The Return of Pogs

8 min read

“Fish. Everywhere the smell of fish.” Said Pogs disapprovingly as the peons threw frozen salmon into the flames. “Fish fish fish-“

“OKAY ALREADY I smell it too. At any rate I’m surprised you can still smell.” I said.

“What makes you say that, Ben?” He said, eyes glazed in thought as the bonfire crept higher into the night. One last evening on the Shawangunk ridge.

“You were in that coffin for an awfully long time.” I said flatly. “Besides, what else would they use? I personally don’t even think that using fish is humane.”

“May your thoughts of interspecies equanimity be noticed by the divine. I just can’t stand the smell.” Groaned Pogs as the cantor began to sing in bastardized Latin and the rest of them, about a dozen, stood staring soullessly into the fire, arms joined.

“Wait there,” Pogs said, “You’re a Christian, or close to it anyway. Why would DID I choose this as a send-off, anyway?” He said loudly as the cantor glared at him. The drummer drummed and the piper piped and the revelers danced, first in a slow moving circle and then in a blur, noisily chanting a focusing rite.

“You don’t know what I believe. Plus, you know damn well your taunting me.” I said as I regarded him with a raised eyebrow. He was too lost in the pomp and circumstance of the revelry to respond. I watched as the fire played off of his now deathly pale skin, and twinkled through the sea gems of his eyes, eyes that had seen things that no mortal man was meant to.

Then we just watched as they lowered an effigy of the Reaper into the fire, complete with a foam scythe and paper mache wings. One had to laugh at it, but one couldn’t help but look at the twisted skeletal leer of it’s expertly crafted face, a smile and a grimace at the same time, and experience some awe, or some inversion of the feeling of it as the mannequin caught and the skeleton underneath dripped slowly into the flames, revealing wires.

“Impressive, in a nostalgic and corny kind of way.” Pogs said. “How big was the Facebook group for these gibbering ghouls anyway?”

“Big enough apparently, not that I was involved in putting it together. You are usually the one to notice things like that.” I said. “Don’t get me wrong, I like camp as much as the next person. There’s just something missing here.”

“The missing ingredient is fear. The fear is gone for the rest of us, and weak even for “believers” in stuff like this. Nobody’s scared of Death anymore, Pogs.” Pogs said, crossing his arms. “In this way these folks have lost people and remain at the fringes.”

“True, but people are still scared of Dying, of facing the inconceivable and the eternal with nothing but the merit of their own souls.” I amended, before I took a long look over at him.

“So in this way, the established religions are winning people over. ” He agreed grudgingly. “Yet, each year, less and less people believe total, they’re going somewhere else… but then again these are not my people anymore than they’re yours.” He said sardonically. “I’m too complex for them, and you’re too optimistic… Heeey, is this what you came here for, a duel of wits? Be honest…”

I sat down pretzel style on one of the limestone mini boulders. “It sure wasn’t to send you off, buddy, though it is about time we skipped town.”

He plopped down on a stump, and leaned forward heavily on his walking stick staring intently at me, eyes furrowed as if trying to discern some hidden thing. Finally, he was the one to start off.

“Don’t call me ‘buddy.’” He said, spitting expertly into the fire and kicking up a few stray sparks.

“Ok, Pogs.” I said, looking askance.

“You just want to be on the winning side. Admit it.” He snarled.

“You’re on the whining side. What good are fringe benefits if they come with an expiration date and eternal down payments?”

“Speaking of down payments, how’s Louie? Is he still doing that rap he made about… well, down payments?” Pogs said, pulling back to reality.

I smiled unsmilingly. “You don’t care a hoot how Louie is.”

“You’re right, I don’t at all. Sad, what time and rehearsed stupidity do to friendships.” He said cackling.

“Anyway, getting back to our conversation, I don’t sign my life away for anything, (except for my lease) so I might as well not sign my afterlife away for anything I don’t agree with.” I said pointing both up and down.

“Oh please, don’t use logic against me. You’re a chickenshit to the n’th degree.” Pogs said. He poked my knee with his walking stick for good measure.

One of the revelers howled. looked up, the full moon had come out as the sun went down to its bloody demise on the mountainous horizon. Some hikers coming down from the mountain yelled, “Shut up freaks” and “Go back to California!” They went back and forth. We couldn’t help but laugh at the spectacle.

“That, if anything, has been my point to you this whole time.” Muttered Pogs.

“What, that the world is made up of a dichotomy, and only people with “the gift” can see past it?” I groaned.

“It’s full of dichotomies, actually, but you get my point. You get to be part of an awakening or a shouting match.” Said Pogs.

“You must feel so self satisfied.” I said, mock clapping.

“I feel vexed as to why someone with so much experience of the Beyond would still stick to his theological guns.” He said.

“Call it a hunch, but I get the feeling you still believe in something, just as strongly as I do, maybe even stronger.” I said.

“Is that a bone of contention?” Pogs said. “All right. You got me. I do Believe.”

“Just not in the Good Man from Galilee, even though His power saved your miserable soul?” I said.

“If you are referring to the planar incident in Brooklyn-“ he began.

“Which was your fault.” I interrupted.

“-Quite right. If not for that incident I would not believe at all in a transcendent deity, however he, she, or it may appear.” He said nervously.

“So you do believe in God god.” I suggested.

“Without splitting so many hairs, sure, why not.” He said.

“But not in Eternal Salvation.” I said. “Man, I feel for you.”

“Why, because I was buried and had to crawl and scrape my way up through wood, rocks, soil, and mud? He asked.

“Partially, it’s just because you don’t see the blessing in your what happened to you.” I sighed.

“You are so naïve its unbelievable. Sure, I believe in myself relatively less, but there’s no reason I should give up what I have to be a part of the fold, as it were.”

I shook my head slowly. “You think I’m simple. I’m not, I’m hopeful.”

“And you think I don’t have any hope at all?” Pogs asked.

A familiar breeze teased at my body as the festivities winded down.

“I wouldn’t say none. But the last two or three years have showed me that you have quite the ego to deflate.”

“Is that really all you had to say, ‘curb thine vainglory?’” he said.

I looked up at the moon for inspiration, and said,“No. I think you already have graduated from self worship and see the limitations of things.” I looked into the fire, where the skeletal figure crackled and charred whilst the cultists roasted marshmallows. “But you should be careful not to attach yourself to a lesser set of ideas. They seem to last forever, but they don’t and when they fall they take all of their worshippers with them.”

“I will warn you but once, Ben. Stay out of my business.”

I bowed my head, exhausted as the fumes of firewood and the sweet smell of melting mallows gave me a brief nostalgia trip. “I remember the old days, where it was just you and me, going to rock shows, talking to people about weird stuff, arguing politics. But undeath has not treated you well.”

“Well, idealism isn’t going to get you anywhere either, Ben. You know as well as I do that people change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.” Pogs said. “Forgive the repetition but I simply can’t get over how little you have apparently been transfigured by your journeys beyond the mundane.”

“For me, sticking to one faith is better than waking up every day with certainty at the price of my peace of mind.” I said.

“Hmph…I can see that I wonder what Alice would have to say about this.” Pogs mused.

“Probably too much, being that she takes in everything that comes her way. I too hold varied beliefs, but I also believe, as the Nahuatl did, that if you give your heart to each and everything you lead it nowhere and destroy it. Likewise if you shut everything out, your heart withers.”

“So, a balance.” Said Pogs.

“That’s probably the best were going to come up with tonight, amigo.” I said, shrugging.

“It seems we are all caught between a dying of religion and the dawning of something else.” Said Pogs cautiously.

“We know how this ends.” I said.

“Yes, well, I suppose what I want to know is what happens next?” Pogs finished.

“You don’t really want to know that.” I teased. “Neither do I, for the most part.”

“You’re right, I dread it.” He said, shuddering.

“Crash for the night?” I offered.

“Yeah. At your place though. Skip that cabin, it reminds me too much of a coffin and the cold grave.” Pogs mumbled.

We turned our back on the scene as the master of ceremonies tipped his head back, raised his arms and said “O Father of Darkness, thank you for these unblessed marshmallows…” in part of a rambling speech of which I was glad we were not being addressed, because we knew we’d end up laughing. We did chortle as soon as we got down the steps to the State Park entrance and into the Toyota Tacoma.

“Do you remember when we used to be like those kids?” I asked in an old mans quavering voice.

“I try to forget.” Pogs said, facepalming. “Put something good and or loud on so we can make the drive and not be killed-killed.”

“Your wish is my command.” I said, putting on 101.5, the classic rock station. We drove down into the changed town, and made our way over to the highway, a mostly straight drive.

“Don’t say it Ben.” He commanded.

“You know what I wonder?” I asked.

“One question Ben.” Pogs sighed.

“Why did you come back anyway?” I asked.

“…I believed, at the time, that I had some unfinished business to attend to.” He said smartly.

“What kind of unfinished business?” I asked, beeping at someone going slow in the passing lane.

“…we’ll see. I will win this argument though. One way or another.” Pogs hissed while adjusting his bowler hat.

Thunder rolled in the distance as BOC’s Burnin’ For You came on the radio. Neither of us said a word.

Written by Octohat

Born in the USA to a Nicaraguan and Jewish family, Gabriel Zalkin is a painter and illustrator with a practice in his hometown of Woodridge New York. He earned an undergraduate degree from the State University of New Paltz in January of 2019, and is also a fiction writer.

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