The Price of an Honest Man
I flipped on an audio book, ran a hot bucket of soapy mop water, and began to clean the kitchen. “Alpine Pine,” is the soap this go around.
The scent is fake evergreen, but it’s not overbearing like a urinal cake. (Don’t ask me how I know what those smell like.) It’s kind of a middle ground between port-a-john cedar and Bath-and-Body Works winter candles. I don't like the smell of it as much as I like thieves oil cleaner, but every so often, I do like to hit the tile with a heavy duty, old fashioned chemical-laden scrub.
Lately I find myself doing sentimental things like that. This morning, for instance, I wanted the smell of Folgers coffee from the red tin can, popping and gurgling inside of my great-grandmother’s percolator.
My Bialetti reminds me of that percolator somehow. Now when I spend those long, impatient minutes standing at the stove, shifting one cold, bare foot on top of the other, waiting for pressure to build, I remember her faded china plates loaded with thick triangles of chocolate icebox pie. When I’d bump the table, they would pass a gelatinous shiver. This was deep, cold, ebony chocolate so dark and so sweet you had to chase each bite.
I’m pulled back to 2017 with a rush of thick, black liquid. How I adore the startling jolt of cheap, Cuban Café Bustelo ($2.98 a bag), so mellow and so rustic, hearty as a lined flannel shirt worn to do hard winter work on a farm.
I love a rich woman’s tea, but I say coffee should be masculine and plebian, the lifeblood of soldiers and construction workers, the best of what the common man has to offer and no more. I have as little tolerance for elite coffees as I have for career politicians.
The book I listen to as I mop is Les Mis, the unabridged, 60-hour wonder translated by Julie Rose. Scholars aren’t overly fond of this translation because Rose drops in modern English colloquialisms that break the reader’s trance. I love this translation because I’m willing to stomach her misses for her hits. The most horrible thing that might happen to this particular plot is that it would be made too academic. Only the second worst, or perhaps the third, is that it might be made overly relevant.
As I was finishing the floors, these lines were read:
“Once he had left Digne, he had succeeded in disappearing and soon sold the bishop's silver--except the candlesticks. He kept them as a reminder of what the bishop had done for him--and as a reminder of his admonition: "Do not forget. Never forget that you have promised to use this silver to become an honest man. You no longer belong to evil, but to good. I have bought your soul from you . . . and I give it to God."
Hugo was writing here about Jean Valjean, the protagonist who is caught here in the greatest dilemma of his life. In the fear and dread of this awful moment, a moment in which he could keep to silent dishonesty and preserve himself from the past that haunts him, he sees the two silver candlesticks that were used to purchase his new life by the Bishop Myriel.
I thought of these candlesticks last night while watching the latest episode of BBC’s Sherlock.
(****Spoilers next, so stop reading, if you haven’t watched it yet.****)
In the episode prior, Mary (Watson’s wife) leaps before a gun to save Sherlock’s life. Mary dies. Sherlock lives. He cannot forgive himself for the sacrifice that she has made, nor the cost of this sacrifice to the husband who adored her.
In the most moving scene I have watched in this series to date, Sherlock says,
“In saving my life she conferred a value to it, a value I do not know how to spend.”
He was bought. His life was purchased by the life of another, an odd circumstance for a man who is used to being strong, competent, in charge. Suddenly this giant is living and breathing by the strength of another.
“Yes, that’s it,” I thought. “That’s it. That is the pinch I am feeling today.”
I rolled the bucket to the hallway and pulled my silver candlesticks out of a cabinet. They were a wedding gift, but I haven’t polished them in ten years. Life has been too traumatic, to disappointing, too busy to indulge in such silly things.
I don’t even have any silver paste. Copper polish. Furniture polish. Scratch repair. Windex. That’s it.
Google, then. “Homemade silver polish.”
Martha Stewart. Reader’s Digest. They enter the feed like moments from a past life. “Do people still dye eggs with beets?” I thought.
Here is an answer.
“Baking soda. Vinegar. Aluminum foil. Catsup.”
I can't decide, so I try all of them, scrubbing with the splayed green toothbrush my son left in the bathroom before heading back to college.
As I work, I hear, “Preach the gospel to yourself." And so I preached to my own heart while the thick, black and grey tarnish began to lift, ”Remember what you cost.”
I begin to see my reflection in the silver. I’m wearing my glasses, my hair isn't brushed, and last night I didn’t wash off my makeup. There are dark mascara circles under my eyes. The precision of this pure silver shows too much. I'd like to be cleaned up a bit, in some flattering light.
But Victor Hugo takes me onward to the scene in which Jean Valjean realizes that he must reveal his true identity or else betray his God.
“He knew what he must do,” ... “This would be the greatest of sacrifices, while ironically being the most profound victory at the same time. It was the last step for him to take, but it must be done. In this one sad step, he would enter into sanctity in the eyes of God alone and return to infamy in the eyes of men.”
Sober admission. All tarnish gone. Yes, yes. The Light of the World could burn from such a candlestick as this. Such honesty could illuminate the darkest of rooms.
But it is so terribly difficult to keep clear things clear lately.
My Facebook feed this morning was full of bashing and insults, and my heart broke, not because my political opponents were cruel, but because those I consider my brothers and my sisters were callused.
I was reminded of that scene from Richard Harris’s Camelot in which he sees the knights of his own table enraged by Lancelot's wrongdoing, full of thirst for blood and justice. The round table is cracked, chaos and barbarism fill the land, and in this turmoil, Arthur rejects Guinevere’s offer to be burned at the stake to pay for her sins.
I can’t remember the exact words, but Arthur says something like, “Revenge, is the worst of motives.” He realizes that simple justice will not satiate a hunger so lethal.
This is how I feel looking at the response of conservative America to Meryl Streep’s accusation. My own people are riddled through with righteous indignation, full of defensiveness and anger. They trust the instigators of national division, the false, Mordridian media that profits from keeping cortisol high.
Might for right is no more. We are now driven by an eight-year-old thirst for vengeance.
How I wish we could clean the tarnish off our silver and see our own reflections. How I wish we could simply admit our own names--that we are prisoners 24601--bought by the sacrifice of another.
How I wish we would simply say, "You're right. How terrible we have been. We're sorry. We will try to do better from now on."
How I wish we could stand strong and dignified while confessing our sins, no matter who points them out to us. How I wish we would be determined while repenting from them, men and women who live under a battle cry of, “In saving my life He conferred a value to it, a value I do not know how to spend.”
But we are drunk with revenge. Drunk, and mad, and tarnished.
I feel my own anger rise, my own self-righteousness, the fluttery, animal panic of a little field mammal whose burrow has been crushed with a shovel. Insult, and mockery, and vengeance are contagious, and we are living in the midst of a great epidemic.
I don’t know where to turn until I realize that if I didn’t feel like a stranger in a land so strange as this, something would truly be wrong with my instincts.
It hasn’t ever been right to call such a place home, really. The smell of coffee. The sight of a fresh-scrubbed floor. Do they really back so much as they look forward?
I remember how the backs of my great-grandmother’s hands ran with thick veins beneath loose, papery skin. Her fingers were crooked from the work of giving. A sign on her mantle said, “Jesus Never Fails.” All she gave, she gave in hope.
And I am here on loan, the purchase and the property of a mighty sacrifice. That same blood runs in my veins, her blood, and HIs blood.
What does that mean? What does that really mean? I am fumbling, and I am learning.
I stop scrubbing and catch myself in the gleam of two pieces of silver, offered on my behalf by a generous High Priest.