Jonah by Michael Hogan

It's early winter, and I'm on a train heading south to Boston. Outside the window, beyond the pine trees and oak trees and elm trees and the overgrown brush slapping the train, all of it going by so fast it's hard to distinguish one thing from another, I look to a point in the distance where there's a ship in the harbor. It's one of those barges that carry things and have a bridge that looks like the silhouette of a small city skyline.

I wonder why the trees and things up close move by so fast, and the barge seems stationary, unmoving and still.

I take out a pad and pen and sketch the elements of a physics problem. I stick with the high school Newtonian stuff. Straight lines, vectors, rules of motion, laws of attraction, none of that quarks and dorks bullshit, and none of that fancy PBS string theory. No, it's straight goods from Isaac Newton, 17th Century virgin, who wrote tracts on God after he'd left behind the kind of physics that powers empires and wins wars.

I note the speed of the train, the distance from the train to the trees, the distance from the train across swamp land, salt grass and tidal pools to the breakwater and the ocean beyond. I can't remember the formula pertinent to optics, so I think how it's like a person running counter clockwise along the circumference of a circle who looks inward to his immediate left as things speed by, and then looks to the center of the circle where his eyes rest on some unmoving, unchanging, still point. Perhaps that's what it is: The farther we are from something, the more it approaches the center of our world. Proximity breeds speed. Distance codifies stillness. And of course that would explain God, the infinitely still center of a moving world, whom we see, if at all, from an infinite distance.

It's also why Maureen Hereford of South Winchester, Connecticut, after eleven years of resolute rejection (and a few restraining orders) remains the love of my life, untouched, barely corporeal, frozen in the velveteen mists of romance, the still point of my moving world, situated at infinite remove in the shadows of memory enhanced by time, married with children in a farmhouse in a suburb so wealthy it looks like farmland south of Hartford.

The conductor comes through the car. He's younger than me. Mangy hair, counter-indicative to his profession, peeks out from under his round conductor's cap. His fingers are thick and dirty, his nails are bitten to the quick.

I say: "What did you think about Ringo Starr doing that conductor-thing on Shining Time Station?"

He says: "Ringo who?" and I think how The Beatles have ceased to be the center of so many people's worlds.


Since November I’ve lived in a room on the third floor of Ms. Quinn’s Victorian house at the end of Bedford Street in Lynn. The house is a whale, huge, cavernous, under-furnished, hard to heat. I moved there from no place, meaning I didn't have an address, which is one of the better definitions for "homeless." I moved there through the intercession of Mrs. Gawrych, a woman I met in AA who’s a friend of Ms. Quinn. Ms. Quinn’s white whale of a house has been a good place for me; it’s out of the way and safe. I'd live there longer if I could, but Ms. Quinn says it’s time for me to move on now.

Before I was homeless I lived in a Jesuit Novitiate on Newbury Street in Back Bay. I lived there because I was a Jesuit novice.

“Jesuit” is the name for an order of Roman Catholic priests and brothers founded by Ignatius Loyola about thirty years after Michelangelo painted the Sistine Ceiling. “Novitiate” is the name for the period of time designated for the state of being a novice, as well as the place you live when you are a novice. It comes from the Latin word, "novus," meaning new, which is what we were: novices, new guys, newbies, neophytes, rookies, primis, whatever. We were the guys who cut our nuts off so that after twelve years of study, flannel shirts, khaki pants, sensible shoes, homoerotic flirtation and autoerotic activity, three hots and a cot (no heavy lifting), we too would be ordained to forgive sins and turn little bits of bread into God. We'd be Roman Catholic priests – Jesuit priests – and a lot of people would think: Isn’t that nice.

Obviously things didn't go well for me in there. They booted me out after a little more than a year. They'd had enough of me. Probably because I didn’t want to become some-kind-of-Bing-Crosby or Grand Inquisitor for the Illuminati or even a good Jesuit. Truth be told, I wanted to move to Berkeley and fuck every woman in sight. Truth be told I wanted to drink myself insensible, get fucked up on stage with a garage band, wake up naked on my kitchen floor and cry like a baby for the mess I was making of my life. That’s what I wanted to do. And why not? It's what prophets do. I know. I've read the book.


Mrs. Gawrych, the woman from AA, tells me to smile more. She says: Being bitter is like carrying costume jewelry in a velvet bag; it's a lot of bag for crap. She says: Being bitter won't get you food or shelter or work when you need them; people tend to get what they need when they appear civil.

“Smile, Dennis,” she'd say to me at the meetings. “And remember to smile,” she told me the day in November when we went to Lynn to meet her friend, Ms. Quinn.

“He's a very talented young man," Mrs. Gawrych said the afternoon we sat in Ms. Quinn’s day room and sipped tea from a well-laid tray with a tea pot, jellies, soda bread and scones.

“Is he?”

“I gave you his book.”

Ms. Quinn looked about the shelves set in the walls, packed with books.

“Was it a book of poems?”

“No. A novel. A short novel.”

“A paperback?”

“Yes, a paperback.”

"And it was a book of poems."

"No, a novel."

"Published already, then?" Ms. Quinn asked me.

"Some years ago."

"When he was in college, or right after."


"Amherst," I said.

"That is Emily Dickinson territory," Ms. Quinn said. "I did love that one woman show with Julie Christy."

"Harris," Mrs. Gawrych said.

"I'm sorry, dear?"

"Julie Harris starred in ‘The Belle of Amherst.’"

"Yes, dear, I know."

I drank the tea. It was warm and sweet. I looked about the room Ms. Quinn called the day room. It was more like a library than a day room (assuming anybody knows what a day room is) with hundreds of books stacked on shelves and hundreds of books lying in piles strewn across the floor. The bindings in the piles on the floor read like the geological strata of lands that have shifted and settled over long periods of time. Reading the titles on the bindings stacked from the floor upwards, I noted some logic in the vertical progressions. One pile under the window to my right started with Kenneth Clark's study of Leonardo, followed by the bio-novel of Caravaggio, followed by Frank Stella's book on the origins of Modern Art, followed by Eliot's On Poetry, followed by Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, followed by a French pocket dictionary.

I attempted a similar analysis on a pile of books stacked on the other side of the room, but my eyesight failed when the theme of children's literature (begun with Watership Down) took a hard right with some gritty crime stuff by Nick Tosche and the eclectic genius of Craig Clevenger.
I said to myself: If this is the belly of the whale, it's a well-endowed whale, and I can stay here and read books for a long time to come.

It was getting late. The light through the bay windows over an old desk with a computer and printer and wires going every which way started to dim.

"And what was your book about, Mr. Wertz?" Ms. Quinn asked, finishing her tea, placing her cup on a coaster by the tray.

"Please, call me Dennis," I said, and I started to phone-in an answer with the “usual something” about the “usual coming-of-age-stuff” when she asked me what I meant by that. Then I told her the story of a jejune man who leaves college to find his way in the world after falling in love with Maureen Hereford of South Winchester, Connecticut, a co-ed who'd failed somehow to fall in love with him.

Mrs. Gawrych interrupted to say that the book sort of prophesied my time in the Jesuits, and I was about to remind Mrs. Gawrych that it wasn't a novel, but a novella and a collection of short stories and that it had nothing to do with the Jesuits when Ms. Quinn asked, "Did you say

"Yes, the Jesuits," Mrs. Gawrych said.

"O, dear."

Mrs. Gawrych turned to me: "Betty's older brother was a Jesuit."

“Fr. Tom Quinn,” Ms. Quinn said.

“Tom Quinn,” I said.

“He passed,” Ms. Quinn said.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

"So, how long were you with them, Dennis?"

"A year and a bit."

"Not long then."

"Long enough."

"Well, you needn't tell me about them," Ms. Quinn said. "They're an odd lot as far as I'm concerned. As was Tom, though they could have done better by him."

"What did they do?" Mrs. Gawrych asked.

"Broke his heart for one thing. He was happy as a clam in Belize, teaching school, very happy, and they brought him back to Weston."

"The old folks home," I said.

"Exactly. And to think he was in perfect health, too. A little arthritis from the war wound, but other than that - perfect health. And then, what with the dark winters and the company he had to keep with their nonsense, he didn't last more than a year out there. Just sort of gave out. I've always said if they'd left him in Belize he would have died happy."

I said: "They're not about 'happy.'"

"Then what good are they?" Ms. Quinn asked, sitting straight like a prairie dog, sniffing a fight, proud of the spunk that allows an elderly woman to value happiness as life's primary goal.

"That's a good question," Mrs. Gawrych said, "and I bet it's one Dennis has asked himself many times since they let him go."

"Just let you go, did they?"

"It was mutual."

"It wasn't for you, then."


"Though you had to try it."


“Isn’t that something,” Ms. Quinn said. “All the young men who go into that sort of thing always say they have to try it. There’s always that sense of compulsion.”

“Maybe that’s why they call it a vocation.,” Mrs. Gawrych said.

“It’s not that,” I say, “though many would like you to think so.”

“Meaning?” Ms. Quinn asked.

“Meaning a lot of guys just love the notion of being ‘called,’ set apart, you know? Though I think most guys join up for the same reasons they’d do anything else.”

“Like what?” Mrs. Gawrych asked.

“Status, power, comfort, sex.”

“Sex!” Mrs. Gawrych said.

“Sex,” I said.

"So, what made you go in?" Ms. Quinn asked.

"To the Jesuits?"

"Yes, dear."

"Maureen Hereford of South Winchester, Connecticut."


"The girl who ruined my life," and I could have told them more, about how I'd left Amherst after Maureen threw me over for Darren at Williams and how I'd worked odd jobs for a Boston furrier and drank every night and went on a five day silent religious retreat in Newport to dry out and ended up seeing Jesus, watching the bottom of His feet as He ascended, body and spirit, into a starless sky through the roof of the upper room where the priest had made us sit on comfy pillows before a makeshift altar.

I could have told them about all of that, but I didn't because then I would have had to have told them about how I went a little crazy, having seen Jesus, thinking I was a prophet and that my mission in life was to tell Boston to get over itself.

We finished our tea, and I ate one scone and complimented Ms. Quinn on her hospitality. She cleared the tea tray and gave us a tour of the house and the room on the third floor and then offered me room and board on condition that I go to meetings, take my meds, help around the house, shovel her walk and look for a paying job.


As the train crawls into North Station I see the buildings in the white distance through the winter haze rising off the water. The train stalls and starts again. The last mile is always slow and one wonders if the engineer really wants to go to Boston. Finally with a push, a tug and a squeeze, the train hiccups one last lurch and stops.

I get off with the others who made the mid-morning trip and walk in a pack under the old Garden and then out into the sunlight and the average day.

It's a short distance to State Street, and I walk because taking cabs in Boston costs a lot of money for too much can't-get-there-from-here. Boston's downtown was laid out by 17th Century cows who weren't in any hurry to get anywhere. Bostonians love it though. They're stuck on it, the whole crooked-streets-to-Haymarket-thing, the whole sea-faring-colonial-thing, the whole rude-waitress-pay-for-the-privilege-thing. Bostonians and their Bullfinch. Bostonians and their Bruins. Bostonians and their gaslights, Garden, Sox, Pops, Sweet Baby James, B.C., M.I.T. and the skater who cried "Why me?" They just love it, Anglophiles all, and they love it so much they spend a lot of time and energy claiming exclusive and possessory rights to it, having endowed America with its proto-caste: the measurement of value based on who got here first.

I walk through Quincy Market with the smells of shell fish and tacos and French bread and Sicilian pizza and white chocolate cookies with macadamia nuts and Blue Mountain coffee from Jamaica. I walk outside over uneven stones and pass through Fanueil Hall where for two weeks one summer all those years ago Maureen Hereford of South Winchester, Connecticut, worked in a strange place that sold designer mustards. I think how two people can occupy the same place at different times and the same time at different places and how Descartes offers little comfort when you want what you want when you want it. The mustard shop's gone now. The interior corner closest to Congress and State houses a few tables with marble tops and chairs for tourists to sit and rest.

I needn’t linger or waste time here. Memory's an undifferentiated mass that bends light and changes time, but I have to move through the past and up the hill to State Street where I'm about to interview for a job to tutor a woman who lives with her parents on the North Shore.

Ms. Quinn found the ad for the job in the Sunday Globe. The ad said: "Tutor wanted. English, math and some physics. Room and board provided." She cut it out and laid it on the tea tray. She asked me what I remembered about physics and then made the call on my behalf. When Mr. Garrity, the girl's father, who owns his own law firm, heard I'd been published, heard I'd been a Jesuit (though I’d only been a novice and not a very good novice), he agreed to see me. He told Ms. Quinn that he'd been "something of a writer,” himself, during his student days with the Jesuits in Worcester, and Ms. Quinn assured him he wouldn't be disappointed.


I stand in front of the rose polygon at 60 State and eyeball the poor bastards coming and going as if everything were fine. I see the guy in the parked car with the windows and doors plastered with his homemade posters lettered in Jolly Green Giant font with markers he'd bought at a pharmacy. The posters complain about how some three-name, Mayflower-certified law firm had fucked him over and how he's their worst nightmare. Then I look across the intersection to the Old State House and the small square where the British massacred a few Colonialists after they'd complained about how some three-name Mayflower-certified tax collector had fucked them over and how they were King George III's worst nightmare. Then I remember that up State Street and around the corner on Tremont Street, where the pavement slopes down again to the eastern edge of the Boston Commons, before a church with a white steeple, there's the Old Granary with tombstones from three hundred years ago. And then, behind me, from the top of Congress, I turn and see the cricket on the weather vane atop Fanueil Hall and wonder why the French hate us.

I think:
"O, Boston,
city by the sea,
city of brick and Brahman,
city of unknown celebrities,
city of townies, socialists and students,
city of Celtics, pols and carnivores,
city of sculls, squares, blue skies and blue laws,
city of reticence and warning,
city of pretensions and the T,
city of hard women and lacey men,
city of good grades and cool affect,
city of separation, grudges and bile,
city of secrets and treason,
too long have I sought to gather you to my bosom as a mother hen gathers her chicks. O, Boston, too long have I wept over you …"

The sun breaks through the white haze. The streets fill with more workers on their way to lunch. I watch them and my stomach falls.

I know some things.

I could tell you stories. It's the prophet-thing, after all. It lends itself to the declamatory stuff: poetic, repetitious, rhythmic. It's the Ben-Hur of conversation, the Ted Kennedy of chiaroscuro. When I drank it was honey and locusts and a big fuck you. But now, with the anti-depressants and salt substitutes for the mania I try to keep it under control. But it's not easy. Look around. It's not easy.