The steeple of the church on the next street
flares, spotlit at night, an accusation.
Last night, lightning made of it an icon
of guilt, which is essential for humor.
And forgiveness, the fat man, well-dressed, says
into a mike, comes best with a prat fall.
Stand-up’s what we all do, with or without
the microphone. To forget pain, we laugh.
The fat man’s jokes are at his own expense,
the long, melodramatic suffering
of his grotesque flesh a prayer he whispers,
alone. None of this is funny at all,
the angel, the dice gone cold in his hand,
broke, in debt to the shark who’s running this
corner game, hears the fat man murmur in
his good ear, the one that can’t hear choirs
sing joyous behind the sky anymore.
The fat man changes no one’s luck. Do you
recall the other angel’s face? he asks.
The one we’d expected? A woman’s face
like no woman’s face you’d expect to see
more than once in any life, her rare lips
pursed, whistling a hymn, her skin a light
that would make Rembrandt weep? Or laugh out loud.
It’s hard to be sure which to do, at times.
Most of us live between sobs and laughter,
the fat man believes. The steeple, lit up
by lightning, pointed a way out. Finger
God, the fat man says. Put the blame square on
the old geezer. Looking for laughs or out
of sheer loneliness, or both, God spoke up
and made this odd, careening universe.
Out, it sometimes seems he says, pointing to
the door, as if we’re a dog who’s been bad
or has to go out to do its business
so it won’t ruin the good furniture.
Like that dog, we’re supposed to understand
God’s whimsical decrees without knowing
the language he speaks them in. We don’t know
the word, in God’s vivid tongue, for something
as simple as bread. Or something we think
we need as much—love. Even if we could
utter something that might sound like a word
God might, in the right mood, say, we couldn’t
know what we’d said. All we can say for sure,
the fat man believes, is our tongues are more
suited to touching flesh and turning it
into moans than forming words an angel
would have to lean in and ask us to Say
again? uncertain what it was we were
trying to say. All we can say for sure
is the guilt that has put up cathedrals
in our hearts—glorious structures of stone
and light, with figures of the saints, posed, palms
open as if they had just let dice go
under the motley light staining the walls
with Bible scenes—and written sacred texts
without a single laugh is in this world
for the long haul. The fat man likes to say
laughter’s enough to let us off the hook
for everything. Broken saints, crumbling
from fractures laughter has left in the stone
they stand on, the very stone they’re made of,
curse wrong numbers come up again. They’ve lost
everything except their shirts and the faith
they’ll be forgiven, in the long run, for
what they’ve done, holy or not. The fat man
laughs past all understanding, the steeple
dark tonight, a new moon and so no light
to make it what it’s not, and never was.
The angel, taken to the cleaners, thumbs
for a lift home, praying his luck will turn.
GEORGE LOONEY’s recent books include Hermits in Our Own Flesh: The Epistles of an Anonymous Monk, Meditations Before the Windows Fail, the book-length poem Structures the Wind Sings Through, Monks Beginning to Waltz, and A Short Bestiary of Love and Madness. His novel Report from a Place of Burning was co-winner of The Leapfrog Press Fiction Award and will be published in 2018. He is the founder of the BFA in Creative Writing Program at Penn State Erie, editor-in-chief of the international literary journal Lake Effect, translation editor of Mid-American Review, and co-founder of the original Chautauqua Writers’ Festival.