Derek and Emily had the art disease, the both of them. Everyone they knew had it too. That’s one of the symptoms: Colonies, clusters, movements, splinter groups, manifestos. Clumping, the experts call it. She had a master’s in design and decorated cakes at Food One, not the one on Seventeenth but the one near the park, open till midnight. Derek refused to sell out. He was determined to support himself with his art.
Selling poems in the park didn’t work out. He didn’t get that many buyers, and when he did, he spent way too much time discussing the poems with them—arguing actually—instead of writing new ones, but it bothered him when he was misunderstood, and it seemed he was doomed to be misunderstood—another symptom of the disease. He tried prose—carefully observed reflections on the vicissitudes of life—after taking a weekend workshop called Driveway Moments: The Eternity of Now. No demand. Light travel pieces with a profound undercurrent proved no better, partly because he hadn’t done much traveling and couldn’t afford to do more. He had plenty of profound undercurrent, just nowhere to put it.
He decided to go visionary. That way he could travel without going anywhere, make it all profound undercurrent except for a few flashy waves on the surface, and those birds—what do you call them?—cormorants, low-riders. Cool. Sufferers of the art disease saw art in everything, even waterfowl that could barely stay afloat.
There’s one more thing you should know about the art disease: It’s highly contagious.
“What do you mean visionary?” Emily asked suspiciously. “This isn’t zombies again, is it? I’m so over zombies.”
“No, no, no. Zombies are like the total opposite of visionary.” His mouth was full of icing, making his words all gummy and weird, like a zombie might talk. They were finishing off a birthday cake with Happy Birthday Shane on it—when the kid’s name was actually Shan. Not Emily’s fault, but Sofía’s, who took the order and was now looking for another job, since their boss, Barb, was the one who got chewed out by the pissed-off mom who was horrified at the suggestion that all could be made right by scraping off a vowel. Sofía was a sculptor. She had a blowtorch that would cut half-inch steel plate she said, said if Emily came over she’d show her, but Emily smelled lesbian and wasn’t that bored yet with the Food One and Derek. But close. Real close.
“Visionary—like William Blake,” he said. “That weird prophetic stuff, but like it’s real, you know, happening on the street, not just words. Blake did those great paintings, but I thought, you know, I can’t paint for shit, I’ll take it outside, free it from the page—from the fucking earbuds too. On the street, in your face.” Podcasting was still a sore point with Derek.
Emily said, “A street preacher.”
“Well, sort of. I prefer to think of them as prophetic performances.”
“And what do prophetic performances pay? There’s an opening at Food One. You thaw stuff. There’s nothing to it. I could put in a word for you.”
“No thanks. This’ll work. I’ve thought of another angle too. We need a cheaper place, right? You’d like a studio? The church on the corner’s for sale.”
“You sure that didn’t go condo? The Townes at the Square or something like that?” Emily asked.
“That’s the other way. The Methodist. This one’s something weird. The Church of the Immaculate Epiphany. It’s been for sale a while, but the condo market’s tanked. We can get it cheap. Cheaper than rent.”
“The church. That’ll be part of my vision, that there I shall found my church—the Assembly of Prophetic and Visionary Matters. Tax free.”
Derek said, “Okay. Maybe not Matters, but something like that, and we raise money, tax free, buy the place, and there you go. We’re set.”
“By raise money you mean beg on the street?”
He counted off his points on his fingertips even though he knew she hated it: “Encourage donations at prophetic performances. Appeal to corporate and community sponsors. Apply for grants.”
She burst out laughing and had to let him have the last chocolate rose to make up for it. Emily didn’t want it anyway. She knew what was in it. She felt bad for laughing. Derek hadn’t laughed at her Random Rags installation, which made him just about the only one. He even went along with her it’s-supposed-to-be-funny story.
Derek, a preacher. The thought made her smile, but in a good way.
A week later, she came down on her lunch hour to see him work a crowd in the park, to see how he managed to bring in so much money. It was very scary. He was totally different, as if another person had taken him over. He wore a cape. It wasn’t really a cape. Where would Derek get a cape? It was a tiny deep blue blanket stolen from the airplane ride back from his father’s funeral. It didn’t look as stupid as you might think.
Then he started. Derek wouldn’t even dance, but suddenly he couldn’t stop moving. It was hypnotic, strangely familiar, and then she recognized it. Lately he’d be lying on the sofa with the sound off, cruising channels, mumbling, writhing like a lovesick snake. “What’re you doing?” she’d asked. “Research,” he’d said. And there it was, the artistic fruits: Anybody with moves. James Brown one minute, a movie Indian the next, Herman Munster, Britney—it was mesmerizing. The sermon made no sense at all: “The eternal moment of revelation sparks inside each and every one of you, each and every moment of your life. Let the tinder catch! Let the flames rise! Let the fire consume you! Let the smoke carry you! Signaling the universe, I’m alive! I’m alive! I’m alive!” He ended this outburst with the blanket off his shoulders and wafting over an imaginary fire, watching imaginary puffs of smoke drifting away over the heads of his rapt audience, and damned if the whole crowd didn’t turn around and watch them too. So that’s why he’d been watching that awful old western over and over until she thought she’d go heap big out of her mind.
“How’d I do?” he asked Emily after the performance.
“I thought my timing was a little off at the beginning.”
“I don’t know. This is a pretty big pile of wampum.”
The next night he watched The Thief of Baghdad, and next day the little blue blanket was a magic carpet. The blanket was the only constant. He laid out loaves and fishes on it. (Loaves were $5; fish, $10. He could’ve asked for more). He autopsied Truth’s corpse CSI fashion, covered it with the blanket, and wept, only to reveal it risen, walking among them, asking for money. He wore it like a sarong and danced around in it. He tied it up in animal shapes and talked to it. Talking Prophetic the whole time.
That’s what he called it—TP—the visionary dialect. In addition to watching the obvious TV preachers, he practiced by reading aloud anything that made prophetic or visionary claims, from the Bible to L. Ron Hubbard, confiding in her that he didn’t strive for coherence but sought a certain visionary unity that transcended sense. “It’s all in the rhythms,” he believed, and you could tap your foot to it, there was no denying. “And the silences,” he added. He was the master of the dramatic pause out of nowhere, the Profound Silence, what Derek called the cornerstone of the prophetic.
And no matter what he said, and sometimes there were rivers of blood and mountains of dead and untold pain and suffering, he was deliriously, disturbingly cheerful. He practiced different smiles, tried them out on their friends, keeping only the ones that really creeped people out. And if that didn’t do the trick, he gave a joyful cackle when sufficiently possessed that didn’t sound entirely human. Emily knew it was the product of forty hours of wandering in the wilderness with Nature and Animal Planet. If a heron humped an iguana, and they managed to hatch an egg, whatever came out would sound like Derek laughing.
Emily was laughing too.
Every performance ended with the blue blanket spread upon the ground, money raining down upon it, mostly bills, lots of tens and twenties. Once—a bunch of traveler’s checks. Emily didn’t know they still had those anymore, but the bank took them.
She studied Derek’s flock, their transfigured faces, the complex looks they’d give him as their bills fluttered onto the pile. Most of them were seriously worried about the poor guy. Few doubted for a moment that Derek was spectacularly out of his mind and probably needed doctors, drugs, possibly even electroshock or surgery. There were always cards for mental health care professionals mixed in with the money. “Call her—she’s really good!” someone had written on the back of one. Then added, “You’re really good too!”
That’s the thing. Crazy as he was, he put on an incredible show. Or in this case, the show was his craziness. He got to them even if they weren’t sure how. Emily had a theory: His crazy offered a charisma uncluttered by content. He could rant, and no one felt guilty. He could rave, and no one had to worry that he just might be right.
Would they continue to be so generous, she wondered, if they discovered he wasn’t a madman who preached an insane religion, but an artist inventing a religion as an art form out of channel surfing and word salad, nabbing both grant money and tax-free status while he was at it?
Emily was in no hurry to find out.
“Can you help me with these forms?” Derek would ask her, with a sweet puppy dog face, totally exhausted by his latest performance, and she couldn’t say no. NEA, IRS—it didn’t matter—she could do forms. She had a master’s in design. She understood form. And he was a disaster at it. He’d get all verbal and metaphoric and forget whether he was being a religion or an art form and screw up an entire application. It was just easier to do it in the first place than to come along after and clean up his mess.
It was paying off, however, and not just financially. Word was getting out his stuff was definitely worth checking out. There was even a thing about the performances in Excrement Occurs from the guy who hates everything—he fucking loved it. Every performance was now ringed with people who got it, smiling knowingly, inviting Derek over later for drugs, and he usually went, and Emily didn’t. Work started early at Food One.
And, curiously enough, at every performance, packed in close, as close as they could get, a devoted band of believers steadily grew, though it was a mystery to Emily what they believed in since Derek certainly didn’t have a clue.
“Belief doesn’t believe in me,” he told his rapt congregation. “I don’t believe in belief. Instead. Visions come. Instead. Visions come to me: Visions of the nothingness of everything! The unbelievability of belief!”
Emily was just a little weirded out by all the nodding heads. Afterwards, when a breathless believer accosted him beseeching guidance, he told her, “Go home, seize a book, any book, and read it to—You have a cat? Of course you have a cat!—read it to your cat, and a vision will come.” This worked somehow, according to the woman. Everything he did seemed to work. Not only did she have a transforming vision, but her cat did too, though she preferred not to discuss details. Emily couldn’t explain it. Not his knowing the woman had a cat. Anyone could see that. But the transforming part, that was something new and scary. Derek had never wanted to change the world before. He’d just wanted to make art.
Lately he’d been watching Bela Lugosi movies and Teletubbies on a split screen. Watching the happy spectrum creatures bouncing beside the swirling black-and-white living dead gave her a fierce headache. She couldn’t watch the moves he was getting out of it either. She didn’t know what the performance was about exactly. (Even when he explained them to her, she didn’t know what any of them were about, because if she’d ever say, “So it’s about…” The answer would always be No. Fine. Who needs meaning?)
So she’d skipped this one, though he had a big crowd, and he was telling her about it, redoing bits, talking a mile a minute. One part was the shocking tale of how Jerry Falwell discovered Tinky Winky was gay one night in a foggy London bathhouse.
“Nobody laughed,” he complained. “Dead silence.”
“That’s because you’re a religion now. Silence is good, remember? You said it last week. ‘The silence of the universe means someone’s listening.’”
“That doesn’t make any sense. Can’t religion be funny?”
“I thought it was just about the rhythms, the talk.”
“I thought it was funny.”
“I brought home some cupcakes. You want some? They’re kind of blue. They’re supposed to be green. Barb was pissed like it was my fault, but I’m the cake decorator. Seasonal cupcakes are not my problem. You want one? They’re not bad actually.”
“Sure. That’d be great.”
They hung out in their big institutional kitchen. They were living in the church now. All the furnishings from the sanctuary had been sold off long ago, so it was a big empty barn of a building with bad stained glass. The main piece above the altar was Jesus as shepherd with one of the lambs’ faces smashed out and replaced with weathered plywood. Jesus, who seemed to have a serious case of strabismus, took no notice.
Derek and Emily had made an okay apartment out of the church offices. They used the Reverend Buckley Duncan’s former office as a bedroom. They read to each other out of the family counseling files he’d left behind. They found them inspiring: Screwed up as they were, they weren’t these people, who, as far as they could determine, included not a single sufferer from the art disease. Buck Duncan told them to pray and forgive, pray and forgive. Nobody ever did.
There was a working bathroom in the basement with a shower, though you had to flush the toilet with a bucket until they could have it fixed. Emily had plans to turn the other end of the basement into a studio, but Food One had promoted her, so she was working a split shift and never had time to make art.
Derek held his performances in the pewless sanctuary, still with the blanket, though he made a deal with a flight attendant who was a regular to keep him in fresh ones. She brought them cradled in her arms, still wrapped in plastic, laid them reverently on the pile of money at the end of the ceremony, made smoldering eyes at Derek. Trish, her name was. Emily wanted to kick her perfect kneecaps, but you had to expect stuff like that when you were with an artist. When she did the Square Planet installation, and she got a lot of attention, Derek was really cool with it. Even after the thing with Stanley.
Derek was bringing in so much money, they not only made their church payments, they paid off their credit cards, got the car repaired, started buying wine again, fixed the toilet. They replaced the 19-inch TV, and Siena, the electronic music composer who installed cable, ripped off all the premium channels for them for free. They were even getting estimates on a working HVAC system and a new roof, the old one being the main reason they’d gotten the place so cheap. There were places in the sanctuary you could see daylight.
Derek once preached a whole sermon—though he didn’t like her to call them that—to the motes of dust in a shaft of light. That was a good day. Even better was the one to the drops of rain. He knelt on the blue blanket with a stack of conical paper cups, filling them and passing them out, always somebody’s hand eagerly outstretched to take one, and people actually drank the nasty-ass water full of rust and pigeon shit and God knew what all like it was champagne and they’d just won the lottery. That night she ironed a few fifties from a laundry basket full of soggy money, and they went out and had a great time like they hadn’t had in years, and Emily felt truly happy for his spectacular success, not to mention the great fuck they had on one of those little blue blankets with Jesus watching.
But then, of course, just when everything was going so well, and she was thinking about quitting Food One or at least cutting way back on her hours, Derek got tired of it. He always did. He never stayed with anything long. He might get too good at it. He might get a reputation, a following, some success. Emily tried not to judge. Some artists thrive on variety. Derek said, “Some writers just want to write about one thing—werewolves or sea captains or neurotic middle-aged fucks with their dicks in their hands—and that’s it for them. Some only write about Canadian werewolves in the nineties who smoke too much—book after book. I’d rather drive a truck. I’d rather be hit by a truck!” And though she knew neither thing about the truck was true, she could respect where he was coming from as an artist even though it was bound to lead him nowhere.
So she kept working at Food One, and Derek quit doing his prophetic performances. They kept living in the church, though they quit thinking of it so much as a church and as more of a performance space, though they weren’t performing either. They were waiting on a grant, several grants actually. Depending on which ones came through, Derek could decide the direction his art might next take him.
Emily was thinking she might not wait for the grants to make a move.
Derek lay on the floor of the sanctuary doing variations of da Vinci’s drawing of a man, studying Cock-Eyed Jesus and the Plywood-Faced Sheep, thinking the problem with his prophetic performances was he hadn’t sufficiently adapted the vision to the move indoors, that before it was an exterior vision longing for an interior, a sanctuary, and now it was an interior emptiness longing for the exterior, the outside, the otherness… He was thinking 3-D movies…
“Reverend Merriweather?” There was a man in a suit standing over him.
“I’m Derek Merriweather, but I’m no Reverend.”
“This isn’t a church, then?” the man asked.
“Nope. Not anymore.” Derek got up off the little blue blanket, wishing he had on more than shorts and a t-shirt, but he always had his best ideas before he showered and dressed and all of that. Some days he had to wait awhile for them to show up. The ideas. The best ones. Lately, they hadn’t been showing up at all.
“I was under the impression this was an institution of religious worship. I’m Paul Throne of the Internal Revenue Service.”
Derek looked to Jesus for guidance, but the Savior wouldn’t look him in the eye. “Yes. Yes. Welcome. We’re most definitely a religious institution. We just don’t use the word ‘Church’ here. We’ve evolved beyond ‘Church’ and churchiness. Just as my flock don’t address me as Reverend, for we are all equally humble on the path to enlightenment, for the way is difficult, and any one of us might find himself lost.” Derek gestured to the Lamb who looked especially lost this time of day when the bright Son exaggerated the dark wooden face, graced with mildew fleece.
“What then should I call you, if not Reverend? Mr. Merriweather?”
“Captain Merriweather,” Trish called out from the back of the sanctuary, where apparently she’d been listening with a fresh bundle of blue blankets swaddled in plastic clutched to her breast. “He pilots our expedition into the unknown,” she trilled.
Derek hadn’t fucked her yet, and he saw in that moment that it was inevitable. She had just saved his life, his art, his freedom. What was Emily going to say about it after that thing with Stanley?
“And you are?” Paul Throne inquired of Trish, as if this were his office instead of Captain Derek’s house of religious worship.
“I’m Trish Van der Waal, a member of the congregation, a charter member of the congregation.”
“And what does your denomination believe?” Throne asked, as if it was any of his business. Derek was about to demand a lawyer.
But Trish had all the answers. “We don’t believe in belief. You know those religions that believe in the literal truth of the Bible? We don’t believe it exists.”
“No, silly. Literal truth. Have you ever read Wallace Stevens?”
“No, not that I recall.”
Trish’s opinion of any man who called himself a man and yet hadn’t read Wallace Stevens was writ large on her face. “Well, if you had, you’d know.” Derek tried to remember if he’d read Wallace Stevens. He was the guy with the Mason jar, right? Or was that the blue guitar? Maybe she wouldn’t ask him. He liked the way she’d taken charge. Paul Throne of the IRS was practically slinking out the door like Satan banished from the Garden. Or was that Adam? Derek hated Sunday School. He suspected his prophetic performances were his revenge on Sunday School, not just for himself. He was nothing. But for everyone who’d ever suffered the whole dreary business.
“When are your next scheduled services?” Throne inquired on his way out. “I would like to attend.”
“That’s what I stopped by to ask Captain Derek,” Trish said.
Captain Derek held his head up high. “Eleven, Sunday morning. We welcome everyone onboard.” He moved his hand through the air like a soaring plane, and Mr. Throne smiled.
Emily was not happy. “I thought we were driving out to Willow and Fern’s this Sunday. Now you’re preaching again?” Willow and Fern threw pots and grew pot, and Emily finally had a Sunday off from Food One, and Fern was somebody she could talk to about her art, and she figured she could smoke a little since they just random tested her last week.
“It’s not preaching. How many times do I have to say it? We’ve got to persuade this IRS guy that we’re a religion. Do you have any idea how much taxes we owe if we’re not?”
“You don’t need me to preach. I’ll just go by myself.”
“I need all the people I can get. Right now it’s just me and Trish. You’re on all the forms as one of the church’s founders—but don’t call it a church. I told him we were past that. What if he asks questions about the forms? I don’t know what they say. You’re the one who says I don’t understand form.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll come. How long do we have to keep this up?”
“I don’t know. As long as it takes to persuade him we’re for real.”
“I thought you quit. I thought you had to quit. ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m just not into it.’”
“I didn’t have the IRS on my ass.”
“Just me. What do I matter? You’re sure this isn’t about fucking Trish?”
“Who said anything about fucking Trish?”
“Not you. You’d just do it.”
“Listen, Trish was a big help today.”
“Just do it, okay?”
“There’s one more thing. Call me Captain Derek.”
“Fuck you, Captain Derek.”
That very night, Sofía came into Food One and found Emily doing yet another sheet cake soccer field. Emily hated soccer, and she’d never even seen a game except to cruise by on the cable. If she were a terrorist, she’d blow up a soccer field.
“Don’t let Barb see you around here,” she said to Sofía. “She’s still pissed off at you.”
“Barb’s home watching Survivor, thinking up the boring shit she’s going to say tomorrow. I have a business proposition for you.” Sofía was rifling through the decorations cabinet. She took out a bag of plastic cows and spread them across the other table, took a little torch like an aerosol can out of her bag and started hacking them up one by one, arranging the pieces around the as-yet-unstriped green field atop the next cake in the queue—a head here, a hindquarters there. “Here’s the deal. In another hour it’ll be just you and the janitorial crew. They’re never even from the same country twice, and could give a shit what we do back here. All these ovens and mixers and everything are just sitting here. We could be making specialty cakes. I have a market, orders. I need a space, a partner, a designer.”
“What kind of specialty cakes?”
“The ones Food One won’t do. Tits, penises, vaginas, butts—whatever the customer wants. Weird, twisted shit.”
“A virgin maiden being ravaged by a bull?”
“You think there’s a market for that?”
“No. I’m just saying. No boundaries?”
“It’s cheap cake and bad frosting any way you slice it. The only difference is how much you can charge.” The cow pieces arranged to her satisfaction, she oozed blood icing liberally on and around the carcasses.
“You’re fucking up my cake,” Emily said.
“Not to worry.” Sofía held up the invoice. “It’s my order. I called it in this morning, talked to Barb.” The name on the invoice was Shan Fuque. “I had to spell it to the dumb cow three times.” Emily didn’t have to ask how it was pronounced. Sofía took the little torch and burned a pentangle into the frosting field, melting a cow butt in the process. “You like? It’s for a friend. It’s her birthday. She’s into bovine mutilation events. I heard your husband’s doing a performance thing with his blankie? I heard it’s clever.”
“He’s not my husband.”
Sofía smiled. “So what do you say? Partners?”
“Sure. Why not?”
Sofía wrote a message on the cake with the blood red icing—Thanx 4 All Your Sacrifices. She picked through the remnants of plastic cows, examining the faces until she found a couple she liked, sliced them off with a box knife, dotted the i’s with them, and slid the cake in a box. “Tomorrow night, then. At the midnight hour.”
Trish had no spine. The sexual positions she could pretzel herself into were stunning in the intricacy of their design and execution. “I’m not really a flight attendant,” she told Derek. “I’m a dancer.” Her primary inspirations were the Kama Sutra and the flying trapeze. “That’s why I became a flight attendant,” she said. “Because of the flying thing. But it’s not the same. It’s like you say, the persistent nothingness of everything.”
Whenever Trish told him the things he’d said, he had no idea what they meant. He hoped if he listened closely enough to her saying them, they would start to make sense. She was so certain about everything. “It gets worse,” Derek told her and explained about Paul Throne of the Internal Revenue Service. “We need all the believers we can get when he comes on Sunday. Bring friends.”
“I’ll bring my dance company.”
“You have a company?”
“I do. Don’t you mean non-believers?”
“Whatever,” Derek said, imagining a whole company of pretzeled beauty flying with Captain Derek. The religious side of things was starting to work on him, and he thought about Saint John of the Cross, Phil Dick, and William Blake, wondering if at key moments in their journeys, when they apparently started to believe some of their own bullshit, whether, perhaps, they might’ve met a dancer.
Emily had an excess of design desire built up inside her after months and months of soccer fields and flags and Sharky the Snowman, a Frosty/Jaws cross that had rescued white frosting from near extinction since his first appearance five Christmases ago, and now had shown up in a Hawaiian shirt, returning to his roots and prime time—and to kids’ birthday cakes year round.
So when Sofía said the client just wanted a big dick, any old dick would do, that wasn’t enough to satisfy Emily’s creative longing. “Tell me about him,” she said.
“Him? It’s for my sister. A divorce party.”
“I know. You said. I mean. Ultimately, it’s his dick, right? The ex’s? Who is he?”
“He likes NASCAR. He hunts. My stupid sister married him. He drove a tank. He fucked all her friends. Hit on me, if you can believe it.”
Emily wanted to ask whether it was unbelievable because Sofía was a lesbian or because she was his sister-in-law, or for some other reason entirely, but Emily didn’t. Instead, they brainstormed about the dick while the ovens were heating up.
They probably shouldn’t have smoked the joint. Sofía found it in her pocket like it was a big surprise. Oh, look! Two hits and Emily had a flight of ideas that was like the swallows blowing off Capistrano and heading out to sea. Looking back on it, the concept was maybe a little too ambitious for their limited resources, so they might’ve run into trouble anyway, even if Barb hadn’t shown up and fired them both. How were they supposed to know she was having a thing with the foreman of the janitorial crew? He was definitely hot, looking like the Arab guy on Lost. What he saw in Barb they couldn’t figure. The day shift maybe? Her big ass?
While Sofía and Barb screamed obscenities toe-to-toe, Emily made it out the back door with all the supplies she could lay her hands on, but they had to leave behind the slot car set and their plans for tank cupcakes lapping the big dick in hot pursuit of doomed doe. They were pretty bummed. Anybody could make a big dick. They’d hoped for something more. A big dick that meant something.
Emily hadn’t really tested the church ovens. She never baked at home. But they were certainly big enough. They must’ve done serious baked goods at the Church of the Immaculate Epiphany. Hot cross buns maybe. She fired up the ovens as the sun was coming up, and they all seemed to work, but they smelled like burning mouse piss, so Emily lit every stick of incense she could find. Apple. Patchouli. Celestial Sunrise. Many, many mice.
And then she had a vision. It was probably inevitable, hanging around with Mr. Vision himself, Captain Derek the Trish fucker, that she would have a vision too. She’d been a little peeved, frankly, spending her days striping soccer fields while he was transcending all that with his visionary art. She could transcend, she could inspire a goddamn flock.
Emily grabbed a tube of icing. Field stripe white dripped from its tip. She drew her vision on the stainless steel counter in one serpentine line, smiling in triumph. Her sister claimed a woman’s greatest joy was bringing a child into the world. That’s because her sister had never made art, or had an orgasm, either one. And while her nephew might’ve been a joy on arrival, he’d been pretty much a disappointment to his mother ever since, like her sister and her husband before him.
“When’s your sister’s thing?” she asked Sofía.
“Noon. He’s dropping off her kids at five.”
“Jeez. They have kids? Can you move it up to eleven? We could combine it with the service.”
“Sure. I’m the host-ess. What you got in mind?”
She showed Sofía the icing on the countertop. “Wait, wait. Imagine it sitting on a shortbread. Like so.” She iced in brown the shortbread’s shape.
“Kew-el. Is that what I think it is?”
“What do you think it is?”
“Dick on a cross.”
“You got it.”
“What are those things?”
“Arms. He’s got to have something to attach him to the cross. A stake through the middle’s too vampirish.”
“Why not hang him up by the balls?”
“I don’t know. That just seems mean. You need the head at the top anyway, so he can raise it, you know, his one eye to heaven, complaining, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And God can say, ‘Because you’re a faithless little worm, little dick. That’s why.’”
Sofía laughed her husky laugh. “But arms? Dicks don’t have arms.”
“But they wish they did.” She waved little grasping dick arms at Sofía.
“Why not wings?” Sofía fluttered little dick wings and rose up on her toes.
“Dick with wings? I like it.” Emily changed the arms to wings fit for a cherub, plump and cheerful with a discreet brown nail in the middle of each, two thin trickles of blood.
Sofía shook her head in wonder. “Dick with wings on a cross. I knew I was going to like working with you.”
Once the shortbreads started baking, the piss smell receded, the incense coalesced into a single, sacred scent, and the coffee urn finished brewing, it smelled almost inviting in the old place. It smelled like church.
They heard voices in the sanctuary and went to check it out. There, high up in the rafters, four magnificent men in tights were slinging ropes, rigging trapeze. It looked like they meant to swing up and down above what would’ve been the central aisle of the sanctuary had there still been pews. They looked like gods.
“Would you look at that?” Sofía said in a voice that made Emily doubt the lesbian theory with perhaps the slightest disappointment.
Paul Throne of the Internal Revenue Service hated his job. That’s because he had the art disease. Most art disease sufferers hate their jobs. He’d worked his way up through the bowels of the Internal Revenue Service as a means of ridding himself of the disease. A step beyond cold turkey into cold turkey buzzard feeding on desiccated roadkill. There was not the slightest thing about his job that was artful, artsy, or artistic, even on a metaphoric level. Its purity cleansed and sustained him.
This worked for some people. So did suicide. Paul had done okay. He hadn’t sold the guitar, but he kept it down in the basement and hadn’t played it in years. The strings would probably sound like the dull thuds of his heart. He never sang in the shower, only alone in rental cars driving some lonely road at night on the job—to keep himself awake, he told himself.
But the moment he set foot in the old Immaculate Epiphany place, he sensed the change immediately. Not only was that pious fraud Buck Duncan gone, but there was something new, something strange, something familiar from never forgotten adolescent nights singing under a streetlight to the edge of the glow.
The art disease.
Merriweather was terminal with it, and the Trish woman as well.
Wallace Stevens. Of course he’d read Wallace Stevens. Who hadn’t? He wasn’t about to admit it to her. They mustn’t know. Not yet.
Everyone had a little blanket now; Trish handed you one as you came in. “Welcome aboard,” she said. No wonder you couldn’t get them on planes anymore. Paul Throne of the Internal Revenue Service traveled a lot for his job, tracking down fraudulent claims. He specialized in phony churches, and this one was as phony as they come, and yet, there was something authentic about it he couldn’t figure out at first—or maybe he hadn’t wanted to figure it out. Maybe he wanted to come here like this, expose himself to what was clearly a particularly virulent, visionary strain of the art disease, obviously highly contagious.
The place was filling up with them, one diseased soul after another. Two women in particular were besotted, passing around big cookies with what looked like Sharky the Snowman nailed to the cross by his flippers. His youngest liked Sharky. He used to sing “Sharks Like Christmas Too!” to her. It was okay to sing to your kids, wasn’t it? Now she was thirteen. She had hardened her heart against Sharky. He thought it would make a terrific musical.
He’d interviewed several members of the congregation, milling about expectantly, like they were waiting for Warhol or Jesus. The place smelled like one of the clubs his band used to play, but without the liquor. Any outburst of art would be received here as an offering to the gods, even if it came from Paul Throne of the Internal Revenue Service. He took a discreet pull from a half pint of brandy he bought on the way to the church. Loosens up the throat, the soul, the nerve. He breathed deeply. He took the cookie as a sign, a request.
He knelt upon the blue blankie, bowed his head, and ate his cookie, as Captain Derek ascended a rolling stairway as if he were going to hand his boarding pass to the Lamb of God. Flying men on trapeze swooped back and forth, tossing Trish from one to the other above Paul’s head. The sound of the swings seemed to count off the beat. He looked into the skewed eyes of God and rose, bursting into song.
“Sharks swim in the ocean
“Big and wide and blue!
“But I like to be a snowman,
“And I tell you why that’s true:
“Sharks might bite!
“And sharks might fight!
“But sharks like Christmas too!”
Everyone joined in. Well, not everyone. The guy who hates everything held back. He had his eye on Derek, who wasn’t singing either.
Derek was afraid of heights. He’d forgotten that. It hadn’t seemed so high when they planned it. This had been Trish’s idea, that he be snatched from this high perch—which felt higher than fifteen feet to him—by the outstretched hands of one of her troupe, then swung down and deposited in the congregation, one of them, on the humble rag that was the original blanket the whole nonsense came swaddled in, a mere mortal, but a guide from above. It had sounded totally visionary and not so high up, but standing here was scary as shit.
He only had one try, when Otto swept by. That was the guy’s name whose hands he was to leap for, Otto. He had every muscle you could name. Derek couldn’t name more than two or three. He tried to imagine leaping into the air to catch those unnamed muscles. No. But he had to. Everyone was kneeling on their little blankets munching cookies, staring at him, perfectly positioned beneath the shaft of the bright sun beaming down into the sanctuary through the hole in the roof. Some shielded their eyes from the glare, others clasped hands in prayer.
And then the Throne nut started singing. Sharky? Where did the Sharky thing come from? Sharky cookies? Emily claimed different, but she was all pissed about Trish and probably into something with Sofía, though they had brought Sofía’s sister and all her friends in from the burbs. They all belted out the Sharky tune with Throne like they were maybe a little drunk. It was inspirational. Derek felt like a fucking megachurch.
The feeling was fleeting. Pride goeth before the Fall. He missed Otto’s outstretched hands, watched them sweeping away down below him, too late to be caught, just as the last strains of Throne’s baritone faded to hushed, anticipatory silence. He’d just break his neck if he dove for Otto now.
So it all came down to this. This moment of truth. Was he a real artist or not? To fall was to fail. The stairway led nowhere. There was no plane to board. Cornered by his art, it would take a miracle to get himself out of this one. He should’ve seen it coming. Don’t things always go this way? You can’t just keep giving people visions—when what they want is miracles.
He shrugged his shoulders, looked up into the blinding light. There was nothing for it. He spread his arms and began to rise, passing before the plywood-faced lamb, past the stunned cock-eyed gaze of Jesus, wafted on the collective gasp of his congregation, all the way to the rafters, which he hoped would be miraculous enough. The roof was going to cost enough without punching a hole in it to ascend any further. You had to leave a little something for the next performance. He landed in the choir loft, knocking over a huddle of music stands no one wanted. The clatter echoed through the sanctuary like the clash of thunder. He leaned out over his flock and took a bow, expecting applause, but they were all kneeling on their little blue blankets—witnesses to a miracle—their faces, their lives, utterly transformed—hands lifted to the sky, wanting more—even the guy who hates everything, even Paul Throne.
Now he’d done it. He’d given all for art and could give no more. He had cured himself of the art disease. He would forevermore be mired in mere miracle. Alas.
He had become as one of the gods.
Dennis Danvers has published seven novels, including Circuit of Heaven (New York Times Notable, 1998), The Watch (New York Times Notable, 2002; Booklist 10 Best SF novels, 2002), and The Bright Spot (under pseudonym Robert Sydney). First novel Wilderness has recently been re-issued with a sexy new cover. Recent short fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, F&SF and in anthologies Tails of Wonder and Richmond Noir. Current projects include urban fantasy Bad Angels and supernatural noir Soothsayer. He teaches science fiction and fantasy at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, and blogs at dennisdanvers.com.