A Novel of Possibilities in The Twilight Zone tradition
David E. Booker
Act I: Hocus Pocus and Frisby
The real Rod Serling returns to Earth
Rod Serling was sitting on the chipped cement steps when the station wagon drove up the street. He didn't want to be alive again. He hated the idea; he hated the reality even more. Once dead, always dead. Wasn't that the way it was supposed to be? Apparently not for the creator and host of The Twilight Zone. Apparently not in this life.
"Knoxville, December 1985. Jesus, didn't some writer already pen something about this width in road? 'Knoxville: Summer of 19-something.'" He said as if speaking to a camera. He turned the lapels of his jacket up. "Why couldn't it be Cincinnati, or at least be summer?" He tucked his hands across his chest and under his arms. He glanced left and right. In the twilight an old refrigerator, smelling of rotten eggs and abandoned vegetables, occupied the porch with him. What a dump. Rod had started his career at radio station WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio, not Knoxville, Tennessee. Couldn't Cicerone get anything right?
The station wagon eased up onto the cracked Forest Avenue sidewalk. A voice boomed from the wagon's top-mounted megaphones: "Blessed are the lost in search of the Lord. 'For the redemption of the their soul is precious, and it ceaseth forever.' Tonight, brothers and sisters, is a new beginning." The wagon crept along the broken walkway, which caused it to shudder as if chilled by the encroaching night air. "Tonight, at seven-thirty, the Forest Avenue Anabaptist Church will hold its Winter Revival. Reverend Conrad Grebel officiating."
Two men jumped out of the wagon and rushed across the street to an apartment building parking lot. They began circling the twelve people gathered around a young, stuttering preacher standing on a plastic milk crate. The station wagon held its position, engine growling low, blocking most of Rod's view. Then the megaphone repeated its message, drowning out the preacher.
Rod stood, stepped through the small, rutted yard, and onto the street.
"You don't want to go there," a voice said.
Rod turned. The driver rolled up his window and drove the station wagon away, revving its engine as he guided it off the sidewalk and over to the next block. Rod turned back to the young man. Several people broke from the gathering. The two men continued circling.
"To-to-tonight, come witness the rebirth of our Lord Jesssus Christ ... in ... in your life. One ... one block over. Cor-cor-corner of Hedge and Sssixteenth. I will bray-ache gra-gra-ground on my new Cathedral of Christ. It will be built right here, in Knoxville -- in your neighborhood. Ca-ca-come witness the rebirth of the Lord Jesus Christ in ... in your life. Sa-sa-seven-thirty. You may, no, you must be be be born again. Sa-sa-seven-thirty. To-to-tonight."
Rod heard the repetition and the breaking of words into syllables, but could not clearly see the face. In the twilight, shadows and colors had lost their contrasts, each fading into the other, laying a sense of flatness on people and objects. People became colorless movement. The station wagon became form without definition, briefly indistinguishable from the background. Then streetlights came on and reclaimed the dimensional world. The wagon turned the corner and Rod wondered if it was circling the block.
One of the men from the station wagon began mocking the young man. "You ... you cha-all your-orself a preacher. You cah-cahn't even speak." He forced a laugh. "Go-oh home preacher boy. Go home and practice."
"Go home, punk," the other man yelled. He patted a billy club in the palm of his left hand. "We have no use for you 'round here. You was a fake for us, and you is still a fake. We told you to leave the neighborhood. This is our neighborhood. We're holding a revival tonight. Not you."
He continued patting his palm to a rhythm only he knew. "You ain't got no cathedral and you never will."
The small crowd was all but gone. A young woman and maybe one other person remained. The young preacher stayed on the milk crate, glancing from the man who mocked him to the one who threatened him. Even with the streetlight, the preacher's face remained predominately in shadows.
"Go-oh home Pree-cher Frisssby. Go-oh home."
Frisby said nothing.
"Defend yourself," Rod muttered, tightening his hands into fists without realizing it. For a second he backed away. This wasn't his fight; this wasn't his life. I've been dead ten years goddamn it. Then Rod decided that maybe this was his chance. He could get this silly job over with right here, right now.
The man with the billy club slowly circled in, still keeping a rhythm. The other man kept taunting Frisby, cocking his thumbs under his armpits and flapping his arms like wings. "Cock-ah-cockah doo-doo you-you, you-you."
Rod sized up the men. He was shorter and lighter than either of them. They were each about six feet, one stout, the other muscular. The stout guy had the club. Rod thought he might be able to get inside his swinging radius and hit him with everything he had: double him over and then break his nose. Maybe Frisby would act then. If not ... . Rod felt his heart racing and for an instant his fingers went numb. He heard a sound, like the drone of a low-flying, single-engine plane, but it wasn't coming from anything he could see.
"Just or unjust, war smells just about the same," Corporal Melvin Levy of Company 511 had said shortly before a fifty-pound box of free falling U.S. Army K rations caved in his skull. The pun had escaped Rod, until he had to bury his friend in the Philippine jungle, beneath mud that climbed to his knees. Rod fashioned a makeshift Star of David from twigs and marked where Levy was so they could come back and get him. Overhead, from maybe six hundred feet away, food still fell madly through the haze, some with open red and green parachutes, others without, taking aim only at the ground and making no provisions for anyone in their way.
That's how Rod recalled it, though if pressed he would admit that the burial probably came after the food fell.
The man with the club stepped forward and tapped the crate with his foot. Frisby teetered, almost fell, but did not step down.
"Do something," Rod said.
As if answering him, a young woman rushed between Frisby and the two men. "Just who do you think you are?" She glared at the man with the club, then the man making a chicken of himself. "Just who, Justin?"
Justin hesitated, then dropped his arms and took a couple of steps back. The guy with the club ceased his rhythm. "We . . . we didn't mean no harm. Honest." Justin's arms were up as if he were surrendering. "Honest." "Then move your honest ass out of here."
"He has no right to preach here," the man with the club said. "He stole from our church. Now he wants to steal our people." He pointed the billy club at Frisby. "He stole money from us."
"Then have him arrested!" The young woman took a step toward the stout man and spat out his name: "Buddy Floyd."
Reverend Frisby leaned forward and laid a hand on her shoulder. "Ssisster."
She shrugged off his hand and stepped toward the young men. They backed away, slowly moving into the early night.
Should we go back to the battle at Leyte? Cicerone asked. Isn't that where a fellow solider saved you?
The voice was everywhere and nowhere, but Rod did not hear it with his ears. Still, he turned to look for the source. It was Luzon.
Leyte, Luzon. Either way, if that G.I. hadn't fired first - you standing there staring at that Japanese fellow about to kill you and all - well, I probably wouldn't be talking with you now.
I had warned against that damnable imperialism in the Philippines.
Imperialism? Rod tried picturing Cicerone. As he did the image of a man in a white serge suit appeared, white hair flowing like a lion's main, thick white mustache, hooked nose, walking cane, and cigar.
Rod recognized the figure. Is there any reason you have taken the image of Mark Twain? Or should I say Samuel Langhorn Clemens? Rod spoke the questions silently, like a prayer. He also said a prayer without words, more of a wish perhaps, that he didn't have to go back to World War II. Ever.
Does my image displease you?
Not as much as my being here. Rod's hand was still clenched, but it was now aimed at Cicerone, Twain, Clemens - whomever. He felt rage. Rage at being jerked back to life. Rage because he had no say in the matter. Rage that he was supposed to save somebody from something, and had had his chance a moment ago, but ... but ... . He shook his fist at the image of Twain.
The image pointed his cane at Rod. I am the embodiment of the Gilded Age and the embodiment of today, and I am neither. I am your Cicerone, your guide, and I am not. I am both Clemens and Twain, and I am neither. If I were all these entities, I would be you and you me.
Cicerone-Twain-Clemens stepped forward and laid his cane on Rod's fist, then tapped it twice. Rod looked at the cane, then at his hand. He felt the coolness of the cane on his knuckle. But was it, after all, his knuckle, his hand?
Rod pulled his hand away, turned it over, and flexed it, watching the wrist, the knuckles, and the fingers. Starting small, the hand had grown. It had acted out cowboy movies with his older brother, Rob. It had bruised itself boxing, learning to throw a punch. It had mastered the typewriter, acquired dark cigarette stains in its youth, and several faint liver spots in its forties. It had always been there, a part of him. It always would be, however irrational that belief was. But now, after almost a decade away from it, he opened it up, palm to his face, and he wasn't sure it was his. He couldn't find the shrapnel scar. Jerking up his pant legs, he searched for the shrapnel scar on his leg. Which one? He couldn't remember. Was he really he?
This is not your punishment, Rod. This is your redemption.
"Fight's over. Thanks for your help."
"Who? . . . What?" Rod tightened his hand back into a fist.
A young woman stood in front of Rod, in the same spot Cicerone-Twain-Clemens had been. Twain was gone. For a moment Rod wondered if this was Twain in another form. But there was nothing from another world or time about her, though her manner of dress made him wonder what world he was in. She wore an oversized leather jacket, gloves, blue-and-white striped pants that ended at her ankles and were then rolled up once, and thick athletic socks bunched into untied canvas tennis shoes. He would've never let either of his daughters wear that.
She noticed Rod staring and she fidgeted.
"Where did he go?" Rod asked.
"Brother Frisby's gone to prepare for later this evening. Why he was out here now, I'll never know. He still feels he has something to prove."
"Him who then?"
Rod glared at her. "Never mind."
She stepped forward and placed a gloved hand on his right fist, easing it down. "I know who you are."
"Yeah. You're a student here. You're in Kettler's parapsych class. Right? Sit in the back. Always a little out of place. Right?"
"Do I look like a student?" Rod jerked his hand free. He glanced around to see if Twain were somewhere else. In the thickening darkness, he couldn't make out much of the neighborhood, but realized what had once been mostly Victorian homes was now mostly run down. The parking lot lights of the apartment complex cast a washed-out pall over the recently built, two-story, block shape. Oil inked the asphalt in several places. A student, books under her arm, came out of the lower, middle apartment and climbed into her car. A police cruiser screeched into the lot, its lights flashing and an officer charged out as if catapulted. He ran up to the student, told her something, and then ran to the apartment doors and began banging.
"There are many older students these days." The young woman nodded toward the ground. "And some of them actually have both pants legs rolled down."
Rod glanced at his pants legs, then quickly straightened them. He had been an "older" student once already, at Antioch College after World War II. He had started writing there. It had been therapy for dealing with loose ends and anger. This early winter evening he was angry and at loose ends all over again, but he didn't feel like writing. He didn't have anything to say to this world, except "Leave me alone!"
A second police car raced into the neighborhood, its blue lights sweeping over the sides of the houses. It reached the corner and turned right.
"Protestors," the young woman said. "There are those that did not want the good Reverend Rodney J. Frisby III to succeed, to build the first of his world cathedrals in this neighborhood, behind this very house." She pointed across the street to the house Rod had just come from. "I was on a trip of self-deception. Drugs and alcohol and sex. A trip of no love. And then he found me and reached down into my despair and lifted me up into the light and love of our Lord . . . ."
As she spoke, Rod watched her face change. The chin moved out and up, sweeping toward heaven. The simple smile went from polite to firm, and the eyes, though partially hidden by the end of the sermonette, shifted focus onto something unseen, or at least not present. Her expression had gone from almost child-like wonder to adoration to . . . love(?). Yet it never lost its sense of innocence. For an instant Rod wondered if this love was for "our Lord" or this Frisby character. "Name's Jeannine. Sister Jeannine Jackson Gabriel. Most people call me Sister J.J."
"I like Jeannine."
"Okay. Sister Jeannine, then." She stuck out a hand and a flyer fell from her coat pocket.
Rod stepped forward and started to extend his hand, then bent down and picked up the flyer. A cross was on it and it spoke of the loving and healing power of "Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ." Across the bottom was printed Sponsored by Reverend Frisby's World Ministries. Rod wondered if the "jingle quality" was intentional. He handed it back to her. "I take it you work for him?"
"We all work for Him." She winked, tucking her chin in like a child. There was something more here than appreciation. Even after being dead for nearly a decade, Rod could see it. "Yes, I work for Reverend Rodney J. Frisby. A true disciple of our Lord. Have you been saved? Have you been born again?"
"In a manner of speaking." Rod smiled, then laughed. It was the first thing he actually believed was funny about returning. He thought she wanted to laugh, too.
Instead, she tapped her shoe gently against the ground and waited. When a reply didn't come, she repeated the question. "Have you not heard of being born again? Of the power of our Lord's Holy Spirit filling your soul until it is overflowing with His mercy and love?"
Rod crossed his arms. He had no room for New Testament kindness. A high school fraternity had blackballed him because he was "a Jew," whatever that meant. Instead he looked at her clothes again and said, "Nice habit, Sister."
"Thank you." Sister Jeannine reached inside her jacket and pulled out a small copy of the New Testament. She thumbed through a few pages. "Here it is." She thumbed a few more pages. "I know it's here." She pointed at the passage. "Here. John, chapter three, verse three: 'Jesus answered, and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.'" She skimmed ahead. "Versus six and seven. 'That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit---'"
"And never the twain shall meet."
"What?" She looked at him as if he were a stranger from a strange land. It lasted only for a second, then she continued: "'Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.'"
She clapped the New Testament shut and stared at Rod. Her eyebrows were arched and fixed, her look hard and self-assured. For a moment, Rod wondered if she might actually challenge him.
They looked at each other, and then looked away, each standing alone in a night defined by the city's lights. A twisted oak in the next yard groaned in the wake of a sudden, strong breeze. Almost simultaneously, they hunched their shoulders.
"Let's get inside," Sister Jeannine said, crossing the street.
Rod followed. They stepped over to the porch. She started climbing the stairs. He stayed on the ground.
She glanced over at the refrigerator. "Stinks, don't it? City's supposed to come and cart it off. It came with the house when Reverend Frisby rented it a few months ago." She pointed toward the big hand-lettered sign. He could barely make it out in the dim porch light: Support CURES Home for Lost Souls. In smaller letters it read: Donations welcomed. Rod shivered, feeling as if he'd just stepped across his own grave.
"The sign and the mission are ours," she said. She stepped to the door. It was had tear drops of oddly stained glass in a semi-circle near the top of the black door. She turned toward him. "I don't believe I ever got your name."
Rod hesitated. Assuming she was over eighteen, he tried placing her age. Age had meant so little to him as of late. Would she believe him? Did she even know who he was? "Serling. Rod Serling."
Sister Jeannine stepped toward him. She removed her glove and extended her left hand. After a moment, Rod took it. Her hand was warm and slightly callused. Her grip was direct - she made sure all her hand was inside his - but not overly firm. "Nice to meet you Sterling, Rod Sterling."
"Serling. No T."
A police officer came toward them. Rod guessed he was in his early thirties. "You folks might want to clear out. There's a brush fire on the lot right behind here. Other side of the alley. Grass is dry and somebody set it and an old car on fire. Fire department 'bout has it under control, but you may want to be on the safe side and leave. Anybody else inside?"
"Yes," Sister Jeannine said. "We'll warn them officer, if you want to go on."
The policeman nodded. "Thank you."
Rod asked the officer for the time. When he said almost seven, Sister Jeannine said, "Oh my, he's already here."
Sister Jeannine raced inside and banged on all seven apartment doors, including the one down the side steps toward the back of the house where the coal furnace had been in the house's heyday. Twenty-six people of all ages and sizes filed out toward the street. All were dressed or dressing in their best clothes.
"They're getting ready to go to the ground breaking," Sister Jeannine said.
Sister Jeannine frowned. "I wouldn't do that."
A cloud of smoke climbed up around the house. Red light flashed off the side as a fire engine stopped in the alley. She told the people they could either wait here, or head toward the Strip and to the main office. Sister Jeannine said she had called ahead, that somebody would be waiting.
She looked at Rod and jogged over to an old, orange Volkswagen. "I'm late." She rounded the Beetle and looked over the roof at Rod. "Do you like ol' Lady Bug here? She might just be older than you."
Rod shook his head slightly, as if to say I doubt that. "Where are you going?"
"To the airport."
"Could you give me a lift? I have a flight to catch." Rod didn't know where, but certainly away from here. Near brawls in the street, a fire in the back of the house, and some sort of public dedication for later on. He wanted no part of it. If this is how the world had evolved since he'd left it, then so much the pity for that, but there wasn't anything he could do to save it or anybody in it. Once dead, always dead. There were no second lives in America, to paraphrase Fitzgerald.
She hesitated, the said, "Get in. Daddy's plane landed an hour ago. He's probably chewing the cowling off a DC-10."
Rod climbed inside the Beetle. Sister Jeannine wheeled the car out of the driveway, clipping the end of a scraggly row of bushes as she backed out. She shifted gears and they headed toward 17th Street.
At the corner, a city bus rolled by. The advertisement on its side had a Serling clone selling a word game.
Sister Jeannine stared at the ad as it passed through the beams of her. She pointed at the bus, then at Rod. "You did that, right?"
"No." Rod crossed his arms and stared out his door window. He had done ones like that one in his life, and he was sure that's where these advertisers got the idea. Advertisers were supreme copyists: if it works, abuse it.
She turned left. "It looks just like you."
"No, it doesn't." When the Beetle stopped for the traffic light at the corner of 17th and Cumberland, Rod got out. "Thanks for the lift."
Another bus passed in front of them again, heading left, toward downtown. It had a Serling ad pitching an antacid.
Jeannine got out of the Beetle. The light was about to turn green. "Okay. It wasn't you. Sorry. Still no reason to get all sullied up, as my mother would say. Come on. Get back inside." The light turned green. "Be reasonable."
Somebody behind Sister Jeannine blew his horn. She waved him on. She stepped around the car and opened the passenger door. "You have a plane to catch."
He looked at her. She continued to hold open the door, even bowing slightly and making an ushering motion with her left hand. Rod stepped back to the car and sat down. Sister Jeannine pressed the button down and shut the car door. She hurried around and got back inside. The light had turned red.
"So, where you going?"
"I don't know," Rod said.
Sister Jeannine nodded. "Most people would be flattered by being told they looked like Rod Sterling."
"I am Rod Serling. No T."
The Bug backfired as Sister Jeannine shifted gears and eased on the gas, anticipating the light.
"And you didn't do that ad?"
"I thought Rod Serling was dead. I think I remember Dad saying he went to that funeral."
The light turned green and Sister Jeannine turned right, heading toward the interstate.
It was only as they neared the airport that Rod realized he had no money.
END ACT I: TO BE CONTINUED...
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