Thursday, March 10, 2011


Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Fasching, Carnival, Shrove Tuesday - it is that season again, the season of Lent and of Chuck. The season beginning with costumes and consumption, wakes up to black ash covered foreheads, abstinence, penitence and yields to hot cross buns, redemption and springtime (eternal or otherwise).

I remember this season as a child being full of ritual and anticipation. The crucifix would be covered up with purple cloth and we would 'give-up' something for Lent (ideally something that would not cause undo suffering for us kids). I would give-up being mean or lying or some activity that is difficult for adults to keep track of. There was a solemnity to and excitement in receiving the symbolic ashes of Christ on our foreheads. I think it is the only sacrament in the church that actually alters the way we look and hence are looked at. Yes, these are a reminder of our own fates. Yes, the consecrated remains of a man in absentia is wiped in the form of a clumsy cross on my face - but Hey! - doesn't it look cool standing in line at the grocery? A bindi, our own Catholic spark of danger, more Manson than Madonna (the virgin one).

This time of year good Catholics think of the resurrection of Christ but mostly Lent reminds me of Chuck.

Chuck and his family had lived in our family house before we did and they were pillars of our Catholic community. He was a loquacious lawyer and his wife was a 'church lady' involved in everything. Chuck and my father were close friends, drinking buddies and sleuthing partners. They spent years trying to track down a criminal named Henry Dodge that they believed to be hiding near the Canadian border. The search and lore of this criminal being tracked by an obese lawyer and his silkscreen printer sidekick across the wilds was huge entertainment for us. At least it was interesting for a while when the trail was hot and we would drive around with my father on Sunday afternoons checking out leads on the outlaw at old taverns bordering pristine lakes in a territory we call Up-North. I am not certain why Chuck and my father stopped the search, whether they had run out of leads or taverns.

Chuck was a large man who had shoulders the size of his head and elbows the size of his shoulders. He carried a cigar in his mouth which was always talking and quick witted as he was slow to move. Each Lent Chuck would give-up food and all liquids other than water. Chuck, who normally sat wedged in our small kitchen as the embodiment of gluttony by mid-April would transform into an all together different physique. Chuck would stroll into our large kitchen by mid-April with a look that was all about the belt. The belt that bustled together fabric of too big pants round the too small frame of a once giant man. Not only would Chuck loose 1/4 of his body weight each year but the rooms around him seemed to expand - like our kitchen.

As Chuck radically altered his body he altered the space of each room he entered. To a child and to a whole church of devote Catholic adults this man seemed the role model of sacrifice and penance. You could see the sacrifice, the Sisyphean seasonal struggle with his girth and God. Then the extreme loss would wane when like a bear emerging from hibernation he'd gain the weight back again. Regaining looked to be more enjoyable but as much work as loosing it.

Then one Lent Chuck came to the kitchen table and his whole face looked like elbows and shoulders, swollen and indistinguishable from those joints. Chuck had had his last meal and would never eat again because Doctors had removed most of his tongue. It was shocking to look at, more so to hear, the kind of shocking that only children are allowed to stare at. I understood that Chuck was leaving that day and I distinctly remember this most articulate of men looking at me and trying to say something, something charming and jovial no doubt, but I couldn't understand a word. I recall the dichotomy between his sparkling intelligent eyes and the sound of a dull slurping thump of a face full of elbows. 

After that, Lent seemed less distinguishable from the remainder of the year. It was still Lent but the extreme embodiment of the cycle had ended, Chuck died a thin and pious man and the criminal was never caught. 

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