Godless whore 

Treading the thin line between sanity and insanity

I envy insane people. I saw one standing on the street corner in Portland the other day, wearing a sandwich board he'd fashioned by blacking out some panels of a cardboard banana box and draping them over his shoulders. The sandwich board was covered in odd evangelical scribblings, such as "SEX=AIDS=HELL," and he stood there waving his arms and shouting verbal vomit to match. I thought it appropriate that you could still see the outline of bananas on the blacked-out cardboard panels, but I must have been peering too closely, maybe puncturing his little circle of insanity, because as I passed by, he interrupted himself, pointed at me and screamed, "FILTHY, EVIL GODLESS WHORE!"

I scurried away, trying not to smile. "How'd he know your pet name?" Lary joked to me over the phone later. Lary enjoys a somewhat minor level of insanity himself. He has an entire other personality he calls "Evil Otis," who is always landing him in jail, like the time Otis took over when Lary was working on the roof of Philips Arena. The next thing he knew, he was throwing boulders at a police car on the street below. Afterward, Lary had to get his ex-girlfriend to bail him out of the hoosegow. But Evil Otis has his upside, too, such as when Lary found himself in the Bahamas on the beach fucking a blond Ukrainian casino dealer in public. If not for Otis, Lary says, he might miss out on stuff like this, making the occasional incarceration a fair price to pay.

But Lary has yet to take up screaming on street corners. "Wouldn't you love to do that?" I asked him. "Wouldn't it be great to be that insane and not care if people stare at you?"

"You don't have it in you," he said.

Ha! How little he knows me. The fact is I'm pretty sure I have it in me. My sister Cheryl definitely does. For example, as a kid she was so crazy even Jehovah's Witnesses refused to enter our house. I remember one came to our door when our parents were out, and my older brother, then 14, asked her inside. The lady got as far as the living room, where she was assaulted by the sight of my sister Cheryl in the throes of one of her nuclear tantrums.

"GODDAMIT!" Cheryl was shrieking, flailing about and flicking water everywhere owing to the bucket my brother had just dumped on her in hopes of eliciting the tantrum for some afternoon entertainment. It worked, and Cheryl was in full throttle; a heaving, snorting, snarly-faced, cussing mess of kid-like limbs on the floor writhing like a pile of dying snakes. The lady lasted one nanosecond before turning on her heel and dashing, ashen-faced and screaming herself, back to the street. My brother laughed so hard, he almost coughed up a kidney. The lady's reaction was exactly as he'd hoped.

"Godless!" the lady screamed. "Awful, godless little beasts!"

Jehovah's Witnesses never knocked on our door again, I mean ever, even after we moved across the country to Melbourne Beach, Fla. On the whole, I was mildly disheartened because I was hoping one day someone would take it upon him or herself to save our souls, but I figure we must have been branded network-wide or something, as if our household, no matter where it pitched itself, could not escape the earmark as a haven for Satan spawn. It didn't help that our favorite family pastime was to hang out at cemeteries and watch woodland creatures eat flowers off fresh graves, either.

So on Sundays, when our friends were at church, my sisters and I could be found barefoot at the splintery old town pier, trying to catch sailor fish by using clumps of canned shrimp cocktail as bait. I loved that pier. I remember the three of us, tanned and salty-skinned, happy and languid, oblivious to our godlessness, dragging the shredded shrimp bits along the surface of the river hoping to entice feeble-minded fish to bite.

I went back to that pier once, decades later, after I'd moved to Atlanta and the rest of my family had fanned out, unconnected, over the planet like tribeless nomads. It was exactly as I remembered, the pier, splintery and decrepit, beef-jerky colored. You almost needed a tetanus shot just to set foot on it. I couldn't believe I ever frolicked barefoot on that thing.

I walked with covered feet to the end, where some kids were fishing. They'd catch one, reel it in, toss it back and start over. They were barefoot and the sun was warm as a womb, baking them like little angel cakes. I sat on an edge nearby and dangled my legs over the water, trying to impersonate a benign entity just sharing a pier with some carefree kids, instead of the lost lemming that I was -- needful, searching for the scattered threads of my heart, looking for a way to weave them back together so I can pass my godless self off as whole. But I couldn't manage it. Instead the kids ended up staring at me, wondering who this person was, this insane person, shoeless now, blubbering on the end of a pier with nothing but her sock to wipe her snot away.

Hollis Gillespie's commentaries can be heard on NPR's "All Things Considered." To catch her latest commentaries, go to www.hollisgillespie.com.

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