Personal Essays

Sharing Smokes With the Holy Spirit

Bumping into an acquaintance can change your day in profound ways. This is especially true when your friend has recently died, ascended to heaven, and been reborn as a vagrant.

It is Tuesday, late morning, and the sun is already high in the sky, a bright and shining lie. For me, anyway: I awoke today depressed, out of sorts. I recently gave notice at my job, and this is my final week. My love life is in a shambles. The future is uncertain, and I am plagued by a nagging ennui. Life feels meaningless, drained of hope. I am Woe, out for a walk.

I am taking a break from work, and I walk to the convenience store up the street to buy some cigarettes.

On my way out of the store, I am approached by a disheveled, grubby woman in ragged jeans and a filthy T-shirt, her graying, wiry hair mushrooming sideways from beneath a faded baseball cap. She asks for a smoke. I’ve seen her before, most recently about two weeks ago. She asked for a cigarette then, as well, saying she had just been in a fire. Her hands, arms, and face were blackened, coal colored, just like when you see a photo of firefighters sitting on a curb after extinguishing a blaze, their heads hanging low with exhaustion. Today, I give her a handful of cigarettes, barely breaking my stride as I pass by, wrapped up in my misery.

She reaches out and touches my arm. “Can I get a light?”

I pull up and lift my lighter to the cigarette dangling from her lips, and then light one for myself.

“You know, I died two years ago,” she says.

Crap—I am really not in the mood to talk to a crazy person right now. But she is looking directly into my eyes, and I am caught.

“The thing is, when I went up there,” she says, pointing skyward, “my soul wasn’t with me. They sent me back down, to find my soul.” She is holding my arm tightly now. “I need to tell you who I am,” she says. “I am an angel.”

She asks me to look up at the sky and raises her arms, waving her hands back and forth. The smoke from her cigarette swirls in the air, caught between us and the puffs of white cloud above, making the sky seem to shift. “Do you ever look up there at night? You know how the stars move back and forth?” As she asks, she is already nodding her head, as if to indicate that of course I know this.

I take a drag from my smoke and look at her, my eyes saying, “Yeah, so?”

She leans into me and whispers, “I am the Holy Spirit.” She pats her pants pocket. “I want to give you something,” she says.

I shudder to think what might be forced upon me. (The last homeless person who wanted to show me something produced a laminated thumbnail of Janet Jackson flashing her boob at the Super Bowl.)

Her hand comes out of her pocket and she holds it out, fishing through it. It is filled with several tiny rocks and two packets of salt, nestled in a small mound of sand that trickles to the ground between her fingers. She frowns. “I don’t seem to have any with me.” Undeterred, she comes up with an alternate plan. “I tell you what. You want to revisit your high school years, when you’d sneak into stuff? You see that fence over by the restaurant?” She points to a restaurant a half-block away, and I nod.

“Do this. Climb over that fence behind the restaurant. You know what’s over there?”

I shake my head.

“Pearls. The ground over there is covered with pearls.” She smiles at me, putting her finger to her lips, letting me know that I should keep this a secret.

I smile back. I like the thought of this, a secret courtyard of pearls, there for the taking by a knowing few.

She puts the rocks, salt, and sand back in her pocket and gives me her hand to shake. It is darkened by dirt, slippery with grit. I take it, and find her grip firm. The way she pulls on my arm—it is clear she wants me to understand the importance of this connection.

“Yeah, you know,” and with a complicated series of hand motions she indicates some kind of pole, held horizontal, with a human head on each end. “My name is Patty.”

“Patty,” I say, “it’s very nice to meet you.” I pull out two more cigarettes. I give her one, and light them both.

Patty points to the nearby train overpass. “I live under the bridge over there. I own Jack-in-the-Box. You remember playing Monopoly as a kid? The board?” She outlines the square of a Monopoly board in the air with her hands.

I nod. This is my primary contribution to our conversation, a persistent nodding of the head.

“All that’s on that board is mine. I’m living under the bridge, but all of that is mine.”

I smile again. I like Patty. Her talk has a street hustler’s smoothness, but a fervor that tells me she means it.

She says, “The two-headed stake. I’m the one who found that.”

I give her a quizzical look. “The two-headed stake?”

“Yeah, you know,” and with a complicated series of hand motions she indicates some kind of pole, held horizontal, with a human head on each end. She points up the street. “I took it to the FBI office over there and gave it to them. They thanked me.”

I tell Patty that it’s been nice talking to her, but I need to be getting back to work.

“You must work around here, right? If you’re walking to this store?”

I tell her I do, hoping I’m not supposed to invite her back to the office. I feel guilty for thinking this.

“Well, then, when you get back to work, do something for me. Get on your computer, OK? Find a picture of the Statue of Liberty and look real close at her face.” She turns her own face until I see it in profile, her chin jutting proudly forward. “It’s me.”

I crack up, and she laughs with me.

As I turn away to walk back to work, she grabs my arm and returns to the topic of her beatitude. “Hey! Remember—I am the Holy Spirit. A lot of people think Jesus Christ is my father, but that’s not it. Read the Bible. Christ was born of the Holy Spirit.” Thumping her chest with her thumb, she says, “I’m his mother. My name is Patty.”

She sticks out her hand, and we shake a second time.

“Let me tell you something. You know how in the Bible it says we shall not know the name of the Holy Spirit?”

I nod.

“I know what it is,” she says.

I assume its name is Patty. I am wrong.

She again leans close into me, and whispers, “His name is Richard. I am his queen. I will take my king, but I haven’t done it yet. Read Revelations; it’s all in there.” She beams a smile at me.

I smile back, feeling a bit enchanted. I can feel my mind reorganizing, some sweetness pouring in to mix with the bitter.

A flash of sudden discovery hits her face, and she snaps her fingers. “He’s the centurion!” she shouts, leaning way back and miming the motion of a Roman archer about to let an arrow loose in the sky.

“Richard? Richard’s a centurion?” I laugh.

“Yes, Richard! You know that song, that song that goes, ‘This will be the day that I die?’”

This startles me. In a pique of melancholy, I had just last night downloaded and listened to this very song, after not having listened to it in over a decade. I tell her this, suddenly questioning my disbelief in kismet.

“I know you did!” She winks, and smiles. “But, you see, the thing is, they didn’t die.” She points to the sky. “So he’s sitting up there watching, waiting for the chance to free all the slaves. All us people who aren’t free. Revelations. It’s all there. Read it!”

I tell Patty that I will read Revelations, but that I must get back to work. She thanks me for the cigarettes, and tells me a thousand good things will come my way for each one I have given her. As we prepare to go our separate ways, she says she has one more thing on her mind: “Would you do me a favor?” she asks, “Next time you talk to him?”

“Who, Richard?” I ask.

“Yes, Richard.” She looks directly into my eyes, and her own are deadly serious, beseeching. “Tell him his queen is waiting. Tell him to bring me back up, OK?”

I nod my head. “Tell him…tell him to look in Uranus for me.” She slaps my arm with the back of her hand and laughs. She sticks her thumb out, points at it. “You tell him, Uranus, that’s where I’ll be!”

I figure it must be some sort of inside joke they have.

Giles Cassels was born and raised in a small town in rural Florida. Today, he is a deliberately and aggressively unemployed slug-a-bed living in San Mateo, California, with his faithful canine companion and occasional steed, Max Dogfat. More by Giles Cassels