A Novel of Possibilities in The Twilight Zone tradition
David E. Booker
Act IV: Walking Distance
Christmas Eve dreams come to Rod and Gabriel;
Scene I: A Most Unusual Camera
Despite the commercial and the good food - even if it came from a Hickville deli (Then, again, he hadn't eaten a solid meal for over twenty-four hours.), Christmas Eve still meant no more, no less to T. Xavier Gabriel than any other night of the year. He lay in bed, staring obliquely at parts of a pressed-metal ceiling. Twelve inches by twelve inches, each square had a pattern of dust-covered grapes. He could only see the pressed metal where the tiles of the dropped ceiling had been removed and the thin light from the street below poked through, creating a wash of blacks and grays as in a 1940s film noir.
He rolled over and belched onions and garlic. The angel Gabriel may have heralded the birth of Christ, but this Gabriel wasn't going to herald anything to anybody: not to his daughter, not to Frisby's masses, and especially not to his ex-wife.
This Gabriel crossed his fingers and uttered a desperate wish to whatever minor deity might be listening that the dairy deal in Atlanta would go through. It had been virtually promised to him before he left New York. A regional company deal, it would mean more air time on more stations. Translation: more money. Translation: another step up on the comeback trail. And he wouldn't have to stay in Hickville and be forced to take Frisby's offer. Correction: his daughter's offer. And if he didn't have to take that offer, he couldn't be forced to try to be a father. He'd had enough failures in the past seven years to last him a lifetime, and if his daughter was one, he didn't need to be rescuing her; he simply needed to be moving on.
Gabriel lit a cigarette, then his hands clenched momentarily as he thought of Rod Serling ... Sterling ... whatever his name. Here was an opportunity he couldn't let pass. But he would have to act quickly to align Sterling with him and prevent him from aligning with Frisby. He would have to sign Sterling to his production company, such as it was. But he didn't have much to promise him, other than the same glimmer of hope he had - if the Serling fad hadn't already started fading. Sooner or later it would. To paraphrase Shakespeare: There is a history in all Serling imitators, figuring the nature of their times deceased.
Sooner or later this chance would be gone. Although he had a deal with his daughter that he wouldn't have to do any commercials for Frisby's ministry, doing one or two more here - for the right person - might give him a chance to mold this guy. Who knows, the Sand Dollar Deli man might actually help perpetuate the fad beyond its normal curve. He'd seen it happen. This Sterling seemed aware of his resemblance to Serling and the money to be made as a Serling imitator. That was good. He could work with greed. It was easier to work with than artistic ego. He just had to make sure he had money, or at least the semblance of money. That was the type of angel he wanted to be: an angel with an attitude.
Gabriel blew smoke toward the ceiling. It swelled heavily into the thin light, as if it might fall back on him.
He rolled onto his side again. The physical similarities between the real Serling and this one were eerie. Done right, commercials using this Serling clone would - to borrow a phrase from the movie business - open. He was sure of it. The clone had the look. The clone also had the chutzpa to call himself Rod Serling and say he was here to save people. Maybe too much chutzpa.
Save Christmas. Save the world. Save the whales, too, no doubt! Christ. Gabriel rolled his eyes. Sterling even tried that shtick on me. That was part of what needed molding. He only hoped this Sterling wasn't off on some ego trip. Serling indeed! He was claiming to be the real thing beforewe filmed the first commercial. Hell, I knew the real Rod Serling, and if this clone is Serling, then I'm Ingmar Bergman.
Gabriel closed his eyes and tried to imagine himself in another room and what might be going on there. After five years of therapy, his psychiatrist suggested he try it as a way to relax.
Gabriel heard sounds coming from the living room/kitchen. He was sure they were distinct, heavy petting sounds: oohs and aahs, lips smacking and furniture scraping. His mind went there. His daughter was in there with the Kid Minister. Gabriel sat up, stood up, stomped loudly to the bathroom and took two sleeping pills. He wished they were two of something stronger, or that he had something stronger than water to take them with - so he took one more pill. He then stomped back to bed, sat on the edge, and lit another cigarette, unsure of what happened to the previous one.
"Merry Christmas." He said it loud enough. He was sure his ex-wife across town heard him.
I'm ready. Rod found little solace in attempted sleep. He was trying it in the driver's seat of an old, orange, rusted, dented Volkswagen Beetle. He lowered the seat back as far as possible, his head sinking beneath the windows. Take me home, Cicerone. Take me home, Twain. At least he wouldn't have to stare at the alley or the construction site any longer. I've done my bit for king and country. I've saved a whole passel of people, as they say round here. It's my birthday. Take me home!
Twain appeared in the front passenger seat. No.
Rod immediately reached for the latch to bring his seat upright. With ease, Twain reached out his cane and kept Rod down. There was still something anachronistic about him: he didn't fully belong. No.
It's my birthday.
Rod stared at the ceiling. There were a few small slits in the fabric. I've saved people.
You have done a very good turn. That's for sure. But you have not done what you were sent here for. You have not saved the right person.
Who then? Tell me who.
You still have most of your year left.
Rod sighed, a big sigh - half in anger, half in exasperation. Who then? At lest tell me who? For a moment he thought of Gabriel in the house next to him. Rod still wasn't ready to admit Gabriel was the same young hot shot who directed two Zone episodes. Was he the person to save? Certainly Gabriel could not blame the downfall on me. At least he has somebody.
And you have me, Clemens said.
The same. I know.
I hate it when you finish my sentences for me. Only somebody you love is supposed to do that - like my wife.
And I hate it when you whine.
I didn't agree to any of this. I was... . Rod wasn't sure how he would describe it. It was very much like being born. You certainly weren't asked the first time, either. He simply had the advantage of memory this time - whatever advantage that was. For though it was a little clearer as to why he was here this time, he still wasn't sure what he was to gain by being given this second chance, especially under these terms.
Rod rolled over onto his side and stared into the pillow. It was useless. He had two daughters, damn it. But he wouldn't get to see either one of them. And there was Carol: his wife. Not his ex wife. A woman who still loved... . At least he hoped she still loved him - if only in some vague, memorial way. He rolled back over. Does she?
Twain was silent. Rod saw that the question surprised him and struck a cord that ran silent and deep within.
Forget I asked.
"Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm; for love is strong as death, jealousy is as cruel as Sheol; its coals are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it." To quote a best seller, Twain said. The answer is obvious. It lies within your own heart.
I'm not sure I'm ready for what it might tell me. Rod pulled the blanket up around him, sensing a sudden cold within in the car. At least I hope she's not bitter like Mrs. Reed.
Rod didn't like the woman. Still, after what Sister Jeannine had told him, Rod felt a little sympathy for her. Her dead husband had been an alcoholic and a womanizer, excesses he was not unfamiliar with. Still, it was at her insistence that he found himself camping out in a car on Christmas Eve.
He had done some of the things to Carol that Mr. Reed and done to Mrs. Reed. He had had flings and, at times, a little too much to drink, embarrassing his wife at parties, in public, at their own dinner table. More than once, he had fallen asleep at dinners with friends and business associates. Flings and booze had failed to reassert his former glory, re-establish his manhood, and recapture the lavish praise from his early success. He had tested Carol's patience and their marriage, and he had died when his daughters were still in their youth, just as his father had done him. He had always been his father's favorite. All fame is fleeting.
Unfortunately, the Ides of March had not come for him all at once, striking him down with a sharp edge. Instead the decline had come one day at a time, each day taking a piece of him, a blunt wind wearing down the face of a mountain.
Or so he told himself.
Little by little, day-by-day, until one day the mountain lay scattered in the valley, just as he had lain scattered in his garden, the sound of the roto-tiller in his ear. No round of applause for a great writer. No whispering of angels for a hero. No cries of battle for a fallen warrior. Only the churning sound of the roto-tiller in the air and the remains of the mountain beneath its blades.
But then, didn't Tolstoy die in a train station?
At least that's how Rod saw his life.
You're being too romantic about your past life, Clemens said.
Shut up. Rod leaned over and looked out the side window. The top floor windows of the house were dark, except for the dim glow of what might be a lamp or the TV from the living room/kitchen. Sister Jeannine and Reverend Frisby were there, despite Mrs. Reed's banning of an unattached man in the same apartment with an unattached woman. "Hark, what light through yonder window breaks/ It is the East and... ."
Not bad writing for a writer that didn't exist.
Rod stared at Twain, then leaned back over into his seat/bed. Oh, to be young and in love, hanging upside down in the dark from a trailer ceiling vent, scaring his new wife when she came inside - and getting stuck. Living in a used, ex government-owned trailer after World War II and sharing bathroom privileges with everybody else in similar housing at Antioch College wasn't that bad. It took a few friends and some delicate maneuvering to get him free.
Ahh ... The Damned Human Race is never so young as when it's foolish, and never so old as when it tries to pass its foolishness off as wisdom, Twain said. He held a cigar in his left hand.
Didn't know you were a philosopher, too, Twain.
Comes with the territory. I, too, did a might foolish thing to my wife. Or should I say to my wife's family. I fell off a wagon seat and pretended to be more injured than I was so I could spend an extra two weeks with her. Luckily, no delicate maneuvering could get her unstuck from me after that, and her family had to accept me. Twain brushed his thumb across his mustache, then put the cigar in his mouth. He puffed on it briefly. Happy Birthday.
Thank you. Rod rolled onto his back and watched the smoke from Twain's cigar curl along the rooflines of the Volkswagen. In the indirect light, the car ceiling was dim and flat, and the gray smoke reminded him of fog rolling across the night surface of Cayuga Lake.
I'm sorry you can't be with your wife. Being alone in a cabin beside the lake would be nice right now.
I was just thinking about our place... .
Twain smiled. Used to live up near there, you know. Elmira. No, I didn't know. Elmira, New York, was less than an hour west of where he grew up, Binghamton, the second foggiest place in America.
Met my wife at Christmas time.
Rod turned his head toward Twain. Their eyes met, then Twain looked away, his eyes looking at something far away. Twain adjusted his seat back down to the same angle as Rod's.
It's not much. Twain handed Rod something that looked rectangular, like a plastic box. It's a present.
Thank you. Rod lifted what appeared to be the lid, only to find imbedded in it some kind of screen and beneath it a keyboard.
It's a computer gadget of some sort. One of those new fangled things they make these days. LapTop I think it's called.
LapTop, with a capital "T." It's supposed to help you write better. Funny name.
Write? It hadn't occurred to Rod to take up writing again. He had failed so miserably in his last attempts. He had begun to believe he was nothing more than a TV hack. He adjusted the seat up and opened the hinged top of the box.
Twain puffed on his cigar. Call it typesetter in an infinity box. Beats the hell out of my Paige typesetter.
How do I turn it on? Rod turned it around in his hands, looking for a switch of some kind.
There's a button on it somewhere. But be careful. It has some modifications on it. In case you need to talk to me and can't reach me, just leave a message in the gadget and I'll answer as quick as I can. Hit this button first, though, and then type. Twain pointed to the one with the lazy 8 symbol of infinity.
What, no incantations and incense? No automatic writing.
Get with the program. Cursing and the smell of burning relays have replaced that mumbo jumbo.
Touché. Good night. Remember, hit the Infinity button first. And don't push the Escape button after that one.
Wait. What happens if I just push the Infinity button, then the Escape? Rod pointed at LapTop.
Twain rolled his hands as if they were billowing clouds roiling out over a horizon, engulfing everything in their path.
And what does that mean?
It means a great deal rests on your shoulders.
So I've been told.
"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."
What? Though Rod couldn't place where or when or even how he had heard that quote, it was as if it had always been there and yet had filtered into his imagination little by little; something he had always known, but only slowly came to realize.
Twain sighed, but said nothing more.
Rod knew a little of "the other side," "the over there," "the afterlife" as it were, but he struggled to keep remembering. It had not been what he had expected. There wasn't a he or He, at least not as he, Rod, understood it here. It was as if the cosmos and his consciousness had been one, or at least symbiotically joined. But he had also felt a vast emptiness there, just as he had felt one here his first time, just as he was feeling that same emptiness now. T.S. Eliot was right: life was a wasteland, a vast, empty, open-ended wasteland and no amount of platitudes, plaudits, or personal freedoms was able to remake it, resurrect it, save it. In fact, those things appeared only to make the wasteland worse, or at least your existence in it worse.
Twain reached into the inside breast pocket of his jacket. This is for you, too. He handed Rod a cigar. I don't think one would hurt.
Rod took it and looked it over, half expecting it and the computer to disappear. When he turned to thank Twain, Twain was gone.
Rod put the cigar in his mouth and rolled it from one side to the other. He knew better than to feel for a knife to cut off the end. Empty pockets was the reason he was out here. He bit the end and spit it out.
You didn't leave me any matches. Rod opened the word processor. He pushed the Infinity button and after pausing typed: Thank You.
A few seconds later "You're Welcome" appeared on the screen.
Merry Christmas, Rod typed.
Merry Christmas to you, too, the screen replied, then added And Happy Birthday.
Rod stared at the flashing cursor for a moment, then put the computer away. He reached for the car's cigarette lighter and found it gone. "Figures." He put the cigar in his coat pocket. He would have to smoke it later. He started the engine. The windows were completely fogged over and frost was forming on the outside. He adjusted his pillow and slowly - just barely remembering to kill the ignition - fell asleep.
Scene II: The Whole Truth
"Please, call me Jeannine. At least Sister Jeannine." She started to reach a hand toward him, and then stopped.
"Ah ... yes." Reverend Frisby opened his mouth and tried again to speak, but couldn't.
Sister Jeannine waited, trying to be patient, hoping he would tell her how he truly felt about her, because she had decided she couldn't tell Reverend Frisby how she truly felt about him - not until he told her he loved her.
They sat in the living/dining room, reacting to the metronome's swing as Sister Jeannine Jackson Gabriel tried to help Reverend Rodney J. Frisby III overcome his stuttering.
Say ... one ... word ... on ... each ... swing ... of ... the ... arm. The pendulum swung slowly, much too slowly, but it was a start - when he tried. Sometimes Reverend Frisby was as intractable as his speech impediment. He would try; then he wouldn't. He would say he wanted to improve; then he would say people always knew when he was speaking. She would say that's when people "got uncomfortable, then got up and left."
He told her she sounded like her father; she wanted to smack him.
First, Sister Jeannine would cajole Reverend Frisby, and then she would pressure him. He would comply, then he would get his back up. Sometimes his back would be up when she was cajoling him; sometimes he would be the most compliant when she was pressuring him. Then it would be the other way around. The only constant she could find was the metronome. It swayed from side to side, keeping the same unchanging rhythm.
She told him he was acting like a petulant child, just like her father. He stomped around the room.
Sometimes Sister Jeannine would bring her voice up to a loud sternness; sometimes it would dip down to barely above a whisper, even trying to be seductive. Sometimes Reverend Frisby would rush through the exercise: SssisterSsuziessssellssseashells down by the ssseasshore, the words spoken as if all were in a state of extreme italics, sibilants leaning forward until they were on top of each other.
She could see he wanted to please her, but she also knew he wanted to be his own man. He had told her his mother had always warned him that any man who didn't please himself wasn't worthy of a woman. Then, he said, she would turn and curse her husband for abandoning her and her son.
Frisby, the man, found himself wanting to be worthy of J.J. Gabriel, even though she already had a boyfriend, a tight end for the University of Tennessee football team named Steve something-or-other. A big guy, Frisby had heard, with big receiver's hands. Frisby glanced at his average-sized hand and tried, briefly, to imagine how J.J. saw the rest of him.
He wondered how she had seen him earlier today during the filming of the commercial. He'd felt angry she didn't pay him any attention. If he played football in front of over 90,000 people each Saturday, she wouldn't ignore him. If he could speak smoothly like that Rod Sterling, she wouldn't have ignored him. Some day soon he would be even more important than either of them and she would never ignore him. Nobody would.
Then he realized how un-Christian all these feelings were, how self-centered he was being. She had kept all the people in the Home for Lost Souls from being homeless on Christmas Eve. Instead, he should feel grateful - and he was. He was also a little envious, and the envy made him want to be like her and not stutter, but it also made him angry that she (and the rest of the world) couldn't accept him stutter and all. After all, that's how God had made him.
Sister Jeannine wanted to please him, wanted him to please her. She believed if he could speak without a stutter, or much less of one (She would even accept that.), then he would have a better chance of getting his TV program off the public access channel on cable and into mainstream syndication, just like the other big-time gospel hours. He didn't stutter very much when reciting Bible verses or the parts of his sermons he had memorized. But he had trouble with everything else, and it was the everything else that right now made those same channels wary of taking a show with a stuttering preacher, fearing it would turn viewers away. And the fewer viewers, the less money TV stations would get as their percentages for airing Reverend Frisby's World Ministry Hour. Yet this man she secretly loved appeared as oblivious to that impediment as he did to her love.
Frisby thumbed through the workbook. It was a hodgepodge of photocopied exercises that Jeannine had put together. "Look ... look, Sssisster J.J."
She raised a finger. "Jeannine. Please." She liked the sound of it. Until Mr. Serling, nobody had ever told her they liked the sound of it. Now she did. Jeannine sounded womanlier. Maybe it would help to make him see her as a woman.
He nodded: "Jah ... Jah-neenah." He pointed to an exercise about words that were spelled the same, but pronounced differently. "Min ... min-ut and my .. my-newt." His finger was on the words. "Ssspelled the sssame. Pro ... pro-nounced different. Mean different things." Then he laughed because the two words struck him as having a similarity: a minute was a minute thing indeed.
"The same is true of in-ti-mut and in-ti-mayte." She leaned forward and put her finger on those words.
They looked at each other.
Jeannine glanced away, withdrawing her finger, but feeling a strong physical attraction toward the stuttering young man. This attraction was easier to deal with when they were separated. Now, however, they were together, had been together, alone, for several hours -- despite her father being in the next room. She stood up and stepped over to the small Christmas tree. She had a present for him, but didn't know how to give it to him. She had written on one tag: From: "the residents' of the Home for Lost Souls." She had also written on another tag: From: "Love, Sister J.J.," then scratched out J.J. and wrote Jeannine. If you weren't such a naive child of God, she thought, you s.o.b. - sweet obstinate boy.
She thought of the note she had placed inside the present. The note almost made open her feelings and their depth. She glanced at both tags. How strange, she thought, it would be to see "the residents'" on the outside of the present and the note on the inside, especially since she had not signed the note inside. What would he think? Then, if he did figure who wrote the note, he would probably know whom the present was really from. Then what would he think? How selfish, she decided. The present should be from all of us - even if they were only audiotapes on English pronunciation. But there was still the note.
What a stupid present, she thought, shaking her head. I don't even know if he has a tape player. She thought about sticking it back under the tree, then turned and brought it over to the table, and quickly placed it in front of him. "Merry Christmas."
"Thank you," he said.
"It's from all of us." He nodded.
She realized how little she did know about the young man behind the preacher. She felt her eyebrow twitch. She suspected, no, she knew he was a virgin. She reached forward to touch his hand. She did it without realizing she had done it.
He quickly withdrew his hand, his cheeks flushing. He knocked his workbook off the table. It was a thick, heavy book, and it thudded against the floor. He scooted his chair back, scraping wooden legs against wooden floor, then bent over.
"Merry Christmas." Gabriel's muffled voice snapped through the bedroom door, following on the heels of his stomping feet, and punctuated by the squeak of the bed.
Frisby jerked up, startled by the voice and the sight of Sister J.J.'s legs: pantyhosed knees and shins, and ankles in high heels were mere inches from his face and her dress was riding rather high up on her thighs. She was wearing a dress he just now noticed. Then came Gabriel's voice, as if he were peering through the door, watching him, like a father. As Frisby hit his head on the card table he heard the metronome tip over.
"Sssorry." Frisby's voice came from under the table, and then the room was suddenly quiet.
Sister Jeannine did not right the metronome. She stared across the table, at the chair back, as if the chair were not empty, as if she could say to the Frisby she put in the chair with her mind: If only you weren't so pure. If only... . She sighed, glanced away, then came back to the chair. Reverend ... Rodney, our Savior knows I have tried to be that pure again, born again, to be worthy of Him ... to be worthy of you, but ... but if you were only a little less pure, then we could have more earthly common ground.
Jeannine was realizing how important that was to an earthly love relationship. It might even help their non-earthly love relationship. Then again, maybe that's why God came to Earth as a man. Atonement could mean at-one-ment. God needed a little more "Earth-i-ness" in His character so God and man could be more "at one" with each other.
Maybe helping you achieve a little more earthly success might give us more common ground. She had been there. This time she would handle it better. This time she would help him handle it so he didn't wind up like her father, in a small room, in an old house, stomping back and forth and injecting humbug into a Christmas shout. When that was done, she could ditch the third-string jock. He was only a friend anyway, and a front so her mother would quit saying Reverend Frisby was leading her daughter astray - as if I were the innocent, she thought. The football player was also a front to keep people from saying she was after Frisby for other than divine guidance.
Reverend Frisby reappeared from under the table. "Bah ... bah ... bah-ter go."
Scene III: A Passage for Trumpet
A hand reaches out and shakes Gabriel awake. "Dad, look. There's something here you ought to see."
Gabriel rolls over and finds Jeannine hovering above him. She is standing extremely close and appears slightly out of focus, as if through a thick haze. Gabriel feels the bed shake. "You've got to see this. You've got to see this." Bad breath, the scent of smoldering plastic, pass over him.
"See what?" Gabriel rubs his eyes; it doesn't do much good.
"The TV. The TV." She points to the set standing at the end of the bed.
"How... ." He glances at the screen and cannot finish the question. Carol Serling glares at him. Her face looms large, pushing at the edge of the screen. A hand reaches up from the bottom, out from the screen, and locks onto Gabriel's arm. It feels like a vise. "Let go!" he screams. "I'm off to Atlanta to do a commercial."
He is spun around, coming face to face with Carol Serling, the Widow Serling, Mrs. Serling. They all stand around him, three and yet one in the same. Each one grabs him on a separate arm. Each one shakes the arm she has. Gabriel looks, but can only see two arms at a time. And whichever arm he looks at, she has a grip on it.
"Why?" the Widow Serling asks. "Why did you make that god awful commercial? My husband is dead and you have to stick an imitation of him in a graveyard."
People go milling by, a few looking curiously, most ignoring the situation. A young man points and says "pajamas." A voice comes over the loud speaker announcing the departure of the maiden flight of the Phoenix for Phoenix by way of Reno.
"Why?" Mrs. Serling asks. "Why do you and your ilk insist on tormenting my family with this wholesale assault?"
The Phoenix rolls by the windows of the waiting area, and from each window of the plane Serling waves. And below each window is the symbol of a different airline company.
On the wing crouches a monster made of latex rubber, pulling at the cowling. It, too, turns and waves, an advertising contract fluttering in its hand like a handkerchief. It wears a muscle shirt, and on that shirt is the logo - the maker's mark - of a canned food company advertising its baby food.
"Why?" Carol Serling tugs on his arm. "Why do you continue to attack me with these bastardized creations? Have you no compassion? Have you no soul? Have you no creativity?"
Over Carol Serling's shoulder, Gabriel sees a Rod Serling Frankenstein lumbering down the airport promenade, arms stiffly out in front of it.
"Answer me," Mrs. Serling says, dressed in jeans, a mop in her hand, a yellow bucket at her feet.
"Answer me," Carol Serling says, feet positioned slightly apart as she posed in her skirted, gray power suit, a maroon briefcase at her feet.
"Answer me," Widow Serling says, a shawl over her shoulders, a bowl of soup cradled in her hands, steam curling in front of her gently aged face.
"I... ." Gabriel feels his arms being yanked.
"Pajamas." The young boy points. "Does he think he's somebody important?"
"The emperor, maybe?" A young girl replies.
Gabriel looks around and sees them in the corner, next to a pop machine. Rod's face appears in convex fashion across its top, the logo of the company floating in the background.
"But the emperor was naked." The little boy touches his chin thoughtfully.
The little girl shrugs her shoulders. "Maybe he's not that important."
"Maybe only a prince, huh?"
"Or a knight," the girl says.
"Ouuhh, a knight. How cute. You always were the witty one." He kisses her hand.
"Thank you." She curtsies.
Gabriel turns and looks directly into the face of Carol Serling. Her eyes are TV's, glowing first black and white, and then color.
Gabriel stares into her eyes. Images, smelling of burnt solder, surround him. They snap and roll, like a camera out of focus recording an explosion. He feels her tug at him; it comes from everywhere and nowhere. He looks down and finds himself manacled to a cheap chair in the airport promenade.
Gabriel looks up. The cheap empty chairs form a studio audience stretching into infinity. He is sitting in the front. He is certain he is alone, except for her.
"Pay attention, Gabriel," a voice says.
"Fuck you." Gabriel yanks on the chains. They snap soundlessly.
A giant vacuum tube rolls by, tilted toward him, rolling on its bottom edge. Dressed in blue, the man trapped inside holds a transistor in one hand and bit of wire between his teeth. A pair of pliers floats in front of him.
The room sighs and plastic flowers smelling like the real thing sprout through cracks in a floor the color of obsidian.
Gabriel curls his fingers around the edge of his seat.
"Pay attention, Gabriel," the voice says.
A spotlight falls on the dais ten feet in front of him. Gabriel had not noticed it before. The light falls on a TV set.
"Places everybody. Places. Quiet on the set. Quiet."
"Stand by," Gabriel says. "Stand by."
"Roll camera." The words come out of Gabriel's mouth like solid habits.
"Rolling." There is the sound of a noisy camera shutter, one that needs fixing.
"Speed." The sound recorders are turned on.
"Mark it." The stone clapboard smacks together.
"Action," Gabriel says.
The TV screen crackles and pops, then slowly coalesces into an image of Carol Serling sitting in a chair, being interviewed. Her mouth moves, but the voice comes from everywhere, even from within Gabriel. She speaks of trying to get people to stop mimicking her husband's image in order to sell everything from toothpaste to tanning oil to tampons. She says she has even heard of plans to market a breakfast cereal with some sort of likeness on each flake. And talk of a Saturday morning cartoon based upon The Twilight Zone.
"Bitch!" Gabriel yells. He leans forward to the edge of his chair, a deep-seated atavism urging him to pounce. "You're upset because the royalty money ran out long ago. You ain't getting one thin fuckin' dime."
"And you're a bastard who never came off his throne, either on or off the set - until somebody kicked it out from underneath you." Carol Serling reaches up and brushes aside several strands of gray hair.
"Bitch! Bitch! Bitch! That's all you women and critics ever do. Whether you want to believe it or not, advertising is an art. An art. You should be proud that so many people want to copy your husband for their ads.
"Long after the ad campaign is history the art remains. Hell, old Coke and Bull Durham tobacco ads now hang in people's homes. Framed and pretty as you please.
"Look at the great Renaissance artists. The masses couldn't read. Church services were in Latin. If you don't think The Last Supper and the Sistine Chapel ceiling weren't selling them religion in a language the people could understand, then you've missed the boat, sister. But that fact's obscured and only the artistry remains."
"But my husband---"
"But your husband did commercials. He had his success. He made himself a public icon. He made his money and his fame, and he enjoyed it. Now why can't I?"
"Fame is a trap. He did not always enjoy it."
"Yes he did! Don't lie to me. I've been there. I enjoyed it."
"And so was I. I was there."
"I need success. I need to make money. I have an ex wife. I have a daughter. I have debts and obligations and dreams."
"My husband had debts and obligations and dreams. He used the same rational."
The noise of the shutter falls silent. And into the silence come quiet footsteps, down the center aisle and fanning out into the rows and rows of empty seats. The footsteps carry silhouettes of a man. One man. Over and over again. The silhouettes stand until the footsteps cease. Then the silhouettes take their seats and turn their heads toward Gabriel.
"Gabriel, pay attention," the voice says.
"Should we do another commercial now?" The little boy steps into the spotlight where the television had been.
"Sure," the older girl says. "We have a full house. A captive audience."
"Damn it! I am not a captive audience," Gabriel shouts.
"They all look alike to me." The little boy nods.
"I know what's going to happen now," Gabriel says, jumping up from his chair. He rushes up onto the stage and into the light. He stares down into the two sets of eyes and feels as if he is stepping down into a void. Their eyes are empty and penetrating. There is a hypnotic numbness as they hollow him out: taking, taking, taking. After a moment, their darkness swallows him.
He is ten again, staring at himself, black and white, on TV. On TV he is staring into his grandmother's damp root cellar, then his grandfather's dry-hot barn loft. Both are steeped in darkness and heavy grays. He debates whether or not to enter.
But he can't be ten and watching TV. There wasn't any TV when he was ten.
The little boy asks, "What's going to happen, Mr. Gabriel? What? You're the great director. Tell us."
Gabriel turns toward the audience and claps his hands. "My god, it's easy. There is only one person here. He's cloned over and over." He steps over to the nearest silhouette and grabs the lapels. "It's a cheap cinematic cliché actually." He yanks the silhouette into the spotlight. He stares into the light. "I expected better of you, Mrs. Serling. I would've thought this beneath you."
Gabriel looks at the figure. He lets go. He grabs another, then another, and another. It isn't making sense. Each silhouette falls, one atop the other. The circle of light grows larger and larger until it encompasses all the figures. Each face holds the same expression. Each face holds the look of Gabriel.
Scene IV: What's in the Box?
Reverend Rodney J. Frisby III felt a little guilty about a lot of things. Out of the night snow was spitting at him as he walked beneath the skirts of light from the Home for Lost Souls toward his loft above the ministry headquarters on Cumberland Avenue.
Very little snow lay on the ground. Though he would've liked nothing better than a blanket of white, for the sake of the man sleeping in Sister Jeannine's car, he hoped the weather didn't turn cold enough for it to lie. He felt guilty he couldn't have come up with a better arrangement for Mr. Sterling, but Sister Jeannine said she would try to smuggle him inside before the night was over, so he still felt a little guilty for leaving so late.
The hour was past midnight. How much past he wasn't sure, except enough he could say Merry Christmas to Sister Jeannine as he hurried out the apartment door. After looking at her knees and ankles, he had glanced around the apartment to make sure there wasn't any mistletoe. He hadn't seen any, but he was still sure he should go. Seeing her knees had made him feel guilty; he'd felt a twinge in his groin: a preacher shouldn't feel such things about a fellow servant of the Lord - about anybody. At least not... .
is mind ran into a wall of chaos; it was tall and wide and deep, and though he could not see it, he felt parts of the wall grind hard against each other and against the inside of his chest. He felt other desires for Sister Jeannine, higher desires ... emotions ... maybe ... maybe even love, so ... so shouldn't he also feel this? Wasn't sexual de ... de-sire natural? He wouldn't go to bed with her. Not unless they were married, but certainly he wasn't ... no man wasn't ... wasn't supposed to only have this de ... de-sire on his wedding day. That would be stupid ... im ... im-poss-ible. Still ... still, she had another boyfriend. An-other? He wasn't her boyfriend, so he couldn't be an other. He wasn't anybody's boyfriend. He was alone, without a mate, without even a dog waiting on him as he walked home. He only had the anticipation of what was in the present he was carrying in his right hand, and even with that he felt guilty.
He stopped for a minute and looked at it, a happy winter scene done in silver with a red bow and ribbon on it. He didn't have anything to give Sister J.J. - Jeannine. He should have been more thoughtful. He certainly could have come up with the money somewhere for something. It wasn't right that he should be so single-mindedly focused on his ministry, on his cathedral.
He stepped a little further into the light of a street lamp and looked at the card. It said: "From: the residents of H.L.S." Frisby smiled. He felt relieved. Certainly, he couldn't be expected to buy presents for all those people. It was more blessed to give than to receive. He would write them a thank you note. He didn't feel quite so all alone. By buying him a present they were all including him, if only a little, in their families. No, he wasn't so all alone after all. He looked toward the sky and let the night's snow flurries melt against the full exposure of his face. He even stuck out his tongue and tried to catch a few.
From the vantage point of her second-story bedroom window, she watched him leave. Sister Jeannine had tiptoed into what had become her father's room and quietly pulled the curtain aside waiting for Reverend Frisby to step from the porch of the Home for Lost Souls and, after a few steps through the yard, onto the sidewalk.
Sister Jeannine tried to keep her breath from sounding rapid and loud, like wind squeezed through the thin corridor between two tall buildings, buildings she had not seen the likes of in several years and felt a sudden strange longing for. Tall buildings of steel and glass smiling in the sunlight, and miles and miles of asphalt ribbons undulating and banking, and a fast sports car to race over the crests and through the curves in the middle of the night while the buildings smile phosphorescently in the distance, rows and rows of lipless teeth that smiled all day long, all night long. Knoxville was not L.A... .
... Hickville. Jeannine glanced over at her father and tried to silence her breathing like a good daughter. She did not want to deal with his wrath. Christmas cheer was not his long suit. She coughed. Something in the room was on fire. She looked around. Where? She leaned on the bed, shaking it, shaking her father, calling his name: Gabriel. He didn't respond. She was going to do it again when she saw the dull red glow, against the synthetic blanket, smoldering. She brushed it to the floor and pressed her heel against it, forgetting she was only in her pantyhose. She jerked her foot up and bit her lower lip, more in anticipation of pain then from real pain. Still, after a moment, the air hinted of singed pantyhose and flesh.
Sister Jeannine ignored the pain and turned back to the window. She saw a figure already disappearing into the penumbra of a streetlight. "Damn." She was sure it was Rodney. She was hoping he would not be able to wait and would stop under the first street light and open the present and find her note to him. She had worked hard, even bothering several U.T. professors, in order to record the programs she thought would help Rodney with his stutter... . But there was one note and one tape that were the most important.
All the tapes had her voice on them. All the tapes, but one, had exercises. One tape - the tape - began with her reading from the Songs of Solomon and ending with her reading from Anais Nin. She sighed and hoped he did have a tape player. How stupid she was for not having found that out first. She had only been in Reverend Frisby's little apartment twice and it always looked spare to her, even sparer than her apartment; he didn't even have a TV!
Sister Jeannine stopped chewing on her lower lip and decided she wouldn't think about the "what if's." The present was given. The deed was done. He could always borrow a player, even a small portable one. She turned from the window and tiptoed from the room, the uneven wooden floor crackling against the soles of her pantyhosed feet, the waxy taste of lipstick on her tongue.
Two cars swerved around the same corner from opposite directions and collided. The drivers immediately jumped from their seats and charged toward the front of their cars, glaring at the damage and at each other. Both cars were large, tank-like structures with less-than-reasonable tires, and neither had taken well to the slick street. One car was from the late '60s, the other from the '70s; they were both Cadillacs.
Reverend Frisby saw the accident, at least part of it. His mind was abstracted during some of the happening. A young boy stepped out of the car and bent down, trying to scoop together a snowball. The boy's clothes were older, maybe even as old as the '60s car, and slightly too large. He paid little attention to what the adults behind him were doing or saying. The men appeared to be close to blows.
Reverend Frisby hesitated, and then stepped toward the accident. He didn't know if he could help, but he believed he had a duty to try. He only hoped he had the resolve. Be like sister Jeannine, he told himself. Resolve . . . confidence would help hold the stuttering to a minimum. The better he knew the words, the easier it was to speak them. That's part of what made singing so much easier than speaking: the words were already there; he only had to memorize them, then repeat them in the rhythm provided. Rhythm was another part of the language where he didn't have the resolve. For a preacher, he still wasn't sure of his voice, if he had a "voice" other than the cacophony of sounds he heard coming from his mouth. Lord, why did You call me to be Your servant? I am not worthy.
"May ... may I help you-ou?"
The two men ignored him.
"Help you?" Reverend Frisby asked louder, stepping a little closer.
The boy stepped up to his father. "Daddy?"
"What?" His voice was slightly cross. He only glanced down at his son.
The boy pointed at Reverend Frisby. The other man, dressed in a suit and leather overcoat, was the first to look. Then the father looked.
"May . . . may I help you-ou?" Reverend Frisby thought of that Sterling. If I could only speak that easily in front of a camera, in front of people.
Still, neither driver said anything, and Frisby wasn't sure what to say next. The three stood in silence, the snow spitting down between them. The snowflakes turned to water on the warm hoods of the cars. The fronts of the cars had come together then recoiled, leaving enough space for the two drivers to stand in. One headlight on the newer car was out and small pieces of glass lay in the street.
"Any ... any-body hurt?"
"What's it to you?" the father asked. "Fuck off."
"Chil-dren." Reverend Frisby pointed at the boy. The words were choking in his throat. They were all there, piling on each other just below his larynx, a massive collision of unuttered syllables. He was sorry he hadn't taken Sister Jeannine's tutoring and the course work more to heart. He promised himself he would.
"Yeah, fu ... buzz off," the other man said.
Both men stepped toward Reverend Frisby. He stepped backward, almost tumbling over the young boy who had slipped up beside him and was reaching for the silver-wrapped present.
"You some sort a neighborhood creep?" the father said, still stepping toward him.
"Yeah," the other man said. "You out after midnight on Christmas Eve. You some sort of street bum from that no-good house 'round here out to sell your eyewitness account to the highest bidder. Well, buddy, I'll tell you what you saw. You saw nothing." He jabbed his finger at Frisby. His dark leather overcoat crackled. There was gold on his fingers. "Nothing."
"Yeah," the father said. "Nothing. Now get."
Reverend Frisby turned and walked away, almost running, not realizing he didn't have the present until he was almost home. He turned, started to head back to look for it, then stopped, and went inside the ministry headquarters.
He cried, then turned in the darkness and began slapping the wall. "No," he said, slapping the wall. "No ... I ... I (slap) will ... will not (slap) cry. No ... I (slap) will ... not (slap) cry. No (slap) I (slap) will ... will not (slap) cry." His hand was numb. His wrist hurt. Still, Reverend Frisby kept slapping the wall. The pain would stop his crying. He was not supposed to cry. In Oklahoma they laughed at him when he cried. "No (slap) I (slap) will (slap) not (slap) cry."
Scene V: Monsters are due on Maple Street
Portrait of a man dreaming. Dreaming of his childhood. A normal occurrence for a middle aged man. And to all who have met him, he is a typical man. Except this typical man has had an atypical experience. He has died and has been resurrected, and is now trying to find meaning in resurrection.
"Hey." A boyhood Rod points as a car passed them. "That kid looks just like me."
A young Carol tugs at his sleeve. "Ignore it. They're using images to trick us into opening our doors and lowering our barriers. Showing us something we can agree with before slipping us the goods. We must remain strong. They will strike at our Achilles's heel if we let them."
A giant wooden rocking horse see saws up in front of them, tottering to a stop. The marble eye on the side of its head is level with theirs as the little boy and slightly older girl stand on the fortress wall. A ramp on the horse's belly lowers and out ride two boys on bicycles, pretending they are World War I flying aces shooting down the Red Baron. "Ratta Tat Tat," the younger one shouts, hunkering down on his bicycle. "It was a great movie, wasn't it?" He calls the older rider Bob. But before Bob can respond, they are far off in the darkness, their voices residual echoes. The horse groans and pulls away, spouting fumes that smell of school buses. Hanging on the tail is Carol Serling's picture, endorsing the breakfast cereal made in His image.
A triangular state flag flaps from the top of a nearby turret. White, embroidered in red, the blue letters spell out: the State of Maple Street Fortress. And below it, in smaller letters: no girls allowed.
The car appears again on Maple Street. A 1930 Ford. The father in the front seat turns to his wife and son. "Remember our promise. Don't say a word until he stops talking."
"How far is it from Binghamton to Syracuse, Daddy?"
"About two and a half hours, son."
"Think he'll talk that long?"
The father shrugs. "Don't know, Bob."
The car stops and Rod climbs into the back beside his brother. Marbles bounce out of his pocket, clattering against the car's running board then against the floor of the darkness. Several bounce over the fortress wall. He immediately begins talking. The sedan pulls silently away. From the back seat, Rod's voice drones like an engine.
Inside the fortress, the same boyhood Rod is crying.
"Why are you crying?" the young Carol asks.
"Because I will not see my father die."
Maple Street runs in front of Rod and Carol at the foot of the fortress wall. Shoppers with brightly wrapped packages march below, every face wrapped in the same dulled yet determined expression, every shopper wrapped in a red, white, or green sweat suit bearing the mark of a store: Penny's, Sears, Wal-Mart, K-Mart. Their movements, continuous and toward an indistinguishable horizon, murmur like a distant river, lapping and flowing, until package and shopper become as one.
Snowflakes fall around them and on out into the surrounding darkness, glowing like fallen pieces of light. For a moment the snowflakes turn to falling candy canes.
Carol reaches down and picks up some candy canes and one of the marbles. In it she sees the images of the car as it travels toward Syracuse. The image of Rod is in the back seat chattering incessantly, his voice clattering like falling marbles. "Are you sure He's supposed to be here?"
Rod nods. "He promised. He said right here on Maple Street."
In the distance "Silver Bells" begins playing. It starts faintly, the music building as an image rotates toward them. "... City shop lights, even stop lights, blink of bright red and green as the shoppers rush home with their treasures ..."
The shoppers begin dancing; a smile and a warm glow appear on all of their goat like faces.
"... Hear the snow crunch. See the kids punch. This is Santa's big scene. And above all the hustle you'll hear ..."
"But it's sooo dark. How will He ever find us? What if He doesn't see us? We'll be missing from Christmas and everything."
"He'll find us." Rod crosses his arms tightly across his chest and tucks his chin in as close to his body as he can.
Silver bells toll and in the distance a multicolored object rotates closer. Rod and Carol begin to realize it is two objects rotating around a common center. One object rotates on its own axis as well.
"Hey, it's a carrousel," Rod says, pointing. "But they aren't horses or zebras or kangaroos or cows even."
"And wings ---"
"No girls allowed."
"They're singing to us." Carol steps backward. "They're looking right at us and smiling."
The sleigh shaped seats overflow with free gifts.
"Isn't their music so sweet? We must give these most wonderfulous carolers something." Carol picks up several of the candy canes that have fallen on the fortress wall and tosses them toward the carrousel. The canes turn to red and white snowflakes and fall, melted, at the sirens' talons. They begin singing "Carol of the Bells."
The heavy door of the fortress groans as it opens and little boy Rod steps outside. "Go away," he shouts. "No girls allowed."
"I'm a girl," Carol says.
"You don't count."
The carrousel rotates out of sight, replaced by a man nineteen feet tall. He steps forth from a gazebo. A TV, squarely between his shoulders, glows down at the little boy. One giant black eye on a white background occupies all of his rectangular face. He straightens the black tie and canary yellow jacket of his suit.
"Holy Moses." Rod takes his chewed bubble gum from his pocket and scoops all the loose marbles into it, giving color to the black and white images inside them. He backs through the door, the shoppers and the one eyed monster following.
"Run!" Carol is beside him, tugging on his sleeve. The shoppers begin forming a collar around them, pinning them inside the fortress wall.
The little boy Rod twirls the marbles above his head, rotating them faster and faster.
Carol tugs on his jacket again, almost pulling him off balance. "Come on. You can't kill it. It's forever. Leave, now."
"But He said here! He would meet us here."
The one eyed monster tilts gently toward them. His speaker box hisses and crackles. Slowly, it begins to modulate: "I am He. And do I have a free gift offer for you!"
"And I'm Santa Cruz," Carol says, sticking out her tongue.
"He can't hear you," Rod says. "He's got no ears."
"I am He." The one eyed monster reaches down. "I need you."
Rod releases one end of his bubble gum sling shot.
"I need you. Come to me. All you have to do to win---"
Marbles smack against the glass eye, shattering it. The monster throws his hands up against his face, shards of glass spilling between his fingers. A sound, almost like crying, whines from the speaker box.
"Look out!" Carol pushes Rod out of the way. A rain of glass spears into the ground between them. Falling snow makes the ragged edges glisten.
"... By the fire, children listen. In the lane, snow is glistenin'. What a beautiful sight we're having tonight ..."
Carol stands, hearing the sirens and feeling the crowd draw its collar tighter around them. She glances into the shards of dark glass and sees herself in each one holding up a dinner plate and seeing her reflection in it. "Hey, mom, I can see myself."
A woman not her mother rushes into the scene, pats her on the shoulder, and smiles approvingly. "Yes, my daughter."
"Mother?" She mouths the word uncertainly. "Mom?"
"Stay with us. We love you."
Carol turns to see one of the goat shoppers leaning close to her, almost whispering. Carol sees her face as the face of her "mother."
"We love you. Stay with us. These are all for you. All you have to do is consume them." The woman waves her hand at the collar of people and the their mountain of "treasures." Miraculously, the mound of packages does not fall. They are as light as the pastels that suddenly begin appearing on the wrapping paper.
The goat shopper lays her treasure at Carol's feet. "Welcome. May these be the first of many free gifts bestowed upon you, as is your right. Please be sure to take full advantage of this right."
Soon treasures imprison her. A solid, somewhat lumpy wall, it stretches so high, maybe even into the infinite. Carol can't imagine Jack's beanstalk being any higher. She cranes her neck and opens her eyes wide. She steps back, forgetting the glass shards, and falls in. Her mouth opens, but no sound comes out as the smooth darkness with the ragged edges swallows her.
A high pitched scream outside the Volkswagen Beetle startled Rod from his sleep. It was a machine's cry: squealing tires and the muffled thud of car against car. Then, faintly in the thud's wake, the tinkling echo of broken headlights. He realized, distantly, what it was, but made no effort to look out his window. He yawned and as shrill, intoxicated voices argued over fault he was soon again asleep.
Maple Street stretches in every direction into infinity.
"Will He be black and white?" Carol asks, straightening her tattered, oversized coat. It rolls over her and into the darkness, leaving only her head and hands uncovered. She helps Rod up and dusts him off. Rod had fallen, landing with a thud and a tinkle, next to her on the sidewalk.
He shrugs. "Don't know. But if He is, I can always turn Him into color." He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a couple of crushed marbles.
"Surely you jest. They do it all the time. Creates a more pleasing image." He puffs his chest out and looks around, unsure of which Maple Street he has tumbled down before coming to rest at her feet. He sees brightly glistening snowflakes freckling each Maple Street, a few more on the one to his left.
Carol turns and walks into the darkness, folding fallen snowflakes as she goes.
"Wait. Hold it. You can't do that," he says. "We can't lead Him home if you do that."
"I refuse to be a party to the bastardization of His spirit. Do you hear me?"
"Sshhh. I hear Him coming."
"You do not."
The both turn and stare into the darkness. There are no peals of bells, no rumble of voices, no chorus of angels nor blare of trumpets. There are no deafening cries of Hosannah, nor blinding flashes of light. There is no gathering of clouds, no parting of the waves, no brilliant celestial body outshining all the rest. There is only the briefest of shimmers and then ... "There He is! There He is!" Carol claps her hands. "Grandpa!" ... a television appears.
"Quick." The boy Rod makes his bubble gum into a lasso. "We have to save Him." He twirls the lasso above his head and charges forward, Carol closely behind him. "The Advertisers have orders to clone the original as soon as He is found."
"I hear footsteps. And many choruses of 'Jingle Bells,'" Carol yells, above the sudden appearance of a wind. "Many choruses."
Rod throws the lasso. It falls around the legs of the TV and turns into cable wire. "Pull," he yells. "They've found us." They pull on the pink gum lasso, overturning the set.
"Our only hope is to get Him home."
The TV set, its legs jutting forward, skip along in the darkness at the far edge of Maple Street. Occasional sparks shoot out its back. The smell of burnt ozone engulfs them.
They look at glistening snowflakes, some leading down one Maple Street, and some leading up another. The growing wind begins shuffling them.
"This way," Carol says. They run to their left.
The TV zigs and zags, speeding up and slowing down as the children dart up Maple Street. The road rises before them. They run past a clock, its arms spinning out of control; past a door that moves toward them, e=mc squared glowing on its transom; past a window that cracks and falls away, revealing nothing but darkness behind it; and through the eye at the top of a triangle on the back of a giant one dollar bill. All the while footsteps drum at them from every direction.
"Are we there yet?" Rod asks, panting. They stop for a moment's rest.
"I don't know." Carol wipes sweat from her forehead with the sleeve of her coat. "Don't they ever give up?"
He shakes his head. "Never."
They run up to a door. It is ajar and sways slightly as if pushed by conflicting breezes. They dart inside, pulling the TV behind them. The door slams shut. The room is a platform from which stairways move off in every direction. Carol goes straight ahead and down. The little boy Rod and the TV are right behind her. It continues glowing white, occasional sparks darting out the back.
The sound of footsteps gives way to the hum of household appliances; and the smell of burnt ozone yields to a cornucopia of aromas. Strongest among them are fresh baked microwaved cake mixed with pine scented ammonia.
"Sshhh. I hear voices. Listen."
Two cute women in a kitchen flash around about them in the darkness. Armed with a spatula, one slathers instant chocolate frosting across an old carpet. The hum of the appliances fade. The phrase "two C's in a K" flows continually across the empty background.
"Look Madge," the woman with the spatula says. "Doesn't this just revive that old carpet?" She holds the can of frosting in prominent view.
The older woman nods. "And uuhhh, just smell that forest green scent. It's out of this world."
"Do you think Herb will notice? After all, it is his favorite carpet."
Madge puts her hand on the younger woman's shoulder and nods approvingly. "Let's go squeeze some toilet paper."
"Gee, that's just like my mom," the little boy Rod says.
Carol laughs: "Maybe in your dreams." She begins running down the stairs two at a time. "Come on."
He hesitates, then looks around one last time, but the image is gone. He starts down the steps, pulling the TV behind him. It won't move. "Hey, wait."
Carol is almost out of sight. Rod turns and pulls on the bubble gum. He can't see the TV, nor the end of the gum. It stretches, and then snaps. In a few seconds the TV rolls by him and on ahead into the darkness. "Hey. Wait for me."
The glow from the TV shines across the darkness like a dim headlight spun out of control. The boy runs after it, scooping up the bubble gum as he goes. In the distance he hears "Ouch" and knows the TV and Carol are together again.
He descends the stairway. The footsteps grow louder the further down he goes. Rod comes to another platform. The gum runs off to his right, but the footsteps come from everywhere. He peels off several long, thin strips of gum and tosses each one down a separate stairway. He even tosses one straight up in the air. It hangs there like a pink jungle vine. He folds up the remaining gum and descends to his right, leaving a long, thin strip behind him.
"Hey," he calls, "where are you?" He listens: no reply.
"Hey. Are you down there?" Still no reply. Rod hears the murmur of water, speaking like a thousand distant voices. He listens for a few seconds more and decides it is voices. Muffled, yet they feel nearby. So nearby they make his leg twitch. He scratches it and shakes it, then descends the stairs. They are steep and curved and jut at odd angles. After a few minutes he stops. His leg twitches so badly he is afraid of falling.
Rod slaps his thigh.
"Ouch," his pocket says in a three voice chorus.
The boy slaps his pocket again and again he hears the chorus of ouches. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out three marbles. "Who are you?"
"We are the three wise marbles," they all reply.
"I am the wise marble of Christmas past," says one.
"I am the wise marble of Christmas present," says the second one.
"And you guessed it," says the third. "I am the wise marble of Christmas future."
"Oh." Rod looks at the three in the palm of his hand.
"We bring gifts of prophecy and perspective," says the wise marble of the future. "Toss us into the darkness and you will see all that has come before, all that is, and all that will be."
"All that can be wisely shown," says the marble of Christmas past, its voice deep and receding, the horn of a train already passed.
"Would it be wise to show me all of that?"
"Okay," says the wise marble of Christmas present. Its voice sounds always in front of him. "We'll show you only what you ask. We'll both save time that way."
"Okay," Rod says. "Where is He?"
The marbles do not respond. One is a cat's eye. One is an agate. And one is as clear and pure as a crystal ball. It speaks: "You must throw one of us into the belly of darkness before you'll receive an answer." Its voice is higher than the rest and sounds as if it were rushing over him like a tornado.
"But," he says to the wise marble of Christmas past, "I don't want to lose you."
"We will always be with you, my son," reply all three marbles, "for we always have been."
"Forever and ever."
"Cross you hearts---"
"And hope to split," say all three.
"But you weren't with me before."
"But we are with you now," says the clear, pure marble.
"And we always will be," says the agate, the wise marble of Christmas present.
"Forever and ever," says the cat's eye.
"Amen," say the three in chorus.
Little boy Rod rolls the marbles, gently, around in the palm of his hand. "Just toss you into the darkness?"
"That's right," they all say.
"Where is He?" Rod takes the marble of Christmas present and lobs it into the darkness. A panoply of colors and intersecting rainbows crackle and whizz round about him. There is the smell of ozone, then a foresty green scent. Crackling gives way to one voice and the colors to darkness again. In the center of the darkness are the girl and the TV. From the image, Little Rod can tell no more of where He, the TV, is than when he asked.
He looks again. The TV is on its legs, tilted slightly forward, staring with its one giant eye at a tombstone. Carol wipes a tear from her right eye. She is older, much older; the dark coat fits her perfectly now, and Little Rod realizes she is somebody he has seen before.
The TV looks down at the tombstone then up at Carol. "Am I dead?" it asks in a voice filled with static.
Little Rod tries to read the tombstone. "What's it say?"
"Rod Serling," says the marble, its voice booming from everywhere. "Born December twenty fifth, nineteen hundred twenty four. Died---"
"No!" Little Rod clamps his hands over his ears. "Don't say it. It ain't so. It ain't so."
The other wise marbles fall from his palm: bouncing off the stairway, clattering against the darkness. Panoplies of color and multitudes of intersecting rainbows surfeit the darkness. Then the panoplies crack and fall into a gray fire. Smoke of orange, red, and blue swirls around him.
"Click your heels," says one of the marbles. "Quickly. Click your heels."
"But---" The smoke begins engulfing him and he starts clicking his sneaker heels together. The left shoe is untied. The tip of the string taps against the step. The multicolored swirls turn closer. Rod does his best to curl into a standing ball. "Am I going to die?"
"Time has no meaning now."
The swirls feel like liquid, driving all the air away. "Am I going to die?"
"We will always be with you."
The swirls stroke him and smother him like a giant hand.
"Wake up. Wake up!"
Rod opens his eyes and stares up into the eyes of his wife.
"Hi, you cute little bundle of joy, you," Carol says, reaching a hand down to him. "Wake up. Wake up, you sleepy head." She places her hand beneath his chin. "Coot chee, coot chee coo."
"Wake up, Rod."
"Oh, Rod. You look so cute all wrapped up in advertising tear sheets." Carol, even older now, hair graying, face gently wrinkled stares at a Rod lying a crib made out of an old gutless TV. "Floating up the Susquehanna right to my doorstep."
Rod reaches up to her with a fist full of straw in a tiny pink hand and tries to say something. The TV rocks and he feels the water undulating beneath him. It is already moistening the crib bottom. Only gurgles come from his mouth.
"Oh, isn't that cute," Carol says. "It's time for breakfast, Rod. Christmas breakfast. Birthday breakfast, too. Here it is." She pulls out an opened box of stale Twilight Zone bran flakes and begins pouring them, dry, onto his face. "Open wide... ."
Rod reaches up with a fist full of sheet and tries to yell something, but his throat feels dry and full of useless vowels.
His eyes opened. This time he awoke. He was staring up into Sister Jeannine's green eyes, her auburn hair hanging down around her face.
"Hi, sleepy head." Her breath curled in front of her face.
"Water." Rod swallowed, his voice barely more than a dry whisper. "Water."
"Hold on." She ran around the Bug and ascended the slope, disappearing up the old stairway at the back of the house.
Rod could hear the wood crackle and snap against the cold. Frost covered the car windows and the red-orange of the weak, early morning sun was blunted into an opaque red-gray on the windshield. Around its edges, ice sparkled as if it might catch fire. There were patches of snow on the ground, dusting the tops of twigs and empty beer bottles. It had definitely gotten colder than the weatherman had predicted.
Sister Jeannine returned with water in a Styrofoam cup. She walked to the driver's side and helped Rod to a sitting position. He noticed teeth marks around the rim as she brought it to his lips. The small cup was half full. He hesitated.
"Come on you old coot. Drink up." She brought the cup against his lips. "You were screaming like the car was on fire. It's a wonder the fire department wasn't back here trying to pry you loose with the jaws of life. You were shaking like an earthquake. Fortunately," she said, lowering the cup, "I have a spare key." She slid it back in her jeans' back pocket. It was thin, but prominently outlined by the tight fabric. She brought the cup back to his lips.
"That's what Mrs. Reed called you. That and riffraff. But she calls everybody riffraff. Is Carol you wife's name?"
"No." Rod swallowed the water. It hung in the back of his throat like a water balloon.
"You were screaming it just before you woke up. Of course you were screaming a lot of things before that." She stared directly into his eyes. "Do you have a wife?"
He stared to the left of her hair. "No. I don't have a wife. Or an ex wife. Or a girl friend. What are we? A census taker?"
"Ouhh. Sarcasm on Christmas Day. How seasonal."
"Hell. You're the one calling me 'old coot.' Besides, you never came and got me."
"Sorry." She blushed. "It was meant affectionately."
"Would Mrs. Reed mean it affectionately?"
Jeannine smiled, blushing even more. "I doubt it. And I am sorry for not getting you. I ... forgot."
Rod smiled, then laughed. "Merry Christmas, Sister Jeannine."
"Merry Christmas, Rod Serling."
"Today's also my birthday."
Gabriel charged around to the door, slipping and almost falling. "Damn ice." He latched onto the Bug. "What the hell's going on?" He stared at Jeannine.
"We were wishing each other a Merry Christmas," Rod said.
"And singing Christmas carols at the tops of our lungs. Did we wake you?" Jeannine looked at Rod. "Daddy didn't sleep too well last night either. He thought I was fooling around with Steve. You know, the tight end."
Rod nodded, barely remembering the name. He would've thought Reverend Frisby would be the object of "fooling around."
"Well, he said he heard heavy breathing all night. I told him it was all you down here. That you'd probably found a companion all your own."
They laughed as Gabriel straightened up and away from the car, his eyes bloodshot and his hands fidgeting in his jacket pockets for a cigarette.
"Merry Christmas, Gabe."
"Merry Christmas, Daddy. Daddy, did you know today's also Rod's birthday?"
Gabriel turned and looked at them. "Rod's birthday would be today - if he were alive. This bozo ain't the real Rod." He gingerly stomped back to the house. Over his shoulder he asked: "When do we eat?"
An alley-bound black cat wandered by, eyeing them for a moment, then moving on.
After Rod warmed up and cleaned up, they exchanged small silly presents that had been "free gifts" given by some of the local merchants; but Gabriel didn't have anything for either of them. Rod felt the uneasiness growing as they ate silently and quickly.
Despite his initial objections, Gabriel scooped up one slice after another of something called "cold pizza," until he had eaten six. The crust was canned biscuits laid on a cookie sheet, pressed together, and baked until almost done. Next came cream cheese. On top of that were chopped cranberries, turkey, ham, orange and apple wedges, fresh frozen strawberries, and slices of Kiwi.
Rod assured Gabriel that the joy was in the giving, that giving was the most important thing about Christmas.
"Well, I feel no joy, and I missed the most important part," Gabriel said.
"What else is new?" Jeannine pulled apart a gingerbread man and dropped it on a plate of half eaten food.
"But hell, Sterling. I'm going for a walk." Gabriel stood up, grabbed the open bottle of wine, and left the room. "Merry Christmas." He slammed the door as he left.
Rod stared at Jeannine, but she refused to meet his gaze.
"Merry fucking Christmas to you too," she said to the door. "Lord forgive me."
"And God Bless us every one."
Jeannine glared at Rod. "You think that's funny don't you? Well, buddy boy, it sure the hell isn't. None of this is funny. Not one damn bit of it. He hasn't changed. He's been doing this all his damn life. Forgetting Christmas. Forgetting birthdays. Forgetting anniversaries. Forgetting anything that would put him out just a little bit. Hell, he wouldn't even wish you a Merry Christmas unless you said it first. Well, I'm tired of it. As far as I'm concerned, he can go to hell. And you can go with him if you like." She jumped up from the table, knocking the chair over. She ran into her bedroom and slammed the door. "Why hasn't Rodney called," she said to herself, wiping aside a tear. "Lord forgive me," she said out loud.
After a few minutes, she came out bundled up. She held a couple of gifts in her hands. "I'm going over to my mother's. I'll be back in a little while."
Rod was still sitting at the table. She put the presents down as she reached into her coat pockets for her mittens. The coat was bulky and hung from her body like a blanket, swallowing her. He noticed the mittens had been patched in a couple of places. Rod glanced at the presents. One was signed "From Gabe."
She adjusted her toboggan and blew a bubble. "There's gum in the dresser if you want any. If Steve calls, tell him Merry Christmas for me and that I'll be watching for him during the bowl game. Tell him you're my father. The team's supposed to leave today or tomorrow." She picked up the gifts and left the room.
Rod stared at the two other plates: a shredded gingerbread man on one, three cigarette butts on the other. A sense of loneliness settled over him like an unwanted change in the weather. He scooted his plate toward the center of the table and wished he had a cigarette. Instead, he pulled out the cigar and lit it. He would worry about Jeannine's disdain later.
He looked up at the poster of two unfortunate children. One girl and one boy. He realized he had seen it before in the apartment, as well as one like it downtown. Missing children on milk cartons; unfortunate children on posters. Advertisements of misfortune were everywhere. Everywhere: stapled to the sides of telephone poles, pasted in store windows, even painted on the sides of tractor trailer trucks. Advertisements for the lost and unfortunate waifs of modern America. "Have you seen me?" or "Please help."
Rod exhaled slowly. There was no use for melancholy. At least it had snowed a little for Christmas. He looked at the poster again. He imagined himself in the poster: "Please help." or on the back of a milk carton: "Have you seen me?" Everywhere and yet nowhere, like God. "And God bless us everyone."
END ACT IV: TO BE CONTINUED...
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