A Novel of Possibilities in The Twilight Zone tradition
David E. Booker
Act II: Stopover in a Quiet Town
comes to Knoxville;
Scene I: Third from the Sun
It was night when he deplaned, but for a moment, while still in the air, Gabriel glanced out the window and wondered if the twin prop commuter plane hadn't somehow flipped over on its top. The lights of the twilight city looked like the stars in a darkening sky. It was an irrational fear, Gabriel realized. Still ... . To calm himself, he forced a stare at the lights and tried to decide if anything distinguished Knoxville's from the umpteen other random city constellations he had glimpsed in his jet-setting life. He saw nothing. "Hickville," he said and turned away as the plane made its final descent.
He went looking for his baggage. He had told his ex-wife he was coming, months after having been told his daughter needed him. Wanda's word. He told her not to tell Jeannine he was coming. There was, after all, the possibility of a regional dairy commercial in Atlanta. He could just board another plane, a real plane this time. Besides, his nerves couldn't take flying and then immediately meeting a religiously converted daughter. He only hoped Wanda's penchant for exaggeration still held true.
Unfortunately, Wanda had told Jeannine, because Jeannine called him and invited him to the ground breaking of Frisby's Cathedral of Christ, or some such thing, and "so when are you arriving exactly?" He got the distinct impression that whenever he arrived was when the ground breaking would be. But that didn't make sense. Still just in case, he had told his daughter he would arrive two hours later than he was scheduled to in order to give him time to escape. Unfortunately (again), the flight had been delayed exactly two hours. So now he was going to have to hot foot it through Hickville's hick airport and out. He goddamned his luck, then goddamned himself for goddamning his luck.
He stepped down the down escalator, two steps at a time, then over to the first floor luggage area. It had definitely not been the best of flights.
Leaving New York, he had to change planes in the Cincinnati airport (which wasn't in Cincinnati), and there's where the delay had been, and there's where he had run into Carol Serling. She was on her way to New York, having visited her alma mater, Antioch College.
He made polite, inane talk: "Oh, haven't seen you in forever. How are you doing? How are the kids?" How ... how ... how ... .
She smiled politely and said she remembered him from his work on The Twilight Zone, and knew he was an admirer of both the show and her late husband.
He smiled and said he owed his first directing break to Rod and that the commercial was a tribute to Rod Serling. He tried to explain that the commercial he'd recently done was supposed to have premiered in mid-September and not on Halloween. "The commercial was originally in black-and-white, just like the show. You know, a sort of homage." Some damn fool kept coloring the black-and-white copies. Oh, God, anything for a drink or a line. Yeah, I think I have a little coke left. He patted his jacket pocket.
She nodded and said she was familiar with the pressures of making commercials. Still, she did not see how a commercial for a regional funeral home "with sixteen convenient locations to serve you" could be an homage.
He said, with some respect, that she didn't really understand his intent.
She raised a hand and remained calm as she disagreed. But understand or not, she said she was disappointed in what he had done. After all, she reminded him, Rod had been cremated and not buried.
He gave up and shouted that she should be thankful that they hadn't asked him to re-film that damn spot with sheep among the tombstones, wise men around the coffin, "and the Rod clone wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a straw-filled casket. It would make a great manger. Then we could've run it on December twenty-fifth. After all, that's Rod's birthday, right?"
People turned and stared; his voice had carried far up the promenade. A security guard appeared and asked if anything was wrong.
By comparison, McGhee-Tyson was a smaller airport with only two terminals. Gabriel waited with a handful of people for his suitcase and clothes bag. He sighed, watching the material remnants of his life shoot down the ramp and travel around the circular conveyor.
He grabbed his baggage, struggling to pull his clothes bag from the conveyer's tug. It took more than one effort, and still it almost got away from him. Gabriel kept looking around for his daughter. He felt like a drowning man. Drowning in quiet desperation like the rest of the maddening mass of humanity. Just one more victim in the coming age of diminished expectations. A declining career, a declining lifestyle, a declining life. Decline was a fact and ever more difficult to face. Especially since it had brought him to the point of having to ask his ex-wife for a "wee-bit" - as she would put it - of money to tide him over. That prospect was the heaviest suitcase he carried to Tennessee.
He was debating whether to take a cab or rent a car, cash versus credit, one near extinction, the other near expiration, when he looked up and saw Jeannine and a guy behind her that looked like . . . . He shook his head once in disbelief. I can't shake these clones, he thought. Not even here.
Before they could get off the escalator and spot him, he ran, encumbered in luggage, for the first-floor doors and into the night. To his right the lights of the airport Hilton glowed, the last ribbon of twilight embroidering the edges of the world behind it.
Certainly it would have a bar, a place he could hide until his daughter and ... that look-alike left. There were fads, but this was ridiculous. Gabriel hoped she wasn't dating him. Heaven forbid.
With the suitcase dangling from his left hand, and the garment bag draped over his right arm, he was almost waddling by the time he made it to the Hilton. A couple of drinks and a few moments to think would do him a world of good. Damn his ex-wife anyway. She could no more keep her mouth shut than a goldfish: always in motion. Goddamn her.
A couple of weary anti-drink protestors and a young man with a boom box, ringing the bell for the Salvation Army, greeted him outside the hotel. One of the protestors handed him a hand-lettered, then photocopied flyer, strewn throughout with Biblical quotes, which Gabriel immediately wadded and dropped. He would tell her sometime - if he ever deigned to debate a hick - about the quote in Deuteronomy, about bringing strong drink before the Lord thy God and rejoicing ... .
He spotted the bar and headed toward it. Maybe he even had a little coke left, though he was afraid he had snorted it all after his shouting match with Carol Serling. He shouldn't have yelled at her, but he had a right, didn't he? They were friends once, if only socially, and friends didn't accost friends. He wouldn't accost her, at least not in public, but she had wrongfully accosted him, and ... but still ... . He licked his lips. He wished for a drink. He could think better with a glass in his hand.
He dropped his luggage at the nearest empty table and waited to be served. His ex-wife, the Walton's rep, Carol Serling, his daughter: all surprising him when he needed it least. Women were going to be the death of him yet. He fumbled for a cigarette and lit it.
A waiter (Thank God.) approached and took his order. After a couple of quick drinks, Gabriel decided he wasn't alone in his burgeoning misogyny. Since Eve hadn't listened to God, then how in the hell was he ever supposed to have any luck controlling the fairer sex? It was a rhetorical question, a moot rhetorical question since there was no God. Still, whoever wrote that fiction called the Bible had a keen eye for the ways of women - even back then.
When the fourth drink arrived, he looked up at the waiter, a kid (But then, these days, everybody was a kid.), and asked if he was married. The kid said no. "Too bad." Gabriel stirred the scotch with his finger. "Every man should live in hell for a while. A little mortification is good for the soul, you know."
The kid smiled. It was wide and shallow and the rest of his face wasn't in it. "I'm sorry, I'm Southern Baptist." "What the hell does that mean?"
The waiter kept smiling and left, returning only once more to bring the bill, and that was when Gabriel was in the bathroom, checking his pockets to see if he had even the remnants of any cocaine. He didn't.
It was after seven by the time Gabriel left the hotel. Protestors were still milling around, their signs and faces drooping. The kid with the boom box had left. One decision, anyway, had been made for him. Since he had spent all but a few dollars on drinks, it was definitely going to be a credit card and a rented car.
As he filled out the form, he told the guy behind the rental counter "Alimony is slang, you know." He pointed a finger as he said. "My goddamn divorce lawyer told me that. She said it's a merging of 'all-my-money,' as in 'She gets all-my-money.'"
"Sign here," the man said.
"That's what she said."
Why his ex-wife had come to East Tennessee, Gabriel never understood. She had a college education and at least one time had had some acting ambition and a modicum of talent. But she said her roots were here, that her family history emanated from the surrounding mountains. She even called herself Sister Drucilla, eschewing her given first name. The way she sucked all the money out of him, Sister Dracula was closer to it.
Gabriel pulled away from the airport with only his ex-wife's address and a flimsy map to guide him. The yes-sir counter man told him north on Alcoa Highway would take him into Knoxville. Like Cincinnati, the damn airport was not in the city it was supposed to be in. At least this one, however, was in the same state. He hunched forward, almost hugging the steering wheel, and slapped his foot against the gas pedal. He had no clear idea where he was going.
Scene II: The Chaser
"Well, aren't you supposed to be dead?" Sister Jeannine applied as much gas as she dared darting south on Alcoa Highway. The exit for the passenger terminal was the next one. She had started to swerve into the one for cargo, then swerved back into traffic at the last minute.
Rod gripped the dashboard. "Yes, I guess you could say that."
Somebody whizzed by, applying heavy pressure to his horn.
"Then what's death like? The afterlife, I mean. Spend much time with God?" Sister Jeannine pulled up to the terminal, disregarding the speed bumps. The Beetle clanged like a collection of semi-autonomous parts. "You'd think somebody who knew how to get around L-A-X could learn to get around this rinky dink place."
"Yeah," Rod said.
"Yes, you spent time with God?" She cut abruptly into a parking space.
"No." Rod had not learned much on the trip to the airport. Or rather, he had not learned much he felt he could use or would help him in deciding who he was supposed to save.
He did learn that Sister Jeannine had manipulated the local media into believing the director of the sixth highest grossing film was flying into town to attend the ground breaking ceremony with an eye to doing a documentary about the young preacher, Rodney J. Frisby III. The name Gabriel sounded familiar. He wondered when the movie had been made, but he didn't ask the name of the movie or when it was released. Her father was always "the director of the sixth-highest grossing film," almost as though it was the only film he had ever done. Sort of like being known only for The Twilight Zone.
"Media covering the media. Second only to the media covering disasters for inciting pack journalism." Her smile held no innocence; her tone of voice held open artifice. "Probably shouldn't have told the great director I was coming to pick him up."
They moved around the airport, from airline counter to airline counter. Jeannine's mother had forgotten to write down the pertinent information: airline, flight number, anything that would help Sister Jeannine speed up the search.
"My mother's a great believer that time is relative. Whichever relative is most important at the time is the one she spends the most time remembering things about." Sister Jeannine smiled, and this time what had sounded caustic acquired the air of innocent observation.
"And why didn't you spend much time with God?" She stared, her green eyes wide and completely fixed on him. In them he could see intense curiosity and sincerity, and he knew his answer was important to her. It made him uneasy.
He averted his eyes and slipped his hands in his pockets. "Let's just say I have a slightly different frame of reference than most people."
She nodded once, curtly, then waved her hand. "I thought maybe you would. But I don't have time for this now." Then she smiled. "I will say, you do look a little otherworldly. And anybody who would wear a dark suit, white shirt, and canary yellow tie is a little out of the norm."
Rod looked down and realized his tie was canary yellow. He would definitely have a talk with Clemens about that. "Well, not here," Sister Jeannine said, turning away from another counter where she'd asked if her father had recently arrived on one of their flights. "You see, I have this problem. I have a father who believes only in material success. Although he used to believe in God, too. And I have a mother who believes only in God, but no longer believes in material success. Though she used to believe in both, too. And ironically, they're probably both going to try and stop me from following Reverend Frisby as he follows our Lord's call."
For a rinky-dink airport, Rod thought, they have enough going on to prevent it from being easy to find her father. As they walked, Rod learned this Reverend Frisby was only twenty-four years old and had been preaching since he was four. He'd recently struck out on his own, leaving the Forest Avenue Anabaptist Antioch United Christian Brethren Church and founding Reverend Frisby's World Ministries. He learned that Sister Jeannine's mother, Sister Drucilla, was a devoted believer in Reverend Frisby - until he broke away from the Forest Avenue Anabaptist Antioch (for short).
That's usually how the true believers knew each other; they knew the correct foreshortening. All organizations had their argot, or in this case, shibboleth. Rod learned that hadn't changed.
"Mother has accused me of cult worship. And only the good Lord knows what my father thinks of me. Probably worse."
Rod remembered the stout man's theft accusation. "Sounds to me like this Frisby may be succumbing to the siren call of success."
Sister Jeannine turned and shoved a hand against his chest. "You accusing Reverend Frisby of crass materialism? You accusing him of stealing, too? You, who are stealing a dead man's name. If you are, you can sleep in the street for all I care."
She wheeled around and marched away. She rounded the corner of the escalator and was about to step on it when she turned and came back. "I apologize. That was not very Christian of me."
Rod raised a hand. "Sorry."
The search downstairs turned up nothing, though Sister Jeannine thought, for a moment, she saw the back of her father heading out a glass door. She tried to run after the figure, but tripped over an old man's luggage tethered on wheels behind him. Rod helped her up. By the time she made it to the door, the figure was gone.
The western horizon was dark velvet thinly embroidered in red as they stepped outside. Overhead and descending to the east, it was black and the stars appeared reflective, like moonlit frost on the edges of tall grass.
She turned to him. "Who are you, really? You some real rich guy traveling hobo across the country? I heard about such people as you." She put a finger up to her lip. "So give."
"Okay. I'm really Rod Serling. The real Rod Serling. Put back on Earth to save you." Rod looked straight at Jeannine as he said it. It was fact with an admixture of guessing. It wasn't truth. Truth was something somewhere else. But in its absence, maybe he could end this misadventure on Earth now. Yet, for some reason some part of him - at least for a moment - didn't want to.
Sister Jeannine grinned. "And I thought I was the one trying to save you."
Scene III: Nothing in the Dark
The road that split the trailer park in two was gravel, and T. Xavier Gabriel heard every stone crunch beneath the weight of his rented tires. A window light at the far end of the driveway was his destination. (At least that's where his ex-wife's instructions had led him.) It was to the left of center of the fountain set in the middle of the circular driveway. The trailer was a double wide and night softened its aluminum features.
Gabriel pulled into the driveway (The wrong way he was sure.) and turned off his headlights. He hesitated before reaching forward and killing the ignition. He took a deep breath, eased the car door open, and stepped lightly toward the trailer. The gravel crunched beneath his feet anyway.
He climbed the poured concrete steps, feeling his stomach turn over. As he reached the top and raised his hand to knock, he glimpsed a covered bush to his left, just beyond the end of the trailer, and another near it, and another near it, hunchbacks marching off into the night. He turned and stared at them, realizing they weren't bushes, but that whatever they were, they were clothed in plastic and tarpaulin.
Gabriel backed away from the door and stepped toward the nearest pile. He lifted the edge of the tarp and squinted at what was underneath. After a few moments, he connected the vague images before him with the vague impressions of things lost in the divorce at the end of a twenty-two year marriage. He dropped the tarp.
Two years of divorce and this was the result: books, boxes of cheap jewelry, a photo album, a butcher block, a chest of drawers, and he didn't know what else. But knowing Wanda, she had already promised it all to that something-something church she attended, since she no longer believed in Frisby. Probably promised it more than once. Many times her enthusiasm ran ahead of her bookkeeping. He made out the silhouettes of ten piles scattered throughout the yard.
Spotlights met his eyes the instant he turned back to the trailer. A practiced voice said, "Hold it right there. I have a shotgun. The police are on their way. I know how to use it."
Gabriel raised a hand to block the light. "Wanda? Is that you?" An ambiguous form just beyond the gulf of light took on the shape of his ex-wife. "The lines are: 'Hold it right there. The sheriff's on his way. I have a shotgun and I know how to use it.'"
Gabriel stepped toward her. "Yes, Wanda, it's me. T. Xavier Gabriel." He always felt a little stupid reciting his "full" name. It was a name he wasn't really in love with anyway. "Do you have your glasses on?"
Metal clicked: the sound of a cocked trigger. "Damn. Forgive me Lord. Gabe, I never could figure out how to work this prop gun."
"Yeah. From our Western."
"Oh, yeah." Our only Western, Gabriel thought. Our only picture together. He remembered giving it to her as a joke so she'd feel safer. She was new in Hollywood then. The movie itself was a less memorable, not-so-epic oater, though it had probably been her best performance.
His ex-wife glared down at him as he reached the bottom step. "You didn't come to talk about reducing the alimony payments, did you?"
Gabriel swallowed, glanced at the shotgun draped over her forearm, and nodded.
"Well, then we have nothing to discuss."
"What about our daughter. That was the big reason you wanted me here." He took one step up. "Besides, I have that idiotic silver serving tray you've been complaining to your lawyer about, who's been complaining to my lawyer, who's been complaining to me. It's in my suitcase."
She touched the weapon with her left hand. "Why? Why should we discuss what you owe me?"
"Because I'm broke." He reached up and yanked the shotgun out of her hand. He wasn't sure it was a prop. "And if you don't help me, I can't help you."
Wanda retreated into the trailer, slamming the door in his face. "I want my serving tray. My silver serving tray!"
Scene IV: Mirage Image
Sister Jeannine quizzed Rod about Hollywood on the way back to Knoxville and said she was surprised at how much he knew, even things they didn't usually tell tourists. Rod was equally amazed at how much she knew and how much he remembered. It was as if dying and coming back to life had refreshed his memory, and that thought pained him. There were some memories that didn't need resurrecting. Though he had surprised her, Sister Jeannine said that didn't mean she believed he was the real Rod Sterling. He raised a finger, and she immediately corrected herself. Then Rod wondered if she had tried that simply to trip him up.
"So you really did grow up in the business," Rod said.
Sister Jeannine nodded. "Some heavy duty growing up. I had it all: private plane rides, private parties, private school, private everything except a private life. When your daddy makes it big, everybody that can't touch him tries to touch you. It's almost as if they expect you to heal them, or lift them up so he can touch them. But, I was in worse shape than they were. By the time I was fourteen, I'd lost my virginity. And by the time I was sixteen, I was in my first rehab colony."
"Drug rehabilitation torture center. They preferred you call it a colony, like Martha's Vineyard or something." Sister Jeannine shook her head, the left side of her lips turned up in a wry smile. "We'd all been definitely sucking on a vine of one kind or another." She shrugged. "Part of the reason mom left six years ago was to break me free of it. Then two years ago she broke free of daddy." She turned and looked at Rod. "And you, when did you break free?"
Rod glanced out the passenger side window. "Don't know that I ever did."
The Beetle banked around a curve, the headlights sweeping over a rock wall to the right. A concrete barrier separated the four lanes of traffic. They rode on, the barrier ending as they approached the bridge and passed over the headwaters of the Tennessee River.
"You say the river begins here?" Rod asked. Sister Jeannine had mentioned something about the Holston and French Broad Rivers joining to form the Tennessee when he on their way to the airport. Much like the Chenango and Susquehanna Rivers joining in his hometown of Binghamton, New York.
She nodded. "A couple hundred miles from here it curves north and five hundred miles from here it flows into the Ohio just before the Ohio flows into the Mississippi. It wasn't all navigable until TVA slapped some dams and lakes on it. Now some people say all that has tamed it too much. Left it no place to go, so to speak."
It took a moment for Rod to remember: TVA meant Tennessee Valley Authority. Despite her quizzing him as part of her duty, she had given him more information than he had her, at times monopolizing the conversation. He smiled, realizing he usually did that.
"Come on," Sister Jeannine said, swerving onto the Kingston Pike exit. "You have to be my life saver. I don't have anybody else."
"Oh my god! There it is! There it is! We're trapped! We're trapped!"
Rod reached forward and turned the volume down on the television, though it was more than the noise that offended him. He had wanted to talk about what had happened at the ground breaking, but Sister Jeannine had refused. She had just kept saying later, when her father arrived. Until then, she had said, there is nothing to talk about. No attempt had succeeded, leaving Rod little choice but to talk about her father's work.
"You say your father directed this?" Rod asked.
Sister Jeannine nodded, wincing slightly in anticipation. "That bad, huh?"
He glanced at the TV screen. The actress was still screaming. Could this director be the same one? Rod thought. The same guy? Despite the bad acting, the lighting and the angle of direction bore the stamp of one somebody, maybe two (director and cinematographer), trapped in a terrible situation, still trying for the best possible effect. Even if his observation wasn't true, he felt he should say something good. Sister Jeannine's face, open again, was like a hungry child's: she needed his words. "The directing is better than the acting."
Sister Jeannine reached out and touched his hand. She smiled and her face tightened into its adult shape. "You're a nice man."
Rod pulled his hand away. He quickly stood up, putting both hands in his pants pockets.
Sister Jeannine fell back on the bed laughing.
Rod looked once, then again, realizing that the woman on the screen was still screaming because her face was stuck. Or rather, the videotape had "paused." He wasn't used to the advancement of the VCR. He shifted from one foot to the other, a tight smile on his face. "Maybe I should go. It's getting late."
"Calm down. I'm reformed. I won't jump your bones. I'll keep one foot on the floor at all times." Her smile was lopsided and she twitched her eyebrows. "Besides, honey, it's only ten-thirty. You don't want to miss yourself on the eleven o'clock news, do you?"
"You have that on tape already?"
Sister Jeannine laughed again. "That's good."
The phone rang and Sister Jeannine rose to answer it. She handed him the remote control. "Have fun while I deal with one of your adoring fans."
As well as several local TV stations and the other residents of the Home for Lost Souls, many of Sister Jeannine's college friends had been at the candlelight ground breaking. She had told him several of them said he was a cute guy. Rod didn't see himself as a cute guy. He didn't when he was in high school in Binghamton, New York, and he didn't see himself that way now. He had crusaded his way into the paratrooper corps partly to escape being seen as a cute guy.
Rod looked again at the remote control, then the TV. He pressed the Eject button. In the early Sixties, videotape had been used for part of a Twilight Zone season in order to save money. But the quality and versatility versus film were poor and it was abandoned. Now it was an everyman's tool. He pulled the tape cassette out of the machine. You could live on the economic margin of society and own a VCR, or at least rent one.
Sister Jeannine charged into the room. "Guess what?" Rod didn't want to guess. He clasped his hands in front of him, then released them, moving them to his sides.
"Hey! Do that again. Clasp them in front of you. Your hands." Sister Jeannine waved at him with her hand, then clasped both of her hands in front of her. She then stepped forward and took the cassette from his hand. "You need a cigarette." She handed him a pen instead, placing it between his fingers, then re-crossed her hands in front of her. "Come on."
Reluctantly, he followed her lead and started re-draping his hands in front of him. Rod recognized the pose. It was his I'm-nervous-and-I'm-in-front-of-the-camera pose. He hesitated. Would she now believe him? And if so, is that what he wanted? Did he now want her to believe he was really himself? Her doubting had left him a little comfort room. He could, after all, always agree that it was a joke, a ruse, a disguise of some type.
Slowly, he moved his hands in front and clasped them, the left over the right. The only thing missing was a cigarette. A lit cigarette. He wished he had one.
"That's it! Now I know I've seen you."
Rod swallowed. His throat was dry and the sudden lump there was something he was sure he would choke on.
"Well, someone like you, since you don't want to take credit for any of this. There was this guy selling submarine sandwiches on TV who looked just like you. Standing just like that. Doing a Rod Sterling imitation. You ought to do it. You'd make a killing." She was still trying to sell him on doing commercials for Frisby's World Ministries. She mentioned the 1983 Twilight Zone movie, but she hadn't directly asked if he would do commercial for Frisby. Rod suspected she was afraid of rejection.
"Serling. No T." They did a movie without me?
"Right." She smiled and pointed a finger at him. "The commercial was on late last night while I was taping Daddy's movie."
The image of the woman had disappeared, replaced by some show on a local channel. Rod wasn't exactly sure how that had happened, or if damage had been done to the tape. It was the least of his worries.
Sister Jeannine replaced the cassette and pressed the Play button: the woman reappeared. Then Jeannine pressed the Fast Forward button. While they waited, she said Reverend Frisby had called to personally thank her for all she had done to make the evening a success. She didn't say if he had asked why the director of the sixth highest grossing film wasn't present. Or why at the last minute she had shoved this Rod Serling look-a-like into the limelight and said this imitator was part of a series of commercials the director had planned on behalf of Frisby's World Ministries. "Stay tuned."
"Here it is." Sister Jeannine reversed the tape, pressed Play, and turned up the sound.
The commercial opened with a night scene. A brief establishing shot of a local deli, a big submarine sandwich flashing in yellow and pink in the window to the right of the plate glass door. A tinny copy of The Twilight Zone theme began playing. The camera moved in slightly on the shop, tightening its focus. A figure stepped into the camera's view from the left of the screen. The music subsided. The figure, with hands clasped in front of him, began: "You unlock this restaurant with the key of hunger. Beyond it is a dimension of sumptuous tastes, a dimension of alluring smells---"
Rod groaned and turned away.
The phone rang again. Sister Jeannine answered it.
After a few minutes she walked back into the bedroom. "That was Reverend Frisby again. He said he found my father in a bar on The Strip and is bringing him here. He also said he wanted to talk to all of us about this Rod Serling commercial idea."
"Don't you mean 'Sterling'?"
Sister Jeannine laughed. "Right."
Rod turned and looked at her. "Do you have anything to eat?"
Scene V: Static
The argument over alimony started as soon as Gabriel followed Wanda inside the trailer and it lasted until 8 p.m. Then there was a unilateral withdrawal by Wanda. She demanded to see Reverend Frisby on TV, "stammer and all. You know, your daughter pulled this off." She said it almost with pride as she turned on the set and slapped it once on the side, jarring the fuzzy picture into focus. It was an old portable. The wood grain plastic on the slapped side looked slightly worse for wear.
"What happened to the wide screen set you got?" Gabriel didn't add the words "in the settlement." It was understood. He looked at the picture, a crowd shot. The camera panned the group. The color was off. All the people - He estimated a couple hundred people. - were a Vulcan green. He estimated the size at a couple of hundred.
"I gave that thing to Reverend Frisby when ... before ... ." She paused. "He auctioned it off to raise---"
"You what! You gave that ... that ... ." He pointed at the screen. "You gave him the wide screen, and you won't even give me the time of day. What kind of Christian charity is that?"
"Only a true Christian can appreciate charity. Sacrifice. Giving. Commitment. You wanted to settle in a hurry. You made the agreement. You live with it." She worked herself into an old rocker recliner and pulled an afghan around her. "Now shut up. I want to watch this."
"I settled because I had a picture to do. It was important." It was a project that went way over budget and died somewhere in the entrails of the studio boardroom, modern haruspicy presaging his life thus far. Also, he'd settled quickly because he felt he'd spent much of the family wealth on drugs - for himself and others; and though he wouldn't admit he had a problem, he felt guilt over the amount. He'd even tried deducting off his taxes as a legit business expense the money spent on drugs. The I.R.S. had told him no with the emphasis of a heavy fine. But he wouldn't admit his guilt to her; she already had enough arrows in her quiver.
"More so than your family, no doubt." She got up and slapped her wide hand against the side again and the color cleared up - marginally. She took the Bible off the TV and sat down in her rocker recliner. A small towel was draped over each arm and a bigger one folded over the frayed seat cushion.
On the far wall, on black velvet, there was a large painting of Jesus on the cross. It loomed out from the wall, leaning forward as if He were poised to dive off the cross and into the trailer. Gabriel looked at it and remembered a poem: "Christ Climbed Down." In it Jesus steps down from the cross, away from the Christmas trees, fake Santas and Bible salesman, and into the womb of some unsuspecting Mary where He waits to be born again, the "Immaculate Reconception, the very craziest of Second Comings." What the poet hadn't imagined but Gabriel knew was that this second coming would not make any difference. Nobody would recognize him. Just like the first time. Probably because you forgot to take your bent stick with you, baby. Your bare tree. Your cross. You got to have your props to be believed. Even if you're a god, image is everything. Imagine that. He stuck out his tongue at the picture, then quickly pulled it back as Wanda glared at him.
"You haven't changed." She worked her way back into her seat.
In Gabriel's mind, Wanda hadn't either. She was still no good at hanging pictures. The other walls were bare.
"You're the one who filed." He didn't add: After you'd been gone four years.
"Shut up." She said it without looking at him. "I was still under the influence of that Heathenistic California Society."
"Yes. But that influence freed you."
Her hazel eyes stayed fixed on the TV screen.
There was a knock on the trailer door. She didn't respond. After a moment, there was a second knock. "Get it." She forced out a weak "please."
Gabriel opened the door and a man in a baseball cap entered. Before he could take off his cap, Wanda said, "No extensions. Either pay the forty-five dollar monthly rent or clear your trailer out by morning. Understand me? This is my trailer park and I won't be taken advantage of simply because you think I'm a woman."
The man nodded, glanced at Gabriel, then left. The look made Gabriel feel they should get to know each other.
Wanda turned back toward the TV and crossed her arms. "I've already given him and his family one extension. These people will rob you blind if you let them."
"Aren't these your people?"
A local reporter, black, twenty-five Gabriel guessed, was on camera, a medium close up of his chocolate-green face filled most of the screen. Next was a crowd shot, a blur of colors: all haloed in green. "About a crowd of one hundred has gathered here, Bill." The reporter explained that the Forest Avenue church Frisby had been pastoring was a small fundamental sect and that Frisby had broken away because he claimed "God called him to bear witness to a larger audience - to be more evangelical." Gabriel wasn't sure what the difference was - fundamental versus evangelical - and it didn't really matter. He only knew his ex-wife had stopped giving this Kid Minister any more of his money. Maybe now he could get some of it back.
The reporter kept referring to "Bill." Gabriel assumed Bill was the anchorman, sitting back at the studio, probably with a suit and tie on from the waist up, and cut-off jeans from the waist down. He knew an anchor in California who wore short shorts and went barefoot. It was in her contract. She had the legs.
"A small band of fifteen protestors, most from the neighborhood and the Forest Avenue Anabaptist Antioch United Christian Brethren Church, have also gathered near here. They feel Frisby's church will destroy the neighborhood. Some claim representatives of Frisby's World Ministries, headquartered here in Knoxville, has already tried to drive them out. There have also been allegations of financial improprieties, though no one will state anything on camera. There was, however, a minor fracas earlier that delayed the start of the candlelight groundbreaking ceremonies. I was just handed this ... . Wait, here's Sister J.J. Gabriel, coordinator of Frisby's public relations at the microphone."
The reporter and the crowd became silent. Sister Jeannine approached the microphone, leaned toward it, tapped it slightly, and said, "My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, good evening." She cleared her throat. "I am sorry to say the director of the sixth highest grossing film will not be with us. His plane missed connections with Knoxville. He will be arriving later."
Gabriel, looking at a medium close up of his daughter, cleared his throat then chuckled. He was almost proud of her, using his reputation to help pack them in. He straightened his pants.
"Ssshhh," Wanda said.
For an instant, Gabriel felt they were in church again, together.
"Instead, we have the new spokesman for the commercials T. Xavier Gabriel will be doing for Reverend Frisby's World Ministries."
"What!" Gabriel said.
"What!" Wanda said, staring first at her daughter and then at her ex-husband. "You never."
"I never," Gabriel said.
"No one has ever done commercials the way T. Xavier Gabriel has done them. He has recently done commercials in which a Rod Serling impersonator was used. Well, tonight, we have the star T. Xavier Gabriel will use in his upcoming commercials." Sister Jeannine gestured to a man on the dais standing near her. He looked very nervous, clenching, unclenching, and re-clenching his hands in front of him.
"What?!" Gabriel said.
"Please extend a warm Christian greeting to Rod Sterling."
"I never." Gabriel pointed at the TV. The picture changed to a close up of Rod Serling.
The picture switched back to the reporter. "Bill, this is certainly a surprise. Even the reverend appears surprised."
The camera focused on Reverend Frisby.
"He's still a kid." Gabriel pointed at the TV.
"You gave my stuff to a kid!"
"It was my stuff. And I did with it what I damn well pleased. Lord, forgive me." She shook the Bible at him. "See . . . see what you've reduced me to."
For a few moments Wanda's gaze locked onto Gabriel's. She tried hard not to flinch, or smile, though the corners of her mouth turned up briefly.
Money was money, and it was owed. Gabriel could hear her saying it. He knew he would get no better treatment than any of the trailer park tenants. He almost had to smile at the irony: coming to beg for an extension, coming to beg a loan. He knew the history now. It ran like this: she had found Frisby here and became a true acolyte returning to both her fundamental spiritual and ancestral roots (whatever those were). But now, because of Frisby's breaking away and because their daughter had joined this Kid Minister instead of remaining with her in this Anabaptist Brethren thing, her role in the scheme of things was in jeopardy. Nobody in this something fundamental church could rescue Jeannine, and they probably didn't trust Wanda anyway: she had given all that money to Frisby. So, at least for a while, just as she needed the trailer park tenants, she needed him. He wanted to smile.
But if he smiled, and, heaven forbid, if she smiled back, it might reveal some hidden understanding, maybe even some hidden compassion. Certainly some hidden, guarded vulnerability beyond money, something not split or settled or put asunder by the divorce decree. Some small whole inwardly, atavistically existing. Gabriel sensed it. But the smile would lead to attempted humor, and humor to an attempted brushing aside, then a poor cover up of vulnerability. It would start in the lips and spread quickly to the eyes. The feeling made him relax. Then it made the acid run in his nervous stomach.
Wanda's eyebrow twitched and Gabriel wiped his hand across his mouth to keep from smiling. He couldn't stop it; it came anyway. He thought of sticking out his tongue, making a mockery of what he felt. Instead, he said, "We need to talk about our daughter."
He then charged in the direction of what he thought was the bathroom. After trying two doors, he found it. The flagrant odor of scented soap greeted him: pink and shaped like roses, the soap sat on shell-shaped dishes in three spots. The scent was sickening, like that of the dressing trailer of an overrated star he once knew and made the mistake of directing in her third comeback attempt. Favors for friends in Hollywood never paid: at least not favors for his friends.
Towels hung, color coordinated and neatly arranged, on plastic racks made to imitate brass. On the edge of the bathtub, in another dish, lay lavender bubble bath balls. Lotions and moisturizers and shampoos lived an ordered existence on a similarly fake brass shelf. Some earthly pleasures were harder to sacrifice than others.
Gabriel shook his head, then immediately straightened his hair. He felt for his comb, but couldn't find it. He heard her clap her hands and say, "Oh, Dear God, save her." He quickly finished, leaving the toilet seat up. He was still zipping his pants as reached the living room.
"You missed it!"
"Missed what? A revelation from on high?"
"No! Somebody threw something at the dais and it hit Jeannine in the side of the face." She was pointing as if the same scene was still on the TV.
Gabriel looked. The picture on the screen was of Frisby, not Jeannine. He was preaching in his stammering style, hammering the lectern to emphasize almost every painfully elaborated sentence. "And ... and ... you-ou must be say-aved. You-ou must---"
"You must help her," Wanda said. "He's telling our daughter that the world is coming to an end, and that all who don't believe, who don't help will be left behind."
"So, ransom your daughter. He lets J.J. go in exchange for a hefty hunk of change. Then he can join a long list of hogwash prophets predicting the Second Coming. And I'd at least be getting some satisfaction out of this charismatic chop shop."
"You don't mean it!" Her eyes widened and her fifty-four-year-old round face lost its tightness, then began to recover. "She's all I have left. She's all you have left." "Maybe. Maybe not. There is this discussion of alimony we haven't finished." He crossed his arms, uncrossed them, and then crossed them again. He believed he was too old to leave the country to escape alimony, learn a foreign language, and re-start a career. His stint with a cheap foreign film had taught him that you couldn't make a comeback from afar, not in this business. Besides, leaving the country would be too easy on her. Since she had been able to irritate him, he now deserved the chance to irritate her: "If you want me to save her, I'll need money."
She turned her attention back to the TV.
Gabriel walked over to the TV and turned the sound off. Frisby was still preaching, though anchor Bill's voice over said the station "would be back after these messages."
"Hey! What the ... do you think you're doing?" Wanda looked up at Gabriel. The jingle of a commercial peeped around him and into the room.
"I said, you certainly seem willing to take my money made from my way of life. My heathenistic way of life. My heathenistic money."
"And I gave it to Reverend Frisby and he . . . and he made it pure." She tried looking through Gabriel to the TV.
"Oh, he's an alchemist, too, eh? In addition to a prophet? And for an encore, I suppose he'll call the thunder down from the sky. Well, then, if he's an alchemist, maybe he's making your daughter pure. Taking all my heathenistic genes out of her!"
"Shut up. You don't understand. You've excluded Jesus from your life. It's all bad to you. It's all crazy. You can't see that maybe, just maybe, a righteous man has gone too far. Turn the volume up. Right now."
Gabriel turned the set off. He'd had enough of her perverse fascination. He wasn't sure if she wanted this Frisby character to succeed or fail. Maybe it did all depend on their daughter going with him. He walked to the door, opened it, and left. He hadn't even bothered to take off his jacket. Divorce still gave him a warm, flowing feeling of acidity.
Scene VI: The Man in the Bottle
It was a small, cramped bar on The Strip. He tipped back his fourth whiskey, starting and finishing it in one large swallow. A small rivulet limned out of the corner of his mouth. He looked around for his waitress, but Babe was nowhere to be seen. He envisioned her off somewhere being saved. Or calling the police. He had made the mistake of asking her where he could get some good coke. In Hickville, Tennessee, good was probably the best he could expect.
He pulled out another cigarette and lit it. He blew the blue-gray smoke out in front of him. He hated what he saw around him. He had picked the first port after leaving the storm, but here he was distinctly out-of-place. Everyone around him was a child. The bartender looked like a child; certainly his waitress did, freckles included. The patrons were all dressed so damn squeaky clean, like Barbies and G.I. Joes fresh from their packages. Dressed in designer camouflage and an assortment of other colors not found in nature, they blended perfectly with the neon bulge of decoration that had invaded modern America.
At fifty-seven, Gabriel felt he had more in common with the four hanging moose heads, one in each corner of the barroom. Each one had a noose around its neck and a few hats on its antlers. Each one had a red electric nose wired into a wall socket, and one sported a bow tie. The bar itself dominated the middle of the room, and the racket of video games vied with unintelligible music for background noise dominance.
Gabriel had a drinking theory, one he elaborated on every time he had to drink in a noisy bar. His theory postulated that the greenhouse effect was caused not by carbon dioxide, but by increased levels of useless prattle coming from noisy bars agitating air molecules. People talking at each and not to each other. All those molecules expanding and contracting against each other certainly had to be heating the air. Soon noisy bars would have to be outlawed for the good of mankind. The music would be gone. The ding-ding, rattle-fizz of the video games would be gone. All the sounds that overlaid and waylaid intelligence would be gone. People would have to talk with each other again, saying things to be understood and not simply heard.
The idea sent a sudden gelid shiver down Gabriel's spine. He'd never taken his theory this far before. He glanced at the facing chair across the table and a vision of the condemned bar outside New York -the place he'd run to escape the rain - of the drunk owner dropping himself into the facing red seat and accosting him about the damn shame of the bar closing came briefly to mind. He - Gabriel - would actually be forced to interact. Go away, Gabriel mouthed the words. Go away.
His waitress appeared with another drink. Gabriel didn't remember asking, but he wouldn't refuse. He was still trying to figure out how he'd pay. He'd bought a cheap six pack on the way over. Three were gone by the time he'd stumbled across this place. The waitress reached down for the empty glass. He yanked it away, putting it next to the others. "I'm building a memorial, Babe."
"That's what you said about the other ones."
"I am." He took the drink from her and before she was out of eyesight, he'd drained the last drops of liquid umber from number five. He shoved the glass over to the others. He looked for her, but she was gone. Just a few more and he could start his wall between him and all he did not wish to interact with: this bar, his ex-wife Wicked Wanda, his deliquescing career, his daughter Jeannine. Just a few more. He lit another cigarette. For the moment, smoke would have to do. He looked down at the glasses. When he looked up, there was a young man standing on the other side of the table. The young man looked recently familiar, like someone seen briefly on a TV screen. Gabriel looked at the TV. The young man's image was there. Followed by his daughter and that damn Serling clone. That confirmed it: it was the Kid Minister all right, believe it or not. From the TV and out of his recent past.
The Kid Minister pulled out a chair and sat down. The same chair Gabriel had been staring at, the same chair that had briefly been occupied by a drunken man in a gray rumpled suit. "Mind ... mind ... ." He pointed at the seat.
Gabriel snorted. The face of the newscaster returned to the TV screens around the bar. The Special Report was over. The young man extended a hand. "Name ... name's Rever-end Rod ... Rodney J. Frisby. I'm . . . I'm building a cathedral ... near by. I ... ah ... I also have ... have an outreach ministry next door. I saw you-ou ... saw you-ou en-ter ... " He pointed at the bar. "... and I rehcog . reh-cog-nized you-ou."
"Nobody recognizes me."
"I . I did." Frisby pointed at himself.
"Nobody knows me."
"I . ah . I do. T. Xavier Gabriel, di-director of the---"
"Yeah, yeah." He flagged his hand at Frisby. "You got a good memory, Kid. You ought to. You been killing me off. Just like everybody else. You hit one big one and everybody feed . feeds off you, carves you up. Well, there ain't nothin' left. Plain enough."
"Your . your ex-wife's gen ... gen-erous con ... con-tri-butions to my work . appreciated. Yours too. I ... I was sssorry sshe didn't make it to our consse-cration and ground breaking."
"I didn't know they allowed your kind in here."
"Jesssus . among the outcasts. Can I . can I do less?" Gabriel snorted. "Sshure. You're still fisshing. When are you people going to forget my success? That one fucking movie's all I'm remembered for!"
It was a nightmare; he was being forced to interact. It took all he had to interact with his ex-wife. Now this. With a stuttering preacher no less. He reached forward and grabbed the fifth glass. It was almost a miracle; there was some left.
Frisby reached forward and put his hand across the top. Gabriel jerked the glass from underneath Frisby's hand and pulled it up to his lips. He drained it, turned it over, and smacked the tumbler against the table. "Waitress!"
Eyes looked toward him.
He hesitated, the looked up: "Babe!" It was hard to focus. The others' eyes looked furtively away. "To quote the Good Book, Reverend: 'Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that are of heavy hearts. Let him drink and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.'"
Frisby smiled indulgently, like a father. "Ssisster Dru ... dru-cilla said you-ou could quote ssscripture. Good ... good."
That face, it looked barely old enough to shave. That face, grinning and smooth and oily in spots, had all his worldly possessions and acne, too. Still, and even though drunk, Gabriel felt an air of sincerity from that face. The young man did care. That made Gabriel even angrier. "Goddmanit. Conssant exposure results in a certain amount of contamination. Sossiety was Chrissian and so was I, before I wised up." Adrenalin and whiskey were making him drunker quicker than whiskey alone. Gabriel leaned forward, determined to knock some teeth free. He swiped his fist in an arc, hitting nothing but air. "I ought to hit you so hard, your head'll spa-spin."
"Sssertainly." The smile remained, one corner twitching briefly. Frisby nodded, weaving his long pale fingers together, then unweaving them. "You-ou sssound jusst like me."
Frisby reached inside his jacket and pulled out a pen and an autograph book. He hesitated, then leaned forward, turning his head slightly. A waitress approached. He quickly slipped the book back inside his jacket. He pulled out a small Bible. "Broth . broth-er Gabriel, I fear . . . I fear you-ou have misssed the most im . impor-tant part of that . that sssection of Proverbs. It al-also sssays: 'It . it is not for kings to drink wine, nor for prinssess sstrong drink, Lest they drink, and forget the law and pervert the judgment of . of any of the afflicted . .'"
The waitress heard the words and immediately turned away.
Gabriel glared at Frisby. "Why the hell are you here? To torment me? Did my wife send you?"
"And . ah . are we not all prinssess of peace cast in the image of our Lord and Ssay-sayvior Jesssus Christ, Broth ... Borth-er Gabriel? Especially when time is sso-oh ssshort."
"My ex! My ex! Not my wife." Gabriel leaned into the table, tilting it. "My ex." He reached forward and pounded on the table, knocking the glasses into Frisby's lap. "My ex, goddamn it!"
Gabriel stood, felt dizzy, fell down, and brought the table over on top of him. Frisby righted the table, helped Gabriel to his seat, then went and made a phone call.
Scene VIII: The Mirror
He sees his leg being cut away and spinning up and up and up, like a propeller, into a deep, sanguinary abyss. Then his other leg is cut away and it, too, rotates up and away. As they spin, each leg makes the sound of a roto-tiller. As they spin, each leg is a propeller on an L-5 supply plane, dropping miles and miles of supplies.
Miles and miles of slimy, oozing, twitching arteries fall in a never-ending stream from the blood-red sky. Steel vices hold his chest open. Arteries first strike his heart and bury it. They overflow his chest, smothering his stomach, his neck, his lower abdomen, and finally his face in an avalanche.
Rod sprang up in bed, coughing and kicking at the pea green bedspread. He gasped and kicked the remainder of the cover aside. Blinking first, he then stared at his legs. They were there: both of them.
He searched for the scar on his right leg. The surgeons had told him there would probably be one after they removed part of the saphenous vein for use in the bypass operation. It wasn't there. He felt a strange sense of relief, then uneasiness.
His mind suddenly overflowed with the sights, sounds, smells, touches - all the sensory experiences of his first day back on Earth. He felt light-headed and his heart beat faster. He gasped for breath and in the distance he heard the sound of a roto-tiller: his roto-tiller, the one he had been operating the day he suffered the heart attack that led to the unsuccessful open-heart surgery.
He would have rather had the attack on stage, in front of an eager crowd waiting for him to speak, a welcoming crowd; and not in the garden under the noonday sun. But maybe it was fitting, especially since the height of his fame had passed, and the height of writing powers had passed before that. Not a romantic way to die, was it? Not a heroic way.
No, not a very romantic way. But a human way.
Clemens, is that you? Rod glanced around the room, though he knew better. Cicerone-Twain-Clemens could not usually be seen by the human eye any more than he could be heard by the human ear.
You were expecting maybe God?
Getting cute in our old age are we?
Old age! I can see you have a much to learn about death.
And about life, too, it seems. Rod lay back down in the bed, Jeannine's bed. She was in the next room, supposedly with her father. She had insisted he take the bed. It squeaked. This is all so confusing.
Welcome back to humanity, the voice of Clemens said.
I don't guess the truth will work?
You've been trying it. What do you say?
And if people did believe me? Rod asked.
It would make our job much easier.
Maybe I . we could be done in less than a year.
Maybe, Clemens said.
Somehow, I don't think that will happen. Rod found it hard to keep his eyes from wandering, from searching for a point of focus.
I think you're right. The first time around some people were expecting a warrior-king savior, and they didn't like what they got. I doubt things will be much different the second time.
But they're not looking for me.
You could fix that.
What do you have in mind? A few run-of-the-mill miracles? A parting of the waters? Maybe a little handwriting on the wall? Maybe I make someone you know levitate in front of a large group of people. Maybe even on TV. Is that it? Is that what you have in mind? Clemens asked.
For starters that might do, though it would probably have to be a little splashier this time.
This time? You think it worked before?
So I've heard, Rod said.
And I suppose you want to know if what you have to do will work this time?
Well, you should know.
And how do I know it will work this time. You poor silly, stupid human - I don't. You want to view time as either free will or determined. If it's determined, like a fixed race, you want to know if you'll win. And if it's free will, you want to know if it's worth winning before you begin. You act as if time's some kind of light switch. On, determined. Off, free will. Well, you got it partly right. It's light and time. But it's like this: time is light, light is time. In this universe the two are one. No on/off. Time is light and space is mirror, and refractor, and prism. By its light you can figure out how far away a star is. By its light you can see what a star's made of. By its light you even know if it's there or not. All by its light and how it's reflected, refracted, split apart, and rejoined in space, by things in space, even other stars. But the light from a star rarely reaches the Earth on a straight fly, determined or freely sought. If it did, you'd know a whole lot less about it.
All right, already. I see the point. Rod sighed. It really wasn't going to be easy.
Cheer up. Look at it this way. Even Jesus Christ didn't use his "magic" to carry his message. The showmanship was on the side.
Not exactly the way I would've put it.
Ah, shall we now quibble over a mere flurry of vowels and consonants as your good name gets further besmirched before your very eyes? For a moment, Twain appeared before Rod in a white mane of hair, bushy mustache. This time he was dressed in a nightgown and sitting, propped up against pillows, in bed. He lowered the tablet he was writing on and peered at Rod over half-glasses. You know, next time I'll stick to dealing with lower animals. If you save a dog, he will not bite you.
The price you pay for conjuring up a savior, Rod said.
The image of Twain disappeared. Good night, Rod.
Good night, ah . . Rod punched his pillow a few times then lay back down. He turned fitfully, trying to sleep.
END ACT II: TO BE CONTINUED...
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