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The Agnostic Grappler’s Itinerary
An entirely unfamiliar older gentleman drove me across a bare countryside. The car passed sheds where tires were sold, sheep with motionless shepherds. Disposable diapers hung with laundry where there were houses.
     I was unaware of the duration of time I had spent in this car. It was near the end of that duration I became aware of a sore in my mouth.
     “Do you appreciate the landscape?” the driver asked.
     “I’m not sure what to look for,” I said. “I’m new.”
     “You’ve been here a good time now,” he said, with a gesture to push away silliness.“Speak your mind, brother.”
     “Brother?” I asked. 
     “Yes,” the driver said. “It is safe to say we’ve become friends.”
     “Friends?” I asked.
     “Friends,” he said.
     “All right,” I said.
     The driver looked at me in the rearview.
     “I do not make friends easily,” he said.
     My friend was thin and composed and contained angles. While he was now seated and driving, I gathered that, while standing and walking, he did so with the grace and certitude of a lifelong athlete. 
     “You encounter everything with fresh eyes,” he said. 
     “That’s gratifying,” I said. “Thank you.” 
     “Please,” he said, with another gesture. “You make a stellar companion.”

The landscape was consistently short on expression. When it did express itself, it did so with all it had and some help from the government. On an austere and stubbled plain stood a bulbous metal sculpture in an unnatural shade of purple. It looked like a large man flexing, a man without bones.
     “Monument,” my friend pointed. “In honor of our hazelnut industry.”
     “It looks like a man lifting weights,” I said.
     “Good eye,” he said, chuckling. “Hazelnuts make our men strong.”
     “You mean they can lift heavy weights?” I asked.
     “I mean this,” he said. 
     He made a gesture with his pelvis.
     “Stop that,” I said.
     We passed an identical sculpture.
     “A further celebration of hazelnuts?” I asked. 
     “No,” he said. “Weightlifting.”
     I chuckled.
     “Our weightlifters are nothing to laugh at,” he said.
     “Excuse me,” I said.
     “The monument honors our dominance in powerlifting,” he said. 
     “Powerlifting and hazelnuts,” I said.
     “Hazelnuts are no use to a powerlifter,” he said, raising an eyebrow, “unless the powerlifter’s wife is around.” 
     “Enough,” I said. “Which weightlifting event is the country known for?”
     My friend took his hands from the wheel and raised his arms overhead, pushing against the car ceiling.
     “Military press?” I asked.
     “Dead lift,” he said. 
     “What’s that?” I asked.
     “No one can pick up objects and carry them like men of this land,” he said.

An expanse of road followed the monument in which the only landmarks were men at roadside selling barbeque.
     “If we are friends—” I began. 
     “A friendship like ours—” he interrupted, shaking a fist “—is as strong as the embrace of an old woman in high wind.”
     He began to tear up.
     “Let me admit something,” I said.
     “Anything,” he said, blotting a tear.
     “I have a sore in my mouth,” I said.
     “You have a sore in your mouth,” he said.
     “It is of unknown origin,” I said.
     “It goes without saying,” he said.
     “It worries me,” I said.
     “Stick out your tongue,” he said.
     I stuck out my tongue. He leaned into the rearview.
     “This changes our plans,” he said. 

Outside the hospital stood a row of exceptionally large attendants, each with wheelchair. With sureness of foot, my friend approached, waved off the attendant who met us, picked me up against my will, and dropped me into a chair. He slapped the large attendant. The attendant pushed. 
     “On what floor are diseases of mouth and throat treated?” my friend asked.
     The attendant laughed with joy and rotated, gesturing expressively in several directions.
     “What does that mean?” I asked.
     “It means any floor will do,” he said.
     “It did?” I asked.
     “It’s a lie,” my friend said. “Fourth floor.”
     “If you knew the floor, why did you ask?”
     “To discern that the facility is reputable,” he said.

With his wedding ring, my friend tapped a beat against the railing. He puffed his chest and bellowed an anthem. Reverberations were mighty. Fellow occupants of the staircase picked up the tune. The stairs swelled with song. The attendant remained silent, eyes downcast, concentrated on the difficult task of pushing a chair upstairs. As we got off on the fourth floor, a new verse began.
     The fourth floor was quiet and ordered. In the waiting area, my friend gestured to me. 
     “Up,” he said.
     I rose. He slapped the attendant’s back.
     “Off with you,” he said.
     The attendant remained. My friend whispered in his ear. Taken by fear, the attendant left without further delay.
     “God,” I said. “What did you say?”
     “That the second floor was holding a cupcake sale,” he said.
     “Is it true?” I asked.
     “In spirit,” he said.

The nurse entered the examination room, and conversed briefly with my friend. My friend handed him some bills, which the nurse pocketed before directing his attention to my nose.
     “Wrong place,” I said.
     “What does he say?” the nurse asked.
     “He says, ‘Keep going. That feels very nice,’” my friend said.
     The nurse returned to my nose and fiddled with it without regard for my comfort.
     “Are we friends?” I asked my driver.
     “We are close,” he said. “You spent Christmas in the company of my family. You counseled my grandchildren in matters of the decimal place.”
     “Silence,” said the nurse. “Do you wish for me to conduct my work, or shall I bring out bowls of nuts and dried fruit so we may exchange stories and watch television? I would not be averse to that.”
     “We apologize,” my friend said.
     “There is a match on,” the nurse said. “It is competitive.”
     “Do your job, man,” my friend scolded. “Your patient suffers from a sore in his mouth.”
     The nurse began coughing heavily.
     “Is he OK?” I asked.
     My friend gave him more bills. The coughing fit ended. The nurse returned to my nose. He gave it prolonged examination. The examination continued to cause discomfort.
     “Your good friend has a sore on his tongue,” the nurse said.
     “He said it was in his mouth,” my friend said.
     “Your friend lies,” the nurse said.
     “He would never lie,” my friend declared, rising.
     “A tongue is part of a mouth,” I said.
     “What does he say?” the nurse asked.
     “My friend says the sore moved from his mouth to his tongue,” he said.
     “Moved?” the nurse asked. “That is a serious condition.”
     “We came here for serious treatment,” my friend said. 
     The nurse nodded and left. My friend sat.
     “Where did he go?” I asked.
     “To the cupcakes,” he said.
     “Are you serious?” I asked.
     “I am making sport,” he said. “He went to consult the specialist.”
     “Is my condition serious?” I asked.
     “I drive a car for a living,” he said.
     My friend began to hum his anthem. I began to get emotional.
     “I am not sure where I am, I have a sore in my mouth, and I don’t know its origin! What will happen to me?”
     “Careful,” my friend said. “You know how you get.”

The nurse returned with a cupcake and a member of the clergy. I was made to stick out my tongue for examination. The clergyman swung a censer of incense around my head and outstretched tongue, applied ointment on my nose. 
     I sneezed. 
     “He has an allergy,” the nurse said.
     “Is your friend an atheist?” the clergyman asked, swinging the censer.
     “How dare you ask that!” my friend said.
     “I do not treat atheists,” the clergyman said. He grabbed the censer’s chain. “If he is without God he must leave.”
     “Father,” the nurse said, “a line divides atheism and allergies.”
     “In the modern world this line is smudged,” the clergyman said.
     When the smoke cleared, the clergyman, nurse, and my driver inspected me.
     “He is easier seen now that the smoke has cleared,” the clergyman said.
     “Stick out your tongue,” my friend said.
     “It is my job to make such commands,” the nurse said. “Who are you?”
     “His driver and good friend,” he said. “Your patient spent Easter with my family.”
     “How was the patient around your wife and sisters?” the nurse asked.
     “Well mannered,” my friend said. “He advised with my wife on husbandry while I was in the other room.”
     “Fine,” the nurse said, and turned to me. “Do as your good friend says.” 
     They examined.
     “Enough,” the clergyman said, and swung the censer to obscure me in smoke. “We will consult with each other and return.” 
     I heard the door close.
     “Friend?” my friend asked.
     “I’m here,” I said.
     “Try to keep matters of faith to yourself,” he said. 
     “What?” I asked. “I didn’t say—”
     “Shh!” he said.
     The two returned. A window was opened. When smoke dispersed, I could see the nurse flapping a carpet by the window. The clergyman stood in front of us. He held a scepter. 
     “There are possibilities,” the clergyman said.
     “There are more possibilities in life than apples in the fool’s basket,” my friend said.
     Everyone but me found this comical.
     “A man cannot eat a possibility,” my friend said. 
     They laughed again. The priest bent down and looked into my eyes. His expression sobered.
     “Tell me,” the clergyman said, “what sort of women has your friend associated with?”
     “Do not question his women,” my friend said.
     “Do you desire specialized treatment?” the clergyman asked.
     “His women are always of the highest quality!” my friend declared.
     The clergyman exited.
     “Thank you,” I said.
     “For what?” he asked. 
     “The defense of my character,” I said.
     “It is evident,” my friend said. “You were well mannered before my wife.”
     “I don’t remember that,” I said.
     “You wouldn’t,” he said. “You aren’t the sort who demands a pat on his back.”
     “I’m not?” I asked.
     “Plus,” he said. “Your eyes do not dart this way, then that way, then this way again.” 
     The nurse whipped the carpet against a metal cabinet.
     “Do you want the best medical treatment for your friend?” the nurse asked.
     My friend made further proclamations about the beauty, rectitude, and solidity of the women with whom I had been associated. The nurse kicked the wastebasket and repeated himself.
     “Of course,” my friend said. “We’re aware of this hospital’s quality.”
     “Does it follow,” the nurse said, “that you would resist our nation’s specialist in mouth sores?”
     “He was without tact,” my friend said.
     “Tact is folly for physicians,” the nurse said. “Minutes ago I probed your friend’s nose without nuance. If I were to do so while we were at market, inspecting produce, your friend would question my tact.”
     I laughed. The nurse and my friend looked at me.
     My friend sighed. He bowed his head.
     “I’m a fool,” my friend said. 
     I put my hand on his shoulder. He shook it off.
     “Hope grows abundant for fools,” the nurse said and, smiling, turned to me. “And their good friends.”
     Laughing, the nurse exited.

In the hospital gymnasium, patients and staff exercised on machines. Beneath a “no smoking” sign, an assortment of nurses smoked. At the gym’s center, a grappling competition was underway. Overweight men placed bets.
     My midsection and thighs were wrapped in black garbage-bag material fitted with elastic. I was led to a stair-climbing machine.
     “Here,” the nurse said. “Take exercise.”
     It was less a stair-climbing machine, more a small-wall-scaling machine. I made my way atop the first wall and stopped to rest.
     My friend and the nurse spoke with the most overweight man. They each gave the man several bills. The man nodded to a seated grappler in a red unitard. The grappler rose, jogged over, picked me up against my will, carried me to the mat, and dropped me. 
     “Round one!” the overweight man shouted. 
     My opponent dove for my ankles. I fell as a calf does when its legs are tied with rope. Fortunately, my arms were free. With them I crawled toward my friend.
     “Do it!” he yelled.
     “Do what?” I asked. My opponent climbed from my ankles up my legs. Fortunately, my legs are long.
     “Am I to believe your stories of Greco-Roman wrestling were made up?” he asked. “You would never lie to me. Stop this foolishness. Put your opponent in an uncomfortable position.”
     I had no animus toward my opponent, but my frustration at my treatment was great. Anger gave me strength but not strategy. I grabbed things, pulled them, pushed other things away. My opponent was either a novice or keenly interested in legs, which he tried to braid. Through kicks and convulsions, I made a floundering reversal. I held my opponent against the mat and did things that would, in my estimation, make him feel discomfort. For instance, I pulled his arm behind his back and up toward his head. With his free hand, my opponent pounded the mat. 
     The fat man pulled me from my opponent. 
     “Enough!” he scolded. “This is a competition, not a fight to the death.”
     Weeping, my opponent ran from the gymnasium. The fat man turned to my driver.
     “Your friend shows off,” he said.
     “He is dangerous when emotional,” my friend said, winking at me. “He knows how he gets.”
     “He was raised by parents who spoke softly,” the fat man said. “His father’s toes pointed outward.”
     “Cease,” my friend said. 
     “His grandmother’s yogurt made soldiers sick,” the fat man continued. “Goats ran from her.”
     My friend came within kissing distance of the fat man.
     “What do you say?” my friend asked.
     “Men of my size and stature do not repeat themselves,” the fat man said.
     My friend flew into a raging defense of my family. He went back several generations. He had done extensive genealogical research. He got so he could not speak to the fat man. He flailed arms, made nonverbal epithets, threw folding chairs, ran into walls at full speed. The nurse intervened and restrained him.
     “The grappler’s here for treatment,” the nurse said.
     “Sore of the mouth?” the fat man asked.
     The nurse nodded. The fat man handed a stack of money to the nurse, who gave half to my friend.
     “Discharged,” the fat man said.

The goat ride downstairs was victorious, jarring, and unpleasant in scent. In the staircase, my friend made a racket celebrating my victory, and loudly hymned the efficacy of his nation’s hospitals. Those who were not present for the match congratulated me and shared the story among themselves, adding details to the victory.
     “It is said he wrestles like a squid,” one said.
     “He left his opponent without the ability to recognize his wife,” another said. 
     “No—” I interjected.
     My friend nudged me.
     “Let them,” he said. “This is good for the health of everyone.”
     My friend returned to his frenzied celebrations. He jumped down entire flights, beat rhythms against walls and the upper torsos of those ascending the stairs. Only when we left the stairwell did he calm enough to have another verbal interaction. In the lobby, large attendants enjoyed impressively decorated cupcakes. 
     “What did I tell you about those cupcakes?” my friend asked our former attendant, clapping him on the shoulder and winking to me. The attendant attempted a reply, presumably in positive terms, but his mouth was prohibitively full of cupcake.
     We exited.
     “Outstanding treatment,” my friend said. He inhaled deeply. “Even the air feels healthier. Can you feel it?”
     “I have a sore in my mouth,” I said.
     My friend laughed. 
     “Stomach acid,” he said. “It rises to the throats of elite grapplers.”
     “No,” I said. “I haven’t eaten anything. I speak of the same sore as before.”
     “Stick out your tongue,” he said.
     “No,” I said.
     “Do you wish for me to open it against your will?” he asked. 
     “How could I?” I asked.
     “Excellent point,” he said, grinning. 

Exiting the small city took patience. There was traffic. There were pedestrians with little interest in longevity. A butcher worked by the road, a corral to his side. Sheep watched traffic. The sore moved to the roof of my mouth, then back to my tongue.
     “It has moved,” I said.
     “That water fountain has been there since old times,” my friend said.
     “No,” I said. “The sore.”
     “Ah,” he said. “The sore.”
     “Yes,” I said. “The sore has moved.”
     “To where?” he asked.
     I explained that the sore had moved but was now back where it had started.
     “This is more serious,” my friend said. “We must return to the hospital.”
     The car behind us sounded its horn. A police car. A policeman drove. In the passenger seat sat the hospital clergyman.
     “Oh god,” I said.
     “Don’t say that,” my friend said.
     “Oh,” I said.
     “That’s more like it,” he said.
     “They want us to pull over,” I said.
     “They chase,” he said.
     “In this traffic pedestrians could catch us,” I said.
     “They don’t wish to catch us,” my friend said. “They drive us from town.”
     “Why?” I asked. 
     “Your atheism,” he said.
     “Have I confided in you regarding religion?” I asked.
     “Yes,” he said. 
     Before us, traffic parted.
     “One benefit of being chased,” he said.
     We passed empty casinos and a market for tobacco and appliances.
     “It upset me,” my friend said.
     “What did?” I asked.
     “Your atheism,” he said.
     “I’m an atheist?” I asked.
     “You don’t believe things until you see them,” he said. “And you always see things for the first time.”
     “Thank you,” I said.
     “Please,” he said, making the gesture.
     “The sore,” I said.
     “There is a clinic in the next town,” he said. “This way.”
     “OK,” I said. 
     My friend shook his head.
     “What is it?” I asked.
     “As your good friend, I caution you,” he said. “The clinic is not a monument to our health-care system.”
     “Are they poorly equipped?” I asked.
     “Their methods are unorthodox,” he said.

The landscape grew more familiar the farther we traveled. My friend paused to ask directions of a shepherd. It began with pleasantries, intensified, then climaxed in unmovable disagreement. After prolonged debate, my friend exited the car and embraced his new friend. 
     He returned to the cart.
     “What did he say?” I asked.
     “I was going to ask you,” he said. “He doesn’t speak my language.”
     “There was considerable communication,” I said.
     “One does not need a common language for that,” he said.
     “You had a conversation,” I said.
     “I wouldn’t go that far,” he said. 
     “I would,” I said. 
     “It was more of a grappling match, if you know what I mean.” He winked. “Stick out your tongue, brother.” 
     He gave my mouth a close inspection while remaining alert to the contours of the road.
     “Oh boy,” my friend said. 
     “What is it?” I asked.
     “Pothole,” he said.
     “In my mouth?” I asked.
     “No,” he said, tilting his head toward the road.
     We approached a hole, but it was larger than the road. 
     “That’s too big to be a pothole,” I said. 
     My friend laughed. We drove around the hole. Oral inspection continued.
     “Eyes on the road,” I said.
     “Who’s the professional?” he asked.
     We continued around the circumference.
     “What is it?” I asked.
     “In your mouth or on the earth’s surface?” he asked.
     “The earth,” I said.
     “An inconvenience,” he said.
     “The hole,” I said. “What is it?”
     “A pothole,” he said. 
     “But we’re off the road,” I said.
     “Potholes do not require a road,” he said.
     “Not where I’m from,” I said.
     “We must stop this,” he said. “You know how you get.”
     My friend stopped inspecting my mouth, turned, and drove us straight into the hole. 

After a surprisingly pleasant duration at the pothole’s bottom, my friend grew agitated.
     “Rubbish!” he said, punching the wheel. 
     He turned to me. 
     “This auto was not built in this country,” he said.
     We exited through the windows and climbed from the hole. It was several minutes from sunset.
     “We require a donkey,” my friend said, “or a large man with nothing to do for the evening.” 
     My friend scouted the horizon. 
     “Do you see either?” he asked.
     “No,” I said.
     “Nor do I,” he said. “It must be cupcake hour at the nearest village.”

We didn’t pass a notable landmark. Nor did we walk in a consistent direction. Instead of addressing matters of our whereabouts, my friend inquired into my personal life. 
     “Why aren’t you married?” he asked.
     “We marry later where I’m from,” I said.
     “That’s lazy,” he said.
     “It gives people a chance to develop professionally,” I said.
     My friend stopped. He inhaled deliberately.
     “Yes,” he said, nodding. 
     “You agree?” I asked.
     “The air,” he said. He took another breath. 
     “The air?” I asked.
     “It’s healthy here,” he said, smiling. “Try it.” 
     I took a breath.
     “Not bad,” I said.
     “Through your mouth,” he said. “So the air treats the sore.”
     I inhaled through my mouth. 
     “So?” he asked. “How’d it feel?”
     I exhaled.
     “Good,” I said.
     “Yes!” he exclaimed. He thrust his fist in the air.
     My friend’s exuberance grew in quantity. In celebration of the salutary air, and in order to vent this accumulated joy, my friend began to jog—not toward a donkey or large man with little to do, and not toward the hospital of unorthodox methods. 
     “This is outstanding!” he declared. “Outstanding!”
     “Where are you jogging?” I asked.
     “In a direction, brother,” he said.
     “Is it appropriate?” I asked.
     “It is not,” he said, laughing. “So it is!”
     I began jogging in a slightly different direction.
     “How about this?” I asked.
     “Good form,” he said. 
     “And direction?” I shouted.
     “Well chosen,” he shouted.
     “Where are we headed?” I shouted.
     “Our itineraries are dictated by the beauty of the unfolding evening,” he shouted. 
     “Where?” I shouted. 
     “Can you feel the air?” he shouted.
     “Yes,” I shouted.
     “You have been a stellar companion,” he shouted.
     “Thank you,” I shouted.
     “Please,” he shouted.
     “Soon the distance between us will prevent communication,” I shouted.
     “What?” he shouted.
     “Soon the distance between us will prevent communication,” I shouted.
     “I was making sport,” he said. “I heard you the first time. Stick out your tongue, brother.”
     I stuck out my tongue.
     “The sore looks smaller,” he said.
     “You’re farther away,” I said.
     He found this comical. I found it sad.
     “Don’t be blue!” he shouted. “I’ve seen you skeptical and I’ve seen you frustrated. I don’t wish to see you blue!”
     “Where will your direction bring you?” I shouted.
     “My birthplace,” he shouted. “Years have passed since I have visited.”
     “And I?” I shouted.
     “You jog in an altogether different direction, brother,” he shouted.
     “Will I be OK?” I shouted.
     “Very,” he shouted. “You run toward a village whose people customarily have but one eyelid.”
     “Are they reputable?” I shouted.
     He closed his left eye, and stared at me with the right.
     “They are vigilant,” he shouted. 

Sean Casey’s work has recently appeared in McSweeney’s and Columbia, and is forthcoming in The Lifted Brow. He is a graduate of the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts. He teaches at Westfield State University and runs The Chuckwagon, a small press.