A Novel of Possibilities in The Twilight Zone tradition
David E. Booker
Act III: Patterns
Wherein the residents of the Home for Lost Souls
Scene I: The Invaders
"You-ou will help meee build it," Reverend Frisby said, turning from the apartment window. From here, the bush still looked charred from the brush fire somebody had set last evening, a couple of hours before the ground breaking. The lights and tinsel on it softened the burnt harshness. It shook like a mechanical hula dancer every time the bulldozer it was strapped to moved. Two bulldozers removed soil from around a giant rock of Tennessee pink marble. The rock, growing more exposed with each scoop, was to remain and be the centerpiece of the world's first nondenominational cathedral.
"Up-upon thiss rock I ssshall found my church," Reverend Frisby said as he dragged Rod to the window and pointed at the construction site. "It will be a sssymbol and an anchor."
The rock was a geological anomaly, the only outcropping in the area. Many in the neighborhood, especially many at the Forest Avenue Anabaptist Antioch United Christian Brethren Church, believed Frisby's cathedral would be an architectural and theological anomaly. A cathedral indeed! Rod had heard one protestor shout. Probably all glass or something odd like that.
Rod hesitated, then moved away from the window, leaving the Reverend to look. Rod had just let him in. They had met only briefly last night and Rod felt no driving need to help Frisby build his dream. Rod would have preferred to box the good Reverend's two hecklers, saving him that way, if he was the one to be saved.
"Won-wonderful sssight, don't you-ou think?"
"Yeah. A real winter wonderland." Rod had spent the better part of Christmas Eve day tagging along with Sister Jeannine while she shopped for presents and food. The thing that had made the biggest impression on him were the pictures, on the back panels of milk cartons, of children lost in the world, all asking, "Have you seen Me?" Such a thing had not existed when he died. But now, children were running away, being abducted, being left stranded, abandoned - all homeless in modern America. He had pointed to the carton Jeannine picked up and she had nodded solemnly. A tragedy, she had said. Even she had run away, she said, and from the tone of voice, Rod knew she did not mean to a friend's house until she was missed. Wound up a prostitute, she had said. That's when mom decided to come to Tennessee. Had things gotten that bad in eleven Christmases? Could he be sent to save one of these children?
Rod looked toward the bedroom door. Sister Jeannine and T. Xavier Gabriel were on the other side. He was waiting to meet this director and estranged father. He wanted to see if this man was, indeed, the same Gabriel he remembered. Rod almost expected him to be part ogre and part demi-god. Even he felt a nascent admiration for the director of the sixth-highest-grossing film, even if he had never seen it. But the time was now sometime in the late afternoon, and Gabriel still wasn't presentable, also known as sober, Rod learned.
Father and daughter were in the room Rod had slept in, arguing. Occasionally, the acrid smell and blue-gray sight of cigarette smoke drifted up from the gap beneath the door. The smell propelled Rod's desire for cigarettes, but he had no money to buy any. He would speak to Clemens about that.
He stared at the television, faces and voices in the 65th largest U.S. TV market still debating Christmas. Jeannine had moved it out of the bedroom to entertain him while she dealt with her father. Beside the TV was an opened bottle of Scotch and a milk carton with a kid's picture on it under the headline: Have You Seen Me?
Eleven missed Christmases was not really a long time, unless he remembered it was also his birthday. What age that would make him tomorrow (None - he hadn't been here a year, this time; one year old; one year older; a decade older?) was a matter of sublime arithmetic. Whatever his age was, it shouldn't bother him he told himself. After all, the early pioneers had had no sense of Christmas. "In 1644, the English Parliament forbade religious festivals and merriment at Christmas. Between 1659 and 1681 Christmas was outlawed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In fact, shops were open for business as usual on Christmas Day. The first painted Christmas card wasn't introduced until 1846. And it wasn't until the 19th century that the assimilation of the ascetic Saint Nicholas and the fat, pagan, jovial Father Christmas was completed in the United States," a Feminist Marxist said, wagging a stiff finger at a priest and an economist. She was part of a special Christmas panel discussion on the public access cable TV channel. Rod turned up the volume in an effort to drown out the shouting match between Jeannine and her father. He wished he had another room - his own room - but the Home for Lost Souls was full and he didn't have any money. He definitely meant to ask Clemens about that.
Reverend Frisby turned and looked at the TV. "You-ou don't want to bah-bahther your-or-self with that nutty woman. Ssshe's on there every year, claim-claiming Christmas is a male dominated capah-capahtalistic con-conspiracy of corruption and dec-decadence. Turn that off." Frisby waved his hand at the TV. "You-ou and I ..." He pointed at Rod and then himself. "... discuss the real meaning of Chrissmas."
The woman did what Frisby said: she rambled on. Her litany was without climax, pointless. Rod was surprised the woman didn't take her theory to its reductio ad absurdum conclusion. With the Christmas season starting slightly earlier each year, soon it would start on July Fourth and Uncle Sam and Santa Claus would be merged into one white haired, red, white (and possibly blue) star studded figure: Uncle Claus. The only real problem would be the weight, and possibly the facial hair, but those could be worked out, maybe even decided by one of those phone-in polls Jeannine had tried to explain to him last night, when he saw the 1-900 number for the first time on a cable channel.
The economist and the Jesuit priest looked a little haggard, as if they had been out bombasted.
"I ... ah ... I de-debated her once," Frisby said. He stepped to the TV and changed channels.
Rod looked up, irritated by the young man's - the kid's presumptiveness, and surprised that with his stutter he had ever debated anybody, particularly somebody with a motor mouth.
Frisby shook his head. "That ... that's how I came to thisss ... ." He pointed toward the floor. "Here. Sssity. I came a few years ago and the ... the Fore-Forest Ave-nue Ana-Anabaptist Church asked me to ssstay. The ... the mountains ..." Frisby made a circular motion with his finger. "... can grow-oh on you-ou."
The first TV program Rod saw in its entirety was All-Star Wrestling, featuring the newest wrestling sensation: "The Zone." It was on before Frisby had arrived.
For a moment, Rod had thought the show was funny, in its grotesque, almost Southern gothic way. It reminded him of his playing "Mr. Zone" in a Jack Benny Show parody: "I'm the mayor of this town," he told Benny, who had stumbled out of a fog onto his house. "In fact, they named it after me. I'm Mr. Zone ... . You can all me Twi." Yelling for help, Benny had then dashed back into the fog from which he had come.
Rod then turned to the camera and told the audience Benny would be back. "Any man who claims to be thirty nine as long as he has is a permanent resident of The Twilight Zone ... ."
But in reality, he was the only permanent resident of his own creation. Unlike God, Rod wasn't given the option to transcend it, leave it all behind. The more he had thought about that, the more it had made him angry, especially when he heard the semi articulate wrestler in the mask claim, while jabbing his finger at the camera, to have "the Power of The Zone. Bequeathed to me on his bed of death by my uncle. In New York. Hence I call myself The Zone in his honor. And I wear this head mask in his honor. And I play his music, in his honor. That is why I'm inevitable. I will be forever." Spittle gathered at the corner of his mouth.
As the stout man, with his mustache curling out from a mask that was supposed to look like Rod, had climbed into the ring somebody played a tinny version of the simple, easily imitable theme, obviously recorded directly off TV, probably in a motel room, one very very late evening.
Rod changed channels again. On the new channel an animated Santa Claus rode toward the moonset, pulled by eight tiny reindeer, dragging a banner advertisement for children's toys behind him. Santa Claus appeared timeless, but was that the same thing as immortal? Was he, Rod Serling, now immortal? When he was done, what would happen to him? Would he go back to "heaven"?
Heaven had not been what he thought it would be. There were few, if any, words to touch the experience, though part of his mind kept trying. Last night, in his dreams, heaven came to him in images, maybe even visions, though they were not beatific. There were no glowing, flowing robed beings, nor winged angels with trumpets to guide him; no choirs in eternal harmony, nor serene contemplation while sitting in a lotus position on a cloud; no gold plumbing as a neighbor had once assured him; and, definitely, there were no Santa Clauses. Unsettling visions of an angry, empty life were what greeted him last night, as if death were a mirror in which his life was reflected and heaven or hell was what he saw, suddenly, starkly, like his face after years of never standing in front of a mirror: he always had it within him, as a part of him, but he could never see it until now.
Heaven left Rod with the impression as a state-of-place-of- being of much liberty but little freedom, while Earth, he was again experiencing, was a state-of-place-of-being of much freedom and little liberty. Television (from the Greek meaning "far off vision" or "end vision"), ironically, highlighted that difference. It was an instrument of liberty, but it offered little freedom. Like light, it shone almost everywhere. Like light, it transmitted many things. Like light - like God, it was instantaneous. You were at liberty to take what it had to offer, but you were not free to change it: electronic grace.
Rod looked again at the TV screen. Santa Claus was gone, but not the impression the jolly ol' man being a vehicle for something other than what was originally intended. "Et tu, Santa Claus."
"Wha ... what's that?"
Rod glanced at Frisby. He still had trouble adjusting to Frisby's youth and Frisby's stutter. How could one so young and so speech-impaired be a preacher? He had heard or read or learned some way (At times, the coenesthesis of existence was overwhelming.) that this young man was only twenty. Sister Jeannine had told him twenty four was closer to the truth. There was no closer to the truth on Frisby's stutter. He stuttered profoundly. It was a handicap. But the young man struggled through it anyway, preaching in spite of it, almost making of it an asset, and in doing so, gaining the admiration of many. He even felt some admiration for Frisby, though he had little use for the young preacher's religion. Frisby definitely was not polished, but he did seem sincere, and sometimes even filled with child-like wonder, such as when he looked out the apartment window at the construction site. It might have been the first snow of winter for all the simple joy the construction site cast on his face. He was building his home. People would know where he was - maybe even who he was.
"I'm ... I'm sssorry. I for-got your-or name." He stepped from the window, extending a hand. "Name ... name's Rod-ney. Rod-ney J. Fris-by. Rev-rend."
Rod looked at the hand, hesitated, then took it. "Rod Serling." He shook it once, then let go.
Frisby stepped back. "You don't mean Sterling, do you?"
"Serling, Reverend. No T. And I'm telling you that I'm here to save somebody, possibly you." Surely, Rod thought, if anybody could recognize the sincerity, if not the truth, in his statement, it would be a preacher, even a young preacher. He might then help him find the person he was supposed to save.
Frisby nodded, a small smile on his face.
"I mean, the world might come to an end if I don't succeed." Rod crossed his arms, then uncrossed them and put his hands in his pants pockets. Certainly Frisby would understand how saving somebody could save the world.
"I'm ... I'm sure it might." Frisby's smile was cocked higher on one side of his mouth than the other. "But ... but I believe my sssoul is already sssaved. In ... in fact, I be-believe it is my duty to sssave your sssoul. And the ... and the first thing we ssshould discuss is believing you're the real Sssterling character. That ... that's a bit much? Don't ... don't you-ou think? Sssort of like meee pre-tending to be the Lord Jesssus?"
Rod paused. This discussion was not going in a fruitful direction. Rod was sure the person he was supposed to save would recognize the sincerity and truth of his statements. Could he be wrong? Could he be in the wrong place or even the wrong time? Could Clemens be wrong? "How?" He had meant the question more for himself: How was it possible?
"Aahh." Rod focused on Frisby. "Yes. How do you save souls?"
"By u-ousing Tee-tee-vee. TV. TV is my dis-ciple. You-ou will be my-ah my dis-disciple."
Is? This kid was already speaking as if he had TV right where he wanted it. "One nation under TV."
Frisby had not heard Rod, his face glowing with possibilities. "That ... that is how I will build my ca-cathe-dral."
"You mean you're going to use me instead of Him?" If he believes he has TV and me where he wants us, Rod thought, I have a few truths for him.
"Not . . . not how I meant it. I ... ah ... I will use you-ou to bring them to Him." Frisby paused, and then said, "Mah-mean, He will use you-ou. I'm ... I'm just His messssenger. You-ou too."
"I am nobody's messenger." Rod crossed his arms.
Frisby stared at Rod. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
Rod stared at Frisby, then repeated: "I am nobody's messenger." Rod had had enough of this. If nobody was going to accept him for who he was, then he felt no obligation to accept any of them or any of their wants or needs. He would simply leave and go … go ... .
The door to the bedroom opened and out stepped Sister Jeannine. An epithet escaped the room as she shut the door.
"Sissster Je ... Jeannine, how ... how goes it?"
Jeannine's freckled face was drained, almost ashen, creating a marked contrast with her red hair.
"I ... ah ... I need to speak with you-ou."
She looked at Frisby and flashed a quick small smile. She was bent over a stack of magazines; she returned to looking for something, frowning.
"Yes, father ... ah ... Reverend?" She didn't look up. After a few seconds, she muttered: "Damn."
Frisby stepped over to Jeannine and began talking in a low voice. Sister Jeannine said "What!" looked at Rod, then lowered her voice.
Rod looked at Sister Jeannine. Their eyes met. Then he turned away. He suddenly felt unsettled in his absoluteness. In her eyes were pain and fear. The hardness of a fast chic life at the top had given way to unguarded innocence. She had taken him in, for whatever reasons, and accepted him. Even if she didn't believe him, she seemed willing to believe in him. That belief now appeared to include the idea he could help this ministerial show.
She stepped toward him.
Rod did not want this; this was not how it should be. He had had enough trouble saying no the first time on Earth. Now, here again was something he should just say no to: just as he should have said no to all those commercials; no to selling, after he became "a name," all those early bad scripts he had written; no to hosting a syndicated Hollywood comedy game show called Liar's Club. For 6 months in 1968, for $500 a week, he had laughed his way through that turkey; laughed at almost everything - including himself - as Hollywood stars tried to fool him with outlandish tales. His wife had told him he looked like "a constipated Sicilian prizefighter." That only made him laugh more.
Rod was nervous now, but laughing couldn't get him out of what was coming. Sister Jeannine stepped up beside him. She was 5'5". He was 5'5". She leaned toward him, laid her hand on his forearm, and whispered: "I know I can count on you." Then she petted his forearm, glanced at him, and walked away, back to the magazines.
Rod watched Sister Jeannine walk away. He glanced down at his right forearm: She had petted his forearm as if calming an animal and had said, "I know I can count on you." He looked up and at her: "The hell you can!"
"What?" Sister Jeannine turned around. Even Reverend Frisby looked over at Rod.
There was a knock at the apartment door.
"The hell you can count on me!" Rod yelled and charged toward the door. He opened it. On the other side stood a small force of four people, three women and a man. The man had thick hair curling off every area of exposed flesh, except his head. It was bald and strangely flat, as if his skull had been crew cut. His fist was raised in the air. One of the women held a petition.
Nobody else heard it, but Gabriel heard the bedroom door's hinges squeal on him as he opened it. The sound echoed loudly in his undulating brain. He had heard the mimic shouting and he wanted to see him. The mimic had sounded so real. Almost ... Nah! It wasn't possible. Serling was dead. Still, he wanted to see if this mimic looked as good as he sounded. If so, maybe he could use him in Atlanta. Unfortunately, all he saw was the back of a man in a dark suit charging his way through a clump of hicks at the apartment door.
"Wel ... welcome," Frisby said, stepping toward the people, extending a hand.
Gabriel saw what looked like Bibles in their hands. Uh-oh. A revival meeting. There might be speaking in tongues, rolling around on the floor, and laying on of hands. There could even be snake handling. He had heard of such things, maybe even seen something about it on TV. Gabriel narrowed the door opening. The door didn't squeal; hinges never do when being closed. He kept an eye on what was happening. He burped and tasted the acid remains of yesterday in his mouth. He needed a drink from the Scotch bottle by the TV. Maybe a little milk to coat his stomach. He also needed a shower, a shave, and a fifteen-minute turn with a new toothbrush that would then be sealed in a lead container and disposed of as toxic waste. The bathroom was right next door, but he didn't want to go. Not yet. Maybe the mimic would return. A dull ache returned to his head. Gabriel had been feeling it often lately.
"Where is ... ." The elderly woman looked in a small green book, pulling free what looked like a petition. It was on legal paper. "Where is Jeannine Jackson Gabriel?"
Gabriel lit a cigarette. They were always good for masking shortcomings and bad breath. This could be interesting. He imagined he was holding a camera, recording in secret a cult meeting, just like he'd tried to do one summer at a tent revival near his grandparent's farm in southern Indiana.
"I'm Sister Jeannine Jackson Gabriel," she said, then moved toward the door.
The elderly woman bristled when she heard the word sister and pulled herself up tighter.
"Widow Reed, you know who I am," Sister Jeannine said. "I have driven you downtown on several occasions."
"And I ... and I am Rev-rend Frisby." Frisby extended a hand. "Rev-rend Frisby."
"I know who you are!" Widow Reed pointed a finger at Frisby. "You are the problem."
The big man stepped forward as if he was going to protect the elderly woman. Instead, he squeezed the woman out of the doorway, forcing her into the apartment. She stumbled in, Frisby catching her and righting her. She recoiled from him and stared back at the big, bald man. She opened her mouth as if going to call him by name, then clamped it shut. She then turned to Sister Jeannine and handed her the legal paper: "You are behind in your rent. This is an eviction notice. You have until midnight to leave." Then she looked over at Frisby and added: "You and your vile cult."
This is definitely not a revival meeting, Gabriel thought, taking another drag. He combed his sagging hair up and over his bald head with his hand and hoped this "meeting" wouldn't last much longer. Eviction notices were boring scenes. He'd had a couple served on him. The hicks were losing his interest, being replaced by cigarettes, and a bit of the hair of the hound that bit him.
Scene II: Spur of the Moment
Rod quickly reached the bottom of the stairway from the second floor apartment and then moved outside, each step certain and sure and powered by anger. Once on the porch, however, he was much less certain what to do. He stood in the Christmas Eve cold and wondered: what now.
Well, great TV impresario, what do you do for an encore?
Rod turned and looked into the yard, just past the old refrigerator. Somebody had turned it over. It lay poised on the ground in an inverted V, resting on the body of the refrigerator and the opened door. The stench was almost unbearable. Rod was sure he had heard Clemens' voice from near the refrigerator, but Clemens wasn't there. He looked off the porch in the other direction: no one.
"Hey, you. What you going to do now?"
"I want out!" Not until he had finished did Rod realize he had been speaking out loud.
"That's what you said last time."
"But ... ." It wasn't Clemens' voice Rod was responding to.
"I have a contract. You will do this commercial."
Rod turned back toward the refrigerator and saw a man, his hands firmly planted on his hips. He was stepping away from the refrigerator as if he had been circling the house. He stopped. If the refrigerator had been upright, they would've been roughly the same width and depth. The refrigerator, though an early '50s model, would still have a slight height advantage.
"Then I don't give a fuck what you do," the man said and spit at the ground in front of him. Something that looked like gum or a piece of his tongue fired out of his mouth.
Rod blinked and decided it was gum. "Contract?"
"Yeah. I see it's coming back to you." The man adjusted the ball cap on his head. It read Sand Dollar Deli in peeling letters across a black background. Beneath the first line, in newer letters it read: Last stop this side of the Hunger Zone. The writing was small and crammed together and Rod could read it only when the man stepped toward him. "Now get over here. This fuckin' equipment I rented costs money."
Get over here? Where?
The man worried a toothpick from one side of his bearded face to the other.
Scene III: The Beautiful People
"Come ... come in," Reverend Frisby said, waving his hand. "Ev-ev-rybody."
Widow Reed hesitated, glancing first at Sister Jeannine, then back at her large escort. She backed out of the room and entered it again, followed by the big man and two other friends.
Frisby looked at Jeannine and asked, "Bible?"
Jeannine turned and looked at a table beside the magazines. "Bedroom," she said and went through the door.
The door smacked against Gabriel's nose. "Ooouh."
"What are you doing? Peeking?" Sister Jeannine continued moving around the room. "Where is it?"
"How else is anybody supposed to learn anything in this hick town?"
Jeannine turned and looked at her father. "This ain't a hick town."
Gabriel smiled as if to say: See what I mean. Instead he asked his daughter: "About to hold a revival meeting?"
"What of it? You got that big Indiana fear again?"
"Ahhh!" Sister Jeannine said, pulling the Bible from underneath the pillow. She shook it at Gabriel, smiling approvingly. "Been reading it, I see."
"No." Gabriel shook his head for emphasis.
"Ssisster Je ... Jeannine," Reverend Frisby called from the combination living room/kitchen.
"Coming Brother Frisby."
"'Brother'?" Gabriel asked. For a moment he thought of Frisby as being his flesh and blood, and he shivered.
Sister Jeannine stepped by him, not answering his question.
Gabriel put up his hands. "I knocked the Bible off the nightstand and picked it up and put it there last night."
Sister Jeannine, his daughter, stopped and smiled tolerantly. Gabriel suddenly felt like the child, the son addressed by the mother, by Wanda. He saw his ex-wife in his daughter. And with all the smiling, Gabriel also felt he was again in a Hollywood power meeting: son and mother in a power meeting. He had to do something to establish his ascendancy, his primacy: he was the father. She couldn't take that from him!
Gabriel turned and stepped toward the door. He swung it open and charged into the room. He raised a finger and aimed it: "You can't---"
"'For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout,'" the two women said, "'with the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet of God ... .'"
"Aah-men, ssissters, aah-men," Reverend Frisby said even before they finished, stepping toward the apartment door to embrace them.
"---can't talk to me that way!"
Everybody turned (though not all at once) and looked at Gabriel, his feet bare, his pants wrinkled and unfastened at the top. The ends of his undone belt curled and drooped away from his waist. One end of his front shirt tale hung out, dangling down from his stomach like a thin stalactite. His face was lines on a distended surface - puffed and worn like an over-ripe tomato, and bristling with whiskers.
The two women recoiled.
Reverend Frisby took another step toward them, then glanced behind him.
Sister Jeannine looked at her father. She smiled. She dipped her head and covered her reddened face with her hand. Then she looked toward the ceiling. "Lord, help me."
Scene IV: The Dummy
"Come on, Roger. Let's get this over with. It's getting dark, cold, and it's Christmas Eve."
"My name's not Roger," Rod said.
The stout man sighed, adjusted his ball cap, then walked around until he was on the sidewalk. He placed his hands on his hips. He continued worrying the toothpick back and forth. "I don't give a damn what you call yourself, Roger Stevens. But Roger Stevens' name is on the contract and this contract was signed by you. So you will do this commercial and you can call yourself anything you like." The man crossed his arms across his chest. "And what would you like to be called?"
Rod looked off the porch down at the stout man. He did not know the man's name. He had figured out that this man was filming a commercial in the neighborhood, and that he was being confused with the mimic used in the commercial.
"Well, I'm waiting."
"Serling. Rod Serling. That's my name."
The stout man rolled his eyes skyward, the extended his lower, bearded chin, turning the toothpick toward the sky like a thin rocket, and mumbled: "Figures. Just figures."
Scene V: A Quality of Mercy
"Missy, you owe me one thousand, two hundred fifty dollars and twelve cents in rent and penalties," Widow Reed said.
Sister Jeannine reached into her pants' pocket, pulled out twelve cents in change, and laid it on the small kitchen counter and slid it toward the old woman. Jeannine knew Widow Reed suffered from a condition she called "dry throat" and couldn't go long without water, so she had offered the old woman a glass of water and Widow Reed had accepted. Jeannine suspected it was a side effect of one of the many pills Widow Reed took, or maybe all of them. The few times she had driven Widow Reed to the grocery store, the old woman's purse had rattled as if there were full of rattle snakes. Jeannine also suspected that if she could get the old woman alone, Widow Reed might be more reasonable. "That should bring us a little closer."
"You getting smart with me?"
"No ma'am. If I had more in my pocket, I'd give it to you. But that is all I have to my name, and there is even less in the funds for this house." Sister Jeannine spoke softly. She did not want to disturb Reverend Frisby. He was trying to warm up the other three. He was even trying to warm up her father.
Gabriel saw his daughter over by the sink, reaching into her pocket and putting something on the counter, but he could not hear what she was saying or what that old bitty was saying to her. Every time he tried to step in that direction, this stammering fool of a preacher reached out and gently pulled him back into the rough circle that the Kid Minister had worked the other two biddies and the imbecile bulk into.
Gabriel was about to try yet again when the Kid Minister tugged him back into place. Then he stepped into the circle and snatched the plump woman's Bible from her hand and gave it Gabriel. "Math ... Matthew Twenty five, ver-erse forty."
Gabriel looked at the book, but refused to take it.
Frisby shook it at him.
Gabriel crossed his arms.
Jeannine stepped beside her father and took the Bible. She leaned toward Gabriel. "Daddy, don't be rude."
The plump woman gave both the Kid Minister and Gabriel an evil look, but said nothing. Gabriel took the Bible. Maybe because she said nothing, the imbecile bulk did not move. He almost appeared content, except for the slight snarl on his lips and the low growl from his throat.
"Ev ... ev-rybody," Frisby said.
Yeah, Gabriel thought, everyone. God bless us every one. Let's all get full of the Christmas spirit before we get tossed out on the street on our asses.
The plump woman crossed her arms, then relaxed them and leaned over toward the other woman and her Bible.
As Sister Jeannine returned to Widow Reed at the sink, Reed said, "He ain't going to sucker me with that Bible verse. I was memorizing the Bible before he was in short pants."
"'... sssay unto them, Vah-verily I sssay unto you, In-in-asmuch as ye have ... have done it unto one of the least of these mah ... my breth-ren, ye have ... have done it unto me."
"Widow Reed, he is not trying to sucker anybody. It is Christmas Eve and that is an appropriate passage. The Lord gave of himself to the least of us and he asks us to do no less."
Reed scowled at Jeannine. "I hear you. But it ain't going to make no never mind." She reached forward, scraped the dime and two pennies off the counter, and made a fist around the money. She then shook the fist at Jeannine. "You still owe one thousand, two hundred fifty, or they'll be no room in the inn for you and your misfits."
"If it bothers you, Widow Reed, may we go in to the other room and discuss this?" Jeannine asked.
"Ain't nothing to discuss. Pay up or be out by midnight tonight. You and all yours can pitch tents on the site of that boy's cathedral. It ain't that cold out."
"Is that what this is all about? Frisby's cathedral?"
"No. But it'll drive the property values down with all the riffraff it'll attract. Just like this place done. Crime's up. Property values down. Thelma there got mugged just last week. Some punk stole Merl's car." She waved her hand toward the two women and the man. "And right before he was going drive me to the store."
"Ssshh." Sister Jeannine put her finger to her lips. She was sorry about what had happened, but Merl had probably left the car running while he went back inside to get another beer. She had seen him do just that.
"Don't shush me." Widow Reed strained her voice down to a whisper. "You didn't tell me 'bout none of this when you signed my lease."
Sister Jeannine leaned toward Widow Reed. "Let's go in the other room and discuss it."
"Won't make no never mind."
Out of the corner of his eye, Gabriel watched his daughter and the old biddy tiptoe into the bedroom. He felt the wood floor creek against his bare feet. Their tiptoeing was almost comical to watch. He wished he could follow them.
A growl from the imbecile bulk brought him back into a chorus of "O' Come All Ye Faithful." As long as he held the plump woman's Bible, he'd always have somebody watching over him. It had been a long time, but the words to the song came back to him. At first his eyes narrowed, almost closed, as if that would refuse admittance of the song; but bit by bit his narrowed eyes only helped the words and the tune carry him to other places, other times. Better places, better times. Through the acid tinge still in his mouth, he could almost taste the thick sweet eggnog. These three stooges weren't bad singers; he was almost lulled into joining them. Without reason, his head tilted toward the pressed metal ceiling: just like grandma's house, he found himself thinking, but not really thinking. Just like grandpa's ceiling; the thoughts were infraconscious, a whisper of the mind. He was there, home, with grandma and grandpa without knowing why. And they would sing. Yes, all four of their voices weren't bad. Not bad at all. Suddenly his eyes popped open. "Four voices."
Everybody else looked at him, but did not stop singing. He looked only at the Kid Minister and realized Frisby was singing without stuttering. The words were gliding effortlessly out of his mouth. Gabriel then thought, metronome. With a metronome, he could probably straighten out this kid's stuttering. But he had no reason to. With any luck, he'd be in Atlanta soon, directing cows. And maybe he'd have that mimic with him. Serling clones were still a hot commercial property. Especially after the Twilight Zone movie. Besides, a guy from a hick town like this would jump at the chance to work with the director of the sixth highest grossing film: A Subset of Unrealities.
Scene VI: The Lateness of the Hour
Rod stepped off the porch. He wasn't sure why. He had run out on Sister Jeannine and company and had no plans to go back. He also had no plans to get back to the afterlife. He wasn't sure how, other than to die, and apparently, he wasn't going to get any help getting back. Every question, every request, every word spoken in his mind to Clemens received no response. As Rod now realized, this left him with few options. The cold of the late afternoon was making his fingers numb. He had no gloves. He had no topcoat. Rod put his hands in his empty pants pockets. He was back in the real world.
A woman stepped up to the stout man, leaned a clipboard to his ear, and said something that changed the stout man's demeanor. Once the woman lowered the clipboard, the stout man turned away from the porch. He reached up and adjusted the brim of his cap down.
Rod stepped toward the man. He reached out his hand. "Hey."
The man hesitated, but did not turn toward Rod. The woman was already several steps away from him.
"Hey. What ... what's going on?"
"Nothing man," the stout man said. "You're not the right man. Sorry to bother you."
"But ... ." Rod didn't know what to say. "But ... ." He hustled up beside the man, who was zipping up his black leather jacket as far as he could without causing his face to blanch from lack of blood. "I need the job."
The man looked at him.
"A moment ago, I couldn't get you off the porch."
"A moment ago you were ordering me."
"And now that I'm not ... ."
"Now ... ." Rod shrugged his shoulders. "Now, I need work."
"But I don't need you."
"Yes, you do. I won't run away."
"Do you drink?"
"Haven't touched a drop in over ten years."
The stout man stared at Rod.
"Swear." Rod's hand went up.
"Same." The hand remained slightly up, then slowly came down to his side. Rod was tired and he heard his stomach growling. "I mean never."
The stout man nodded, but said nothing.
The woman reappeared, leaned the clipboard against the stout man's ear and again whispered something. The man then turned to Rod. "You own this house?"
Rod shook his head. "No."
"Look. You want to work or not? If you do, you have to help us. We're being asked ... . Hell, we're being ordered off our location shoot and we need another house. Something Lovecraftian. And this'll do."
"You read Lovecraft?" Rod's eyes brightened.
"Then as one Lovecraftian to another, can you help me out?"
"If you help me out."
The stout man nodded. "Agreed." He extended his hand.
Rod took it, then held the grip as he asked, "How much?"
The stout hesitated.
"Two thousand two hundred fifty dollars," Sister Jeannine said from the porch. "Two thousand two hundred fifty dollars and twelve cents."
The stout man and Rod turned to look at Sister Jeannine, Widow Reed, and a still bare-footed T. Xavier Gabriel. Behind them a large man and two older women belatedly stumbled onto the porch. Gabriel and Rod stared at each other, each with a sense of vague recognition. The late afternoon was fading into twilight. Overhead a descending plane caught the last full measure of sunlight, its rumbling whine breaking crisply through the winter air. In unison, both men shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders. They felt the cold. Each was sure he saw in the other a somatological hint of something that wasn't true.
Gabriel looked toward the plane and saw the glinting metal as source of escape: someday soon he would be on one. Rod, too, looked toward the sound in the sky: it was faintly like an L-5. The glare made it impossible to know. He was sure, though, it was a single-engine plane, and that was foreshadowing enough for him: he was in the right place. In the next few minutes he would make a difference. He smiled.
Scene VII: Five Characters in Search of an Exit
After fifteen minutes of wrangling, and Gabriel running back inside to grab his shoes, Sister Jeannine brokered a deal.
First she asked to speak to Rod alone. She stood face to face with him, her head at first slightly cast down, and the toe her right tennis shoe playing in the dirt. Then she stopped and looked up at Rod, her hands stuck in the tops of her pants pockets, shoulders curving up and in toward her neck. "I'm sorry." She took one hand from its pocket and began to reach forward to touch his arm again, then drew it back. "I truly am. But as you see, we really do need your help. Regardless of what you think of me, of Reverend Frisby, of my dad or anybody else here, you do have the power to keep a house full of people from being thrown out on the street for Christmas."
Rod looked at her. He couldn't keep the grin from his face, and there was a happy lilt to his voice when he said, "Me?"
Here was his chance; he knew it; he felt it. Rod was so elated he paid little attention to her explanation, just as he knew people would pay little attention to one more Rod commercial selling one more something or other. He had done enough of them in his life, for more important companies. Certainly this one - for a local deli - would soon be forgotten, but it would definitely save somebody, and after he saved this somebody he could go ... go home! To afterlife. Or at least back to where he was before he was dragged back into this life. And he would do it in less than the year's deadline Clemens had imposed on him.
Sister Jeannine took it as a sign of the true spirit of Christmas working within Rod Sterling and she moved on, saying a silent prayer that the true spirit had infected everybody.
From the stout deli man she haggled a price of one thousand five hundred and seventy two dollars and a supply of submarine sandwiches for everybody in the Home for Lost Souls - half the money up front - if she could also get the director of the sixth-highest-grossing film to direct.
From Widow Reed she extracted the concession of half the delinquent rent charge now, particularly when the stout man spelled his name on a check and made the check out to "Mrs. G.E. Reed." The two other ladies and the imbecile bulk looked disdainful, but Widow Reed said, "Can we really afford to throw these people out on the street on Christmas Eve?"
"Apparently one of us can't," Merl said.
Widow Reed shot him a look, then smiled kindly at Sister Jeannine, even asking for a ride to the grocery store before it closed.
Convincing her father was the hardest task, and she almost failed. He stood, arms anchored across his chest like two heavy chains. Other than his teeth chattering slightly, he did not move. He knew he did not have to move and that if he didn't move for only thirty or so minutes longer, there probably wouldn't be enough of the right light left to even do one take of the commercial.
"Daddy," she said, bending her head to the left and looking up at her father. She placed her hands behind her back and swiveled back and forth at the waist. "Daddy. I'm sorry, but I don't have anything to offer you."
"Got that right." Gabriel began to sway from side to side, trying to keep warm. That's what he told himself. He had experienced this pose from his daughter before. It had been a few years. It was the logic of loosen the body language and the mind language would follow, except he wasn't going to follow.
"Daddy, I know you have a good heart."
"Nope. It O.D.'ed a few years back." He didn't know if it was the divorce or if it happened before that, like when his grandma died and he, Gabriel, couldn't afford to keep the farm. Or maybe it was after he made it to the top. All the glad handlers and glad grabbers were enough to harden an angel's heart.
"Daddy, I do know you have a good heart."
Gabriel blew air out the side of his mouth. "We've covered this already."
"Daddy, you do have a good heart. You wouldn't want to see a house full of people turned out on the street on Christmas Eve."
"Christmas Eve's no---"
"Including your daughter."
Gabriel didn't say anything.
Sister Jeannine became quiet.
Gabriel looked at his daughter, looked at the ground, and then looked away. Still, he could feel his daughter's eyes on him. He could also feel the eyes of the others - Widow Reed, the Kid Minister, the deli man, and the mimic - on him. All expectant. All waiting. He was the key. He felt a rush of power tingling through his body: this was his. They needed him. Suddenly the dull ache that had been part of his waking hours began to clear. He hadn't shaved or showered or even run a toothbrush through his mouth, but he was suddenly feeling refreshed. Gabriel focused his eyes on Jeannine. "Talk to your mom?"
Sister Jeannine nodded.
"Only one commercial?"
"Yes." Jeannine looked away.
"One." Gabriel raised a finger and pushed it at his daughter. He did not want to be committed to doing commercials for the Kid Minister. "One."
Sister Jeannine hesitated, then nodded: "One."
Gabriel stepped down from the porch and headed over to the stout man.
"Of course, you can always change your mind," Jeannine said.
"Not likely, J.J.," Gabriel said over his shoulder. He asked a few questions of the woman with the clipboard, then glanced at the equipment and the script. He shook his head. "We'd better hurry." He turned and looked at the two women and the imbecile bulk. "And we can use all of you as extras."
"Us?!" They said it in unison.
Almost like a Greek chorus, Gabriel thought. Good. "Yeah, all of you."
They wiggled, uncomfortably pleased with being chosen.
Gabriel saw the Kid Minister standing off by himself, looking uncomfortable and sullen. That pleased Gabriel. He was sure he'd get it right this time.
The words Rod spoke for the commercial were: "Submitted for your approval: a dark, lonely twilight fading quickly into a dark, lonely night. It could be Christmas Eve. It could be New Year's Eve. It could be the eve of the rest of your life. You are hungry. You need food. But you want only the sustenance that Sand Dollar Deli can bring. We will bring you what you need. Three convenient locations. You are not alone. Call us. We deliver. Even into the darkest, loneliest Twilight Zone."
It took only five takes. By then darkness was fully upon the cast and crew and the Home for Lost Souls. By ten-thirty-seven the Christmas Eve deli sandwiches arrived, delivered in person by the bearded man in the black ball cap. He wanted to talk with Sister Jeannine about setting up dates for future commercials.
END ACT III: TO BE CONTINUED...
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