Joseph Masser




They were once what we are now, travelers on earth.
They had the same weaknesses we have.
We have difficulties; so had the saints.

–Butler’s Lives of the Saints

Genevieve had the troubling misfortune of receiving the holy stigmata. Now she would have to cancel her shift again. Fuck it, she thought as she rolled over to turn off the alarm. Nobody ever comes in on Sunday afternoons anymore anyway.

It was one of those dreams that anticipated a waking reality and formed around it, as if causation was retroactive, except, as she opened what she thought must be her real eyes and felt the cool cotton of what she thought must be her real pillow, she still smelled the fragrance of frankincense and rosewater that had perfumed her dream and she still felt the low, throbbing frequency of pain in her wrists.

As the static blurriness of dream solidified into the white of her bedclothes and the flesh of her hands and wrists and the colors, swimmingly chaotic at first, slowly reported to their assigned stations of consciousness, she saw marks, blood red, coalescing on each wrist, first her right, then the left. The flesh was raw and glistened with the moisture of a wound not fully healed, about a quarter of an inch in diameter, on the upper and under side of each. They pulsated with the pointed ache of an infection resisted.
When she finally managed to sit up in bed, it felt like she had been stabbed in the side. Lifting up her t-shirt it looked that way too—the gash in the abdomen ran from the bottom of her rib cage down to the top of her hip bone, just missing the tail of the dove tattoo that dove inwards, swooping down across her lower belly towards her landing strip. The smell of rosewater and frankincense swelled as she drew her shirt up to her nose and breathed in its scent. With it, for a second, a scene flashed in her peripheral vision and she felt transported, but couldn’t quite focus. There were just sharp sensations: heat, glare, a crowd, hands, tumbling, the hard ground and pain—a heavy weight bearing down on her from behind. But it was only a flash and she was back—a moist feeling rising up her spine and the back of her head. She hesitantly put a finger to the edge of the wound in her side, touching the clear, oily moisture, seeing it on her finger and then sniffing it cautiously: rosewater and frankincense—it was coming from her.

She sat up gingerly, found the tobacco and rolling papers on her bed stand, and rolled a cigarette, before making her painful way through the apartment to the kitchen window, opening it and, sitting on the sill, taking a long drag, holding it in as long as she could, before hanging halfway out into the late morning air to exhale, slowly releasing the white curls in measured breaths that dissipated, then disappeared over the fire escape. Smoking was illegal in her building and she was on her third warning. But smoke and breath looked the same in this weather, she thought. And breathing isn’t illegal yet.

She vacantly took in the scene on the street below. So consumed with purpose, she thought, watching the people hurry past. And then there is my life. She noted that at the moment, in addition to her new difficulties, her life was cold and a little painful to her lungs and tasted like tar and chemicals that she couldn’t name. For some reason she was refreshed by it though, so she took another long drag. She always felt calmed and focused by her first cigarette, but this was something different—there was a peacefulness that seemed to be carried by each breath, directly into in her blood, radiating from her lungs, all the way out through her body to the tips of her fingers and toes, then back. It was warm and soothing as she breathed in and exhaled—long, deep and slow. So she inhaled again and felt a peace run through her veins that seemed to dance with the lower frequency of the pain she still felt in her wrists and side and lungs, in a way that seemed so harmonic they became almost indistinguishable. She looked at her wrists and then out over the low, red-brick building next door with the snow on its roof and the sagging power lines running in—it would be more poetic if they were laundry lines, she thought, in the odd way that people have of avoiding the alien by changing the subject to the mundane. It didn’t work though, the red of the bricks only reminded her of the wounds on her wrists and the sagging lines arched like the cut in her side. She looked back over the rooftops of downtown Easton and wished for another view from another time to distract her from herself.

She imagined a stout, apron-wearing Italian mother with rollers in her hair rolling out a line of clean linens and dainties from the window across the alley, like in some black and white photo she’d seen in some museum she couldn’t remember the name of, where Martin had once taken her. It should be spring too, she thought, today was too cold, the wet laundry would just freeze. She imagined the frozen laundry line sagging beneath its burden of icy, white sheets and prudent, antique undergarments until it could take no more, snapping and dropping its frozen contents like sanitized bombs on an unfortunate couple stopping to neck in the alley way below, or a lone man taking the discreet route on his way to or from the brothel—there must have been one back in those days—and the ice shattering into individual crystals that sparkled across the ground and for an instant refracted the tiniest bit of color from the gray light that was all that lit her black and white vision. At least her real view had some color, she thought, but it was still, the same dirty old Easton and Mary’s building next door, Mary somewhere within, oblivious to the cold and most everything else, probably listening to Bon Jovi in her living room and snorting a line off her coffee table and undoubtedly wearing that pink, terry bathrobe she seemed to live in, while her color-damaged blonde hair stood at three-quarters attention, saluting her graying, brunette roots. Mary was from another time too, it seemed, but somehow remained. I guess you don’t always get to choose, Genevieve thought as she again looked at her wrists then pulled up her t-shirt, inspecting the gash in the abdomen. Fuck my life, she thought and crushed out the cigarette into the pot with the dead iris and closed the window as the peace dissipated and disappeared like the last curl of smoke.

“God, I hope it doesn’t scar,” she said out loud to no one in particular. Then I’d look like a cross between one of those Brazilian bitches with eight grown kids and that meth-head who tried to off herself last year. Ahh, fuck. When she thought about it, though, wouldn’t it be something to be that nasty and still be able to ask for money for it? She had often wondered how exactly some girls did manage to charm the mirror into responding with the right answer every time. She had never learned that trick.

She went back to her mirror again and looked at the raw gash in her abdomen. Charming, she thought. Maybe I should just show up like this. That would be novel. Fuck. My whole abdomen is torn up, I’ve got bloody holes in my wrists and I’m just standing here wondering what it would be like to be a stripper with some nasty scars. Shouldn’t I be dying of this or being converted or something?

None of it made any sense really, but at the same time it seemed like something she had been waiting for her whole life to happen—maybe longer.

One time, when she was a teenager she had gone to church with a friend. She was a real holy roller, the friend, and Genevieve was generally a solo roller, mostly by choice, but it was nice to have someone to talk to every once and a while, so she said she would go.

Church was in the pastor’s bulb-lit, finished basement. Brown carpets covered the floor and sketchy looking sofas lined the back wall. He’d built himself a pulpit out of unfinished plywood, in the corner next to the hot water heater. It was only temporary until they raised enough money for a real church, she was informed. There were lots of Jesus pictures too, in varying states of duress. She had felt like she could relate to the more painful ones at that moment. There was even one of Mary Magdalene entering the empty tomb with the rolled away stone and no Jesus to be found. She had wondered how Jesus would feel about being re-entombed in a basement like that after all of his work moving the boulder aside. It was July and humid and moldy in the basement and Genevieve wondered if Mary Magdalene had felt as let down as she did then.

Genevieve was going through her vegetarian phase at the time and her friend had served bacon and eggs for breakfast, so she already felt a little queasy coming in, but when the spirit descended upon the congregation it was approaching high noon and getting hotter and every, “Hallelujah!” seemed to raise the temperature by a half a degree. That was before the dancing.

Genevieve only remembered it beginning, but the next thing she knew, several women and the pastor were bending over her saying, “Praise the Lord,” as she came to, laid out on one of the picnic benches that served as pews. “The girl has been touched by the spirit!”

One of the women had made brownies and Genevieve managed to eat two in between her reception of the congregation, all of whom seemed to want to find a reason to hold her hand or stroke her hair or give her a hug—to touch her in some way, basically—and tell her how blessed she was. Except for the nature of the blessing they come to admire, it wasn’t a whole lot different than guys at a strip club, she figured now. Everyone sees what they want to see, Genevieve decided.

On the other hand, as she looked in the mirror now, silver and exact and still showing something she didn’t want to see, Genevieve tried to picture her image as a stigmatic, in a photo in some gallery in Manhattan like the ones she used to go to with Martin. She wished he was there now to take her picture. She could see it: a life-sized black-and-white of herself hanging in a square and sterile, white-walled gallery as all of the art-cognoscenti in turtle necks and tweed jackets and cocktail dresses, eating cheese and sipping wine looked at the Stripper With Stigmata standing in front of her full-length mirror in her dirty t-shirt and panties in the middle of her messy apartment. They would comment on things they didn’t really understand like the photographer’s vision, and the “tragedy of the image” that were really only their own insecurities with their expanding waistline, or their husband’s cute new secretary, or their own four-inch dick or some shit that was their own tragedy, or, even more likely, probably just words they were repeating—that they’d heard from somebody else.

The more she thought about it, Genevieve realized that the only reason anyone would be looking at the picture at all would be because they recognized Martin’s name from his silly Jesus as a Suicide Bomber piece that got on the cover of that magazine (she couldn’t remember which one) or that peace sign sculpture made out of oil barrels that he’d had erected in Berlin. Martin was a “somebody” in art now, so people paid attention. In reality, she thought, there wasn’t anything that striking about the image she saw in the mirror, except for the fact that it was real—to her—but once it became a photo or piece of art it wouldn’t be either her or real—so who cares? It was just diversion, pornography even. Beyond the initial shock value there was nothing—perfect for a Martin piece, she thought. But actually even being the Stripper with Stigmata, in living flesh as she was right now, seemed pretty hollow and felt mostly normal, except with painful wrists and side and the scent of rosewater and frankincense that smelled stronger than even her colleague Mary’s most potent fragrance cocktail of perfume and “stripper lotion.” Eau de Divorce, Mary affectionately called it.

Genevieve brought her wrists to her nose and inhaled and imagined herself at the opening of Martin’s show anyway, slinking through the midst of the crowd in a blood-stained, white, spaghetti-strap cocktail dress with a conveniently placed slit in the side, right above her left hip exposing the glistening red gash, to which she would be sure to match the color of her lipstick and heels. She imagined the crowd gasping and fleeing like rats from a ship, as her fragrance preceded her through the gallery, as champagne glasses shattered and hors d’oeuvre trays splattered while the well-read sea of art connoisseurs parted at the sight of the real thing coming towards them with their new wunderkind Martin on her arm. Now that would be performance art. Fantasies are one thing, she had learned, but actually living them scares the shit out of most people—Martin included, it seemed.

The Stripper With Stigmata went back to the window and lit another cigarette and looked out, searching for that old black and white photo again: Madonna with Laundry she thought she’d call it. It wasn’t there at first, but after a few moments she could picture it clearly enough; she even decided that since Mary was already in the building next door, she’d let her in the shot in place of the Italian mama. She would put some rollers in her hair and allow her to hang a few g-strings and animal print teddies in with the white sheets too. At least there was no sound in a photo, so nobody would have to hear Mary’s gutter mouth or tired stripper-isms like, “Spank you very much.” That would ruin it for sure, even if Mary did have a heart of gold buried somewhere beneath the spray-on tan and lumpy silicone.

Genevieve looked at herself again as she pulled up her t-shirt. It was kind of hot, actually. She let the cigarette burn, closed the window and went back to her mirror. Evict me, she thought and wondered if she should give him a call, but it was pointless. He wouldn’t believe her or understand, or probably even want to be bothered at this point. He had gone off to Germany last month to live near his ex-wife and daughter and to charm some twenty-year-old folk-singer fraulein he’d met on his last trip into, “singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ to me while she sits on my dick naked,” as he’d so poetically told Genevieve over drinks at The Pole Shift (the club where she worked) right before he left. Honestly, she sort of wished Martin had taken her with him like he had once drunkenly promised he might. At least that would have been going somewhere.

“Ahh, what the hell?” she thought.

She found her cell phone and some red lipstick in the pocket of a pair of dirty jeans lying on her coffee table. She smeared some on her lips then scrawled “St. Genevieve” in red, across the mirror, sealed it with a kiss, and lifted up her shirt, looking as sexy as she could while aiming her Smartphone and displaying the wounds of Christ in a full-length mirror in the middle of an unclean apartment in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Later that day her new profile picture had twelve comments and thirty-three “Likes.”