Friday, October 2, 2009

Albi

P. ordered himself a second beer and leaned across the bar to grab a handful of salt peanuts. "I've got two interviews tomorrow. Don't even know whether or not they're jobs that I'd do, but I figure the experience is a necessary one. You've gotta keep your hand in the game otherwise people'll forget you exist."

It was three o'clock and the stools were half taken. An early drunk needing his anesthetic. One of those strange, pallid New Yorkers who live off family money in a rent-controlled apartment and never cook for themselves. He slowly flipped through the Post, bronchial, drawn, oblivious. I thought to myself, all lonely people have the potential to go that way, getting stingier and stingier as life winds down. The two of us, out-of-work for months and only loosely tethered to the rhythm normal people follow. Who gives a hoot if it's a weekday? A couple of confused and tired tourists who walked in and left after one drink.

P. asked me about the trip to France. I recounted my itinerary and told of the blue clarity of the mediterranean sky and the hot, dry wind that whips through the vineyards and scours the craggy limestone ridges that run from Perpignan to Foix. You go up high enough into the ruins at Queribus and become aware of an unearthly whistling around the battlement's arrow slits, then you look down to the valley floor two thousand feet below, breathless, at the very precipice. For one sickening second you feel your body arching itself for a leap, or a fall. Somehow you catch yourself. No metaphor. Just a slight shift in one's center of gravity.
Life. I descended very slowly on rubber legs and made it to the parking lot. I bought a liter of water at the souvenir stand and drank it all, quickly.

Earlier in the trip I had come into Albi from the north, from Corde-sur-Ciel, late in the day under darkening skies. It was the only rainy day on the whole trip. I parked on the northern bank of the River Tarn and stared across to the red brick Cathedral of Sainte-C├ęcile, the mighty fortress. Here the Catholic Church began its crusade to root out and destroy the Albigensians, commonly known as Cathars, heretics who held that this temporal world is evil and denied Christ's divinity. Eight hundred years ago, where tourist offices now offer maps and audio guides, the desperate church hunted and tortured these strange and upright people, following a genocidal policy of total war. Then they built this frightening, though sublimely proportioned, gothic cathedral, its buttressing shrouded in brick, bereft of exterior ornament. A statement of power, pure and simple, the imposition of law and order made manifest in a building. Believing it God's unassailable castle.

P. was raised a Catholic. He looked at me and said, "Even back then when I was being indoctrinated, I knew that the Albigensian crusade was a bad crusade. It was murder. The church was too weak to confront heresy without bloodshed, it was too corrupt. And then, of course, there was the matter of desiring to relieve the Cathars of their wealth. So many ideological disputes boil down to battles over land and riches. This crusade was no exception." I thought to myself, all that may be true, but the Cathars were a stiff-backed and prickly people, holier-than-thou, intolerant of corrupt flesh and a corrupt church. It would have been impossible for them to co-exist peacefully with catholicism, each side believing in their version of the truth.

"There in Albi, walking across the Pont Vieux in a light rain, looking down into the roiling water, you sense the futility of finding a satisfactory explanation. Humans are cruel. And god is no longer there, if he ever was." I looked into my glass of pinot noir. P. sat silently and polished off his beer. We were okay, sitting there in 2009, hopeful that things would change soon, and maybe one or both of us would get a job. Glad for the company. Our heads still above water.

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