by J.B. Ezar
A homeless man maintains a temple to an unlikely God accepting extreme sacrifices.
"Behold, this is my temple," the man said with a wide swing of an arm.
Sunlight pierced through a clouded, almost opaque surface of the window, overcoming an obstacle of long, yellow threads that could have been curtains half a century ago, and disappearing into a thick cloud of dust. This dust, combining sand and dirt, and dead cells of human and animal skin, rose here from the street that ran just one storey below. Its fine particles streamed through every gap in old joinery, making its progress with mindless relentlessness until it conquered the entire room. That suffocating powder now was trying to get into my lungs. Its cloud overtopped any other object in the room. A wooden cabinet with intricate but cracked ornaments stood there by the window, exposing one pale cheek to the sunlight. The other side, still dark with traces of rich polish, bore early signs of woodworm. There was a set of chairs in the corner next to a kitchen stove: one big faux leather armchair with a massive headrest and short crooked legs, and two wooden twins of simple form. The central pendant, perhaps once elegant, but now misshapen and violated, looked down on a puddle of glass—some crushed into fine sand—with one-eyed sadness of a broken lightbulb. By the opposite wall, next to a bulky box of a TV set, a heavy, tired body of a mattress rested on a collapsed frame of a bed. A mountain range of linens, clothes and unidentifiable rags ran through its mottled surface. Above it, an enormous banner of a janitor uniform was proudly displayed on a hanger, resting on a nail in the wall. It had a name embroidered on the chest, "Frank". Was it his? Was his name Frank?
"What happened here?" I whispered to myself.
"God works here," the man heard me. Pride rang in his voice.
He was crazy. I knew this man was crazy the moment I saw him. But now, when I stood on this carpet of layered dust over the blistered, neglected wooden floor, I was prepared to admit I underestimated the scale of his craziness. When I spotted him first, I thought... No, the thoughts came later. When I saw him first, I saw nothing but his hair. A fountain of dark brown sausages, peppered with colourless whites, sprayed from his head in all directions, doubling the volume. Unintended dreadlocks covered his beard, binding it together with the hair on his head. Even his bushy eyebrows spiked far onto his brow, trying to connect to the rest of his hair. It was enormous. Not a single strand on this head had been cut in years. Or washed. If you looked closely at his face, you'd see fallen eyelashes still clinging to his cheeks, stuck between pimples of dead skin cells and dust-bound fat. If this man's body ever came into contact with water, it must have been when he walked in the rain.
I saw him by a cafe; he walked with his head thrown far back, and from afar he looked like a lion gazing into the sky. He bumped into a garbage bin, almost knocking it over. He gasped with pain, halted and looked at his offender, murmuring curses. At that moment I had his story outlined in my head. He was another victim of heavy drinking or substance abuse, with undeniable mental health issue underneath, something that drove him away from society. By the looks of him, he had been living on the streets for decades. There must have been a sad underlayer of childhood drama, perhaps a tale that involved loss or abuse, something that broke this man forever. I was ready to dismiss him as a too obvious case, but then he did something that led to a conversation, and then into this room. He took a few steps back, retracing his previous path, and launched himself at the bin again, this time toppling it over. He winced the moment the metal brim bit into his thigh, but when it fell and rolled over, spreading the mess of paper coffee cups and wrappers, he laughed and clapped his hands in triumph. The way he did it wasn't a deliberate act of vandalism, but rather a correction of a mistake, a little help with something that was meant to happen but didn't because of an unfortunate coincidence, a wrong he was eager to right. He watched how the wind picked up the garbage and sent it flying, and his eyes shone with fatherly pride.
I had to get to know him. I dreaded the smell, but after a few words and a cup of coffee, I was able to push it away and focus on what's important. He wasn't homeless as I predicted. He had this flat with the view of the main square, where real estate prices were astronomical. If he sold it, he'd live a clean and careless life, however long it might be. Instead, he neglected the place to the degree he neglected his body. Only someone really crazy would do that.
I looked around again. The air was stale and heavy, but nothing rotting was in it. It didn't reek of human products either. It was as if this place was abandoned for a century, nothing alive ever setting a step in it.
"Do you live here?" I asked.
"If by living you mean spending nights and submitting to a routine of grooming and consuming food, then no," the man said. "Food is not allowed here, or the micro-world of life would swallow it too quickly. This temple is not for life."
"It's a strange temple you've got here," I murmured.
"I know what you're thinking," the man said with a smile. "And perhaps you are right. But my religion is not worse than your religion."
"I'm not religious."
"So you don't believe in God?"
"In an almighty old man who made heavens and earth by simply uttering a word? No."
"Neither do I," the man smiled.
"What does your God look like, then?"
"You're looking at him," he gestured at the room. "I tried my best to allow him to reveal himself. He's almost visible now."
"All I see is decay," I tried.
"Then I have succeeded."
This man was crazy, there was no doubt about it, but he was also undeniably entertaining.
"I wasn't a believer at first," the man said with a sad sigh. "Before becoming his acolyte, I lived a blind life, just like you. I was a fool. I," his voice broke, "I built things. I shaved, and I weeded, and I sew back my loose buttons. I destroyed every gorgeous manifestation before it could flourish."
"What's so beautiful in deterioration?"
"It's about what it represents that matters," he looked me in the eye, and I couldn't hide I wasn't following. "Do you even know what entropy is?"
"Entropy? Like, from the second law of thermodynamics?"
"Very same. Do you know what it says?"
"In an isolated system, entropy can only increase," I cited. What I didn't say was this was a line from a song I liked and had little to do with my real understanding of the concept. "Is that what you are doing here, increasing entropy?"
"Yes," he was happy to confirm. "You understand! Oh, such a relief."
"I don't understand. Do you worship disorder?"
"Because entropy is God," he announced, ecstatic. "Nothing is more omnipresent or constant in the observable universe. It's the only way to distinguish what was before and what comes next, it's the arrow of time itself. The universe is made, so it slowly crawls into a lower state of energy. Without outside intervention, it would go deeper and deeper into disorder. But what we, humans, see as a disorder, is just a temporary, transitional state, a snapshot we encounter on the journey to something magnificent. The goal of all matter and all energy is to spread out equally, and after it does, disorder will become a perfect, unified state of equilibrium."
"I'm sure your God can do just as well without your help," I smirked, hiding my unease about how little I really knew about the topic.
"I know what you're thinking," he said, and I was sure I wasn't thinking what he thought I was. "Isn't it enough to just live, recycling every high-energy photon of our massive sun through a complex chain of mediators—through plants and flesh of cattle, through our own human body—into a barely noticeable heat of organic bodies? The universe expands and cools down at its own speed, and nothing we humans do matters on a cosmic scale." He took a deep breath, and the thought of all the dust that was now clinging to his lungs sent shivers of disgust down my back. "But it's not enough not to do evil when you can do good. You can participate in an active act of worship. This temple is such an act. And my body. Even Frank."
That name again, Frank.
"Who's Frank?" I asked.
"A fool," he smiled. "Every one of them is a fool! People who mend things and place things back when they fall instead of letting them be."
"Frank was a janitor?" I offered a guess.
"Builders and writers," the man continued, ignoring me, "and doctors, and chefs. Artists and hairdressers, mechanics and firefighters. People who are making order out of disorder. They fight entropy in their local environment, they think they are winning, but on a global scale, all they do is add to it. Ignorant fools, wasting so much energy fighting something this inevitable when they could use their time to facilitate it. I was one of those blind fools once, but not now. Now, my eyes are open. I pity them..." He thought for a second, "No, I despise them."
"What did you do to Frank?" I had an uneasy feeling about it.
"Frank?" he finally heard me. "Frank had to go. He was a fool. He came every night before we closed, and he brought his mop with him. He had this awful bucket on squeaky wheels he filled with soapy water, and he washed the floor in the corridor every damn night. Not a sign of his effort was left before the lunchtime the next day, but here he was in the evening, with his mop again. Such a mindless creature. Ten years of this same routine. There was no other way, he had to go. He washed it in neat squares. That floor surface was big ceramic tiles, each the size of a square metre, creamy sand colour, and very little texture. He would do four squares before going to change the water. I stepped on his work once, the tile he'd already done, left a dirty footprint. A beautiful, albeit unintentional act of entropy. He saw it and went ballistic. He cursed and shouted at me as if he wasn't a janitor but a professor himself. Frank had to go."
"What did you do?" I whispered in horror.
"I didn't have to do anything," he said, almost surprised at my assumption. "Gravity did all the work. Gravity and the lack of traction."
He pushed him, I realised but could not say it out loud, pushed him to death. This man was crazy, but not the type of crazy I thought he was. He wasn't a drunk or a victim of abuse. He had a job once, a job good enough to afford this flat. A professor perhaps, but a professor of what? Physics? Was it physics that inspired him to worship this unlikely God? Yes, it was definitely physics. How long ago was it? I tried to size his mane. Twenty years? Is he still dangerous? If he thought I was a threat to his religion, would he kill me too?
"He had to go," the man continued with such sadness, that his craziness acquired a new, creepy finish. "Not the way I wanted, though. I could not wait for the natural order to remove him. It had to be faster, he could not be found. I had to intervene."
I threw a cautious look at the mattress. Was there a body chopped to pieces underneath those rags? Did he bring it here, to this temple of his, as an offering to his God? Did he watch it decay into clean meatless bones, clapping his hands in delight?
"Don't worry," the man caught me on that thought, "Frank isn't here. He never left the floor of that building, the floor he was so keen on washing. Some particles of him are still there, in a way, not that they would recognize him even if they found him. No one ever did," he sounded almost surprised at his luck. "Frank had to go. But at least he's not wasting his life fighting the divine manifestation."
That man was crazy, but he was also cunning, able to hide the evidence and escape justice. I needed to leave this suffocating room before I joined poor Frank. But how? I couldn't just run, could I? I darted a look back at the door. It was a tall, wooden door, painted light grey. Or was it white with a coat of dust? The man stood between me and that door. He was my height, and he appeared strong. If I fought him, would I win?
The man looked at me with a sly smile, "You wanted to know my story, and now you've seen it. But do you understand?"
The only thing I understood was he wasn't a man I could disagree with.
"I understand," I nodded, keeping my eyes on his shoulder, not daring to meet his gaze. "Frank had to go. He was a fool who did not know what he was doing, and he had to go."
"You understand," the man smiled.
"Yes," I made a small step back. "You did nothing wrong, Frank had it coming. You did what you had to do."
I looked back at the uniform suspended above the bed. This was a faded—perhaps yellow when new—worn down thing. A long and slim garment, it would have fitted me if I wanted to try it on. The name embroidery was bold black on a patch of white, made with the quality of the last century. The trousers had bulky swellings in front where the knees were. Frank must have kneeled a lot when he wore that thing to work. I tried to find blood on its fabric. Was there blood? How much blood would it be if Frank fell and broke his skull? The collar was darker than the rest of the thing, but still of the same colour. Did Frank's killer wash it? Why would he take it off his victim and bring it here, an incriminating piece of evidence? Was it an icon to his God? A reminder? A warning?
Something wasn't right.
I looked at the room again, trying to imagine what it looked like before he turned it into a temple. A tiny kitchen, a single bed. An armchair and a telly. No bookshelf, no desk, no reading lights. How would this flat suit a professor?
"What is your name?" I asked quietly.
"My name?" he asked, startled.
"Yes, your name," I repeated, my eyes back on the uniform. "I want to know your name."
"I," he stumbled and looked at the uniform himself. "I'm afraid I cannot say."
The man suddenly appeared small and frail. His bony shoulders shrank to his ears, and his saggy cheeks could no longer hide the signs of malnutrition and sleep deprivation under the tangles of that enormous beard.
"Who were you before you found your true God?" I asked him again, surprised at the compassion note in my voice.
"I was a scholar," he said, trying to sound sure of himself, "a man of science."
I met his eyes, these colourless buttons with a wandering spark in each, and his craziness no longer scared me, as if his carefully crafted image of dreadful confidence suddenly crumbled, revealing a vulnerable, sorry creature I could crush with a single word.
"What was your field of research?" I asked, not knowing if these were the words that would break him, but daring anyway. "What journal was your paper published in?"
"I," he muttered, and I knew he wouldn't offer me a satisfactory answer.
"You are not a man of science," I said. "No more than I am a physicist after watching popular science shows. I think," I drove the last nail, "I think you're Frank."
It was his uniform on that nail above the mattress, I was now sure of it. No one notices the floor tile size in a corridor of their workplace, not unless they mop it. He was the janitor. He wore this uniform to his job somewhere in an institute, cussing at real academics for stepping on wet patches. A pointless, thankless job. He fought entropy every night, and every night he came back home to this simple flat—a flat he must have inherited—to have a quick meal in front of a telly, watching real scientists talk about dark matter and black holes, often falling asleep before reaching the bed.
Did he really kill someone? Was it a professor? Was it out of envy for his status and erudition or just a pity accident? Did Frank push him, mad for ruining his spotless floor? Or did Frank find his already dead body? A man could have slipped on a wet floor, hit his head and died. Frank could have had nothing to do with it—he said so himself—it was gravity and lack of traction. And Frank panicked and decided to hide the body. It was a pure self-preservation reflex: that body had to go. It had to go far, nobody could ever find it, or they would lock Frank away.
Frank cleaned the mess. Whether the act that caused it was intentional or accidental, Frank still cleaned the mess. Cleaning that mess must have been a terrible, horrible undertaking. Mixed with feelings of lingering guilt for not doing the right thing, for not calling the medics and trying to save the man's life, the picture of cleaning the mess mutated. Even if he didn't kill the man, what he did afterwards became as gruesome of a crime as the killing itself. It turned into mortal sin, a sickening offence against a mighty and unforgiving God.
Did his guilty mind crack then and there, forgetting his role in this event? Did the victim and the killer trade places that same moment? Frank, a guilty man—no, a fool who didn't know what he was doing—had to go. In his place came this wise scholar, appreciating beauty in the undisturbed natural order of things.
"You are insane!" the man shouted. I could not tell, was it a second after I threw my accusations at him or ten minutes. "How dare you step into my temple and call me an imposter?" He pointed his finger at the door behind his back. "Get out!"
I misjudged him again. Prediction after prediction, with this man it was as if I've lost my gift for understanding people. Words had no power over him; nothing I could say would ever hurt him. The acolyte of decay would never accept the truth I was ready to present. Frank suffered a pointless life, and he had to go. Whoever took his place was not Frank. The God of Entropy saved an aching mind, and now that mind had to worship this God forever to stay buoyant.
Was there ever a body? Frank could have been the one who slipped and fell, and as his head touched the creamy square tiles in a violent bang, it dawned on him how meaningless his fight against entropy was. Frank never left the floor of that building—a different person stood up in his stead.
Which one of these explanations was I prepared to walk away with, I wondered as the man gave me an impatient look.
"Get out of my temple!" he said.
I complied. I reached for the shaky handle of the grey door, and before it let me out, I threw one last curious look at the room. Ten years from now, to an untrained eye, this room will appear the same. The dust layer will be thicker, the furniture will be more speckled, the fabric of the janitor garb will be thinner and paler, but no one will appreciate the difference. All they will see—all I saw at first—is abandonment. Only someone who once was Frank, someone who was rescued by the idea of an ultimate uniform peace, would see here a gradual, relentless process towards a perfect finale of chaos, something as safe and soothing as blameless non-existence, a temple of terminal peace.