with ugly scars. His rifle was smashed and his pack was empty of ammunition and food. His uniform was tattered and patched, its color barely recognizable as being from their army. They offered him sanctuary and tended his wounds. He told stories of the battles he had been in, some won and some lost. His stories of victory were strange, told without enthusiasm, tinged with sadness bordering on regret. The soldiers wondered at this. What was there to regret in victory? He spoke openly of how he had fled when his company was being slaughtered, leaving companions to die alone on the battlefield. The soldiers winced when they heard these stories because battle was for glory and not for slinking away just to survive another day. But the old soldier didn’t seem to mind indignity. But once in a while, he would fall into a bitter silence that left the young soldiers confused. He didn’t know their battle songs and his routines were different so some began to suspect that he wasn’t even from their side, the side of good. They suspected he was a deserter or, even worse, a spy sent by the enemy. I wish I could say they lived happily ever after but I’m not really sure what happened in the end. I do know that the war will be won by the young and shiny soldiers, and rightfully so. The young soldiers were the finest and their intentions were impeccable. The young soldiers save the day and go on to great glory, parades and parties. That would be a good ending but that isn’t enough. I don’t know what happens to the old man. I know I shouldn’t care but I really need to know. It should be enough for me to know the war will be won. I want so badly to say I don’t care. After all I’ve seen….”
I closed my eyes, choking back the shameful tears. I opened them, seeing a circle of blurry faces. “ I need you guys, one of you, all of you, I don’t care. I need to know what happens to the old man.”
I sipped at the wine but realized that I had emptied the goblet, suddenly feeling the syrupy wine heavy in my stomach. I staggered to my feet and peeled off the robe, standing half-naked in front of the group.  “I…I apologize for my indiscretions.”
I turned and ran, my heavy footfalls pounding my brain. Finally, when I could run no further, I stopped in the middle of the forest. Leaning my head against a tree, I welcomed the feeling of the rough wood biting into my forehead. I opened my mouth wide, gulping in air as if it were water, waiting to see if I could control the churning in my gut. The vomit came rolling out of me, the pain cleansing me of my sin.

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