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The Lodge Board
© 2020 by Peter Coe Verbica
Santa Barbara, California – April 20, 2020
I am at an odd juncture in my life. Perhaps you’ve been at this crossroad too, that moment just before everything changes. It is late morning when the smaller birds begin to mob the hawks which circle in the currents. Past the Los Padres, I am hovering in a two-seat helicopter, over the red-tiled roof of a white-washed mission. From the air, the architectural homogeneity of Santa Barbara overwhelms me like patchouli. I comprehend at once the beauty and brutality of zoning laws where buildings and people are limited to a certain height and type for generations. Some call the town out for being a Spanish cartoon which lazes above a sluff of California and un-cakes into the surf at high tide. I am more sympathetic, having once attended school here. After an entropic spiral over a painted white cross, we land with a familiar bounce on a small patch of asphalt. I unharness and scramble like a steroid-riddled hunchback to get clear of the aircraft’s rotor. Santa Barbara, patron saint of armorers, marshals, and gunsmiths — I have arrived to suckle at your mud-bricked bars and bountiful bosom.The long-limbed women here wear black pearls and gossamer dresses; they smell of sea-salt deodorant and a dark hope born of the sea. I know to never underestimate them as they drink margaritas, stare past the dunes, and daydream of alibis and fool-proof ways to kill their husbands. In contrast, many of the men, due to an affinity for marijuana, have reverted to a semi-permanent state of adolescence; they pass the time revving the motors of leased exotics and tailgating octogenarians in traffic. Critics spin rumors that most pretend they don’t need a job or a trust fund, camouflaged as perennial students on government loans; if true, then covers are quickly blown: in the restaurants where the formerly nonchalant appear as servers, or swing up to the curb to shuttle you to the regional airport. I remember the town for its tarred beaches, topless surfers, cheerleading camps and a courteous policeman who would talk you into boxing with him so that he could beat the crap out of you legally. From what I can see, not much has changed.
I wear dark glasses, a stingy-brimmed hat, Khaki shorts, leather flipflops, and the ashen face of a man with a bad hangover. My assignment beforehand had me reporting in the Middle East and, in candor, I was just grateful to not fall asleep to the sound of gunfire and people yelling from the beds of small trucks while waving Kalashnikovs. My biggest fear was that if I stayed in country one more month, I would become acclimated to the hot days, cold nights and giant desert spiders. Though the return took 15 hours of being bounced around in a cargo plane, I was happy to be back to the State of unpunished shoplifters, ballooning pensions, spray-painted overpasses and high taxes.
Now, I can’t tell you whom I interview to get this story; that’s privileged information and perhaps the last umbrella of virtue in the waste bucket we used to call journalism. The person who shares with me the most mysterious of circumstances which follow is well-educated, with an impeccable reputation; the type of steady-handed fellow society turns to when a child needs a new heart. And yet, with me he has been an ever-elusive prey; though he promises to speak with me, and intimates urgency, he has set and broken appointments and changed more phone numbers, locations and contact emails than an Isla Vista coke dealer. After a 3-day binge, I convince him to sit down and talk about what happened — the event that changed his life and called into question his previously comfortable calculus and upended logic onto its ear. Later, he describes it better as the sort of epiphany experienced by a faith healer who sits in a physics class and finally gets the math.
We meet in a small bistro overlooking the ocean with rows of rickety chairs and tables and precarious umbrellas for some reason beloved by the French but mass-produced in the Orient. I recognize him immediately, in part because of his clue. “I dress like Johnny Cash,” he said over the phone earlier. He arrives wearing a black suit, bolo tie and pointed lizard-skin boots which look out of place. Though his face is partially shielded by a felt hat, I can make out a square jaw, substantial nose and the sad smiles of sleeplessness under his eyes. His limbs are lean, as if he has been training for a marathon. He carries a leather messenger bag closely to his chest as if he is worried of losing a cross and silver spike in a land teeming with vampires. I go to shake his hand, but he waves the gesture off. At the base of the Santa Ynez mountains, I suppose that it is fitting to meet a man who looks like a chimera between a gentleman from the new country and a gaucho from the old. Into the small round iron seats we sit.
He reveals a flash of white teeth on his suntanned face. Our conversation, if you could call it that, is more of me listening to someone in unwavering certitude that he has been given a glimpse into something indescribable; he harbors the conviction of a prophet at the edge of the End Times when dark angels, or aliens or technology, depending on your belief system, run amuck and eat every living thing from the Earth. Years could pass, but I know that I will still have an indelible mental recording of our visit; and, even if it pops and crackles like wet wood in a beach bonfire, it will remain decipherable – at least to the essence I regard as me.
“It was the damnedest thing,” my interviewee explains regarding his encounter, “a gathering on the very beach in front of us with the moon overhead on a cloudless night. I remember the smell of kelp and tar and wishing that I had worn a jacket because of the chill in my bones. I was introduced to the one they called ‘Marcus’ and, as he spoke, I watched his eyes fall into themselves, morph into what I can only describe as phosphorus lights. I swore that his mouth created harmonic notes with perfect pitch rather than words. And yet, somehow, I understood the musical language emanating from him — as if it were just another dialect. I knew it to be a prophecy as if he were trying to explain that for him, it was a homecoming, like Ulysses returning to a life from which he had been long absent.”
Listen, I’m the most suspicious of all people, I assure you; my favorite saint is Thomas who demanded that the Messiah show him the nail holes in his hands and had the balls to lean in and smell His breath for the vinegar-leftovers of a Roman sponge; but, though a natural doubter, I have a good nose for truth and authenticity and I knew that there was veracity because my subject’s wants were absent money or fame; he seemed unequivocally carefree of any desire to entertain or impress me.
“It was not just an encounter with something transcendental,” he insists. “This visitation was somehow transformational to me.”
As you might suspect, I tell him that it all sounds like Area 51 hogwash, but he ignores my slight. He continues to speak of levitating, of transporting, of knowing what it was like to be centuries old and a newborn in the same instance. When I get the man to settle down, to stop arcing between galaxies, I ask him how I can verify his claims, of teleportation, of raising fish from the depths of the sea just to see them dance in the surf and, of observing atoms agitate, of how things are simultaneously separate but connected.
“The Lodge Board,” he answers, pulling a slate-like object out of his messenger bag. “It’s a key to bring to the cabinet of your quintessential curiosities, hidden in the structure of music, art, shapes in nature. Meditate on its symbols and tell me if you’ve experienced a similar transformation. The steel guitar weeping and the keyboards,” he trails off, watching the gulls navigate above the water.
Now, I sit with the amber light of the Bay reflecting around this new acquaintance, forming an halo over him, and I swear for an instance that he is transforming into the Messiah he had described as seeing earlier; I witness his eyes subtly fall into themselves, shimmering as if suspended mercury; as he talks, his words change pitch and tone and cadence, until all I hear are the notes of some supernatural harmony, the song and soul of the universe somehow radiating from him. He discusses both the mundane of whether to put cream or almond milk into his coffee and the extraordinary of how to raise billions from the dead and where to put them all. Is this a religious experience of some kind? Am I committing the unspeakable crime of becoming a character in my own article? No longer the reporter, but the reported?
By the time I regain my senses, he has vanished, and the young waitress is tapping my arm lightly like a pet hen. I look up at her, disoriented and blinking.
“Sir, you’ve been sitting here all day, quiet as a statue. I apologize, but we’re closing now.”
“All day?” I ask, swearing that it had only been a matter of minutes. Standing up, I try to shake the sleep from my legs. I catch a glimpse of myself in a rippled mirror behind the expresso machines. It is as if I have aged three decades. Most of the hair on my head as I had remembered it is gone. Before me is a much older version of myself than when I first walked through the door of the coffee house.
“The Lodge Board,” I recall the man saying. I gaze upon the metal table; where I have been sitting; in front of me is a small tracing board with a sprig of Acacia, checkerboard, altar, skull and crossbones, mallet, square and compass, coffin, and letters representing North, South, East and West. I pick it up to carry it with me and I am surprised by its lightness.
“Sir,” the waitress says, holding her coat and purse, “we’re closing now.”
Still unsteady on my feet, I dig into my pocket with a free hand and give her some currency.
Upon leaving, I pass a uniformed custodian wearing a straw hat. He is shaded by the wood-slat overhang which abuts plastered adobe. He smiles slightly as if knowing a secret. Working his mop, he is erasing chalk-mark hieroglyphs off the terra cotta pavers. I hear the obscure electronica of Waxfeet emanate from speakers hidden behind the purple hydrangea; I recognize the steel guitars, keyboards and odd syncopations — the kind of disconnected music that has you seeing reflections of bats in the moon when you close your eyes too long.