It's been long long long since I've used this. NEWS: Moved to portland, oregon.
I won't weigh this down with details or recounting day's events. I wrote a short story that I've had in my head forever and just recently got the spark to actually write it. here it is.
You read about these things from time to time. A stain. A char pattern. Perhaps frost frozen just right to depict the Virgin Mary. Jesus Christ. Some divine deity set in the holiest of things—coffee spilled onto a napkin, waste oil floating on top of a mud puddle, the sacred toasting of a delicious grilled cheese sandwich.
These apparitions, these messages, these Rorschachian ink blots, let’s just say I have a hard time buying into God communicating existence on a slice of Wonder bread. Not to say that some might be served, might find a certain truth or the confirmation of one in these signs.
I awake at the same time each day, early, to a wash of light and an incessant alarm clock. Form over function, early to bed, early to rise, all of that. I click the TV on while surveying the midmorning from a window three stories above the street. A man in a baseball hat buys a paper. Two girls walking dogs talk quickly and with an unknown purpose. I do nothing.
“We bring you now, live, where some say a miracle is on display.” The canned voice, deep flowing vowels, consonants so stressed as to be informative and inviting.
“Yes, that’s right, Donna,” his voice a modified duplicate of hers, the swooping intonation, the throaty delivery of a person putting on a disguise so as to prank call a random number and deliver false, yet official sounding information. “We’re here at the corner of Seventh and Hillsdale…” I live on Ninth and Hillsdale in a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen not unlike what you’d expect to purchase for your kindergartner to play house with. The ceilings sag in certain places where it meets the wall. The closets are glorified glove compartments. A toilet sits squat and filthy (my own fault) next to a bathtub aged with years of hard water and various bodies.
“And let me tell you, the response is just overwhelming. We have Maria here. She lives just a few blocks away from this site. Maria, what are your thoughts on this, what some are calling divine or miraculous, image?”
Not that my life hasn’t been somewhat privileged or something some might call normal or at the least, decent. But things, they don’t really matter. They catch on fire, they break, the get lost, the need to be replaced. They’re just things. Stuff. There is water that leaks from above the stove that puts the pilot lights out on the stove every time it rains. There are eight tiles on the bathroom floor that need replacing. My mother would catch death if she poked her head into this place here. But it’s three floors up, has a decent view of a moderately busy area, and affords me the priceless ability to just watch, to be a spectator rather than a player.
“There you have it, Donna. A divine sign? You can see many behind me who would say so. Back to you.”
I’ve taken classes on literary fraud. Stories published by people that didn’t write them, written about things that never really happened. It goes so deep to where the faux-authors assume an identity of grandeur, of celebrity, of socialite, of genius. These frauds as a whole, says the research, rarely were those things, most often they were misers or outcasts—but sometimes the prankster was that which he portrayed himself as. What would compel one to invest the time in a trick or a play on the public for what too often became a matter of ridicule and led to the condemnation from the legitimate literary world? Those fifteen short minutes. Their names on the tongues of intellectuals. A pretty girl for an evening. An existence, though no more real than the stolen stories, of greatness, of power, of privilege.
“Oh my god, did you see it? Oh, you’re on the way now? You have to see it. It’s incredible.” The latest Batman movie? A display of Vatican art? “No, no. There’s a crowd. It’s huge. You won’t believe it. I took about fifteen pictures. No, I’m going to blog about it as soon as I can sit down.”
I’m walking behind this person, trying to make sense of the vagueness that seems to consume her, and in all ways. She cuts a quick left in front of me. As she reaches for a door, I collide into her, dropping my bottled water, her losing her cellphone into a mess of disconnected plastic pieces on the sidewalk.
“Fuck man, watch where you’re going!” Without response, I just look at her, my eyes speaking for me. “I’m sorry. It’s just that that was a new phone.”
I don’t call her on her blatant ignorance of personal space. Instead I say, “oh.” I crouch down to pick up the phone’s battery and I hand it to her. “I didn’t mean to—“
“No, no. Fuck. I know, I should watch where I’m going. God damnit. It’s just that this phone, I mean, I just got it seriously today. Like two hours ago.”
“Can you fix it? Does it work?” I ask these things before she’s gotten any chance at reattaching the puzzle pieces.
“The screen is okay. I think it’ll be okay. I’m sorry.”
“No, I’m sorry. A new phone. Shit. That sucks.”
Somewhere someone is starving to death in a literal sense. Not the way I’ll say I’m starving to death if it’s been five hours since lunch. And we’re worried about broken cellphones. About the low compression on the engines of our shiny Fords. The sodium content of anything. And somewhere someone is starving. But ah, to worry globally means thinking outside of comfort, outside of ourselves, our little armored shells in which we take safe harbor in, unhurt by the idea of poverty or of kwashiorkor or of pure and true survival.
“Day two out here, Donna, and the crowd has seemed to multiply. Look around me here. I met a man a little earlier this morning who had travelled over five hundred miles just to get a look at the image.”
We’re trained to take for granted the things others around the world may never know. A 12-ounce steak. Designer jeans. Houses made of brick and wood. We bitch about gas prices, about raised tuition, the cost of a gallon of milk. We attend union-backed jobs and make more in an hour that millions do in a month.
“Hi. Hello? Hell-o! Ahem.” After realizing that just maybe that greeting might possibly be directed at me, I turn. “You’re the guy that ran into me.” She pushes two fingers into my shoulder. “Well, that I ran into. Whatever.”
My fast thinking and quick wit on full display I respond, “oh.”
“Phone still works.” She holds it in her hand and turns her wrist back and forth.
“You probably already have this notion that I’m this bitch-on-the-move, outta my way girl, huh? I’m not. Really, I’m not. I’ll prove it. I am going to buy you a cup of coffee. Do you drink coffee? Tea, maybe? Coke, Pepsi? Vanilla soy half-caf no whip?”
Not thinking, but putting too much effort into pretending, into appearing to be thinking, I say, “What time is it?”
“Somewhere to be, rock star? It’s eleven-forty. Forty-two if you’re that type.”
“Oh, um, thanks.” I look around blankly, unconvincingly.
“So, coffee, or no? I can just find another guy to offer a free drink to. That guy there, with the hat, or maybe that older gentleman. Hmm.”
“Eleven-forty. Okay, okay.” Like I have anything else to do. “Yeah, cool. Cool. I can, I can,” another blank, this time wholly and obviously unconvincing look around, “go for a coffee. Well, tea really. Iced tea. It’s already kind of hot out.”
“Weatherman! Nice.” She walks off, sure that I’ll heel to her like her golden retriever might. And I do. “So, I guess we can either do this in full anonymity or we can exchange names, become real life people with histories, thoughts, and,” she mock-gasps, “even ideas!”
“Anonymity certainly has its benefits.”
“Well forget it. Your vote doesn’t count. I,” she hesitates, locks eyes, “am Samantha. Now that I’ve ruined the anonymous thing, you are?” She looks bored, forced.
I look down, maybe creating the impression that I, too, am bored. Or maybe that I’m embarrassed or nervous. “Scott.”
“Cool. Same first initial. Coincidence?”
We spend much of our lives meeting people, introducing ourselves, shaking hands. How is it that some of us never get good at it?
“You’ll see now that people have begun to bring signs and hold candles out here; this underpass has become a sort of makeshift church where people are now spending hours in prayer and worship. Police have cordoned off an area here to keep people out of the way of traffic. By the looks of it, the crowd has at least tripled, if not increased beyond that, in the seven days since the image was first discovered.”
My mother once told me that God was everywhere, inside each and every thing, living or not. He was omnipresent, she said, but I didn’t understand that term then. She went on to explain that the existence of God makes it so people survive through things like famine, through incarceration in labor camps, through small pox, AIDS, Ebola and cancer. Instead of being awoken by the sun or by an alarm clock, it was the spirit that woke us. We carried on through life, her words, not mine, making the choices that led us to a predestined point in the world. Every person has his or her own particular place to inhabit before they were allowed to leave the land of the living. Some of us made this discovery early and checked out in our teens, our toddlerhood, our late twenties. Others had longer journeys and their hearts kept beating well into their seventies or eighties. If we knew exactly what we had to do, well, what would life be then, she asked.
“It’s really unbelievable, Donna. I’ve been out here each of the past thirteen days, and the crowd only gets heavier. I’ve met people here from Mexico, from Canada, even a couple all the way from France! The image has appeared in such a place that the weather doesn’t seem to affect it. We’re not sure yet, though, what substance is responsible for creating the image. It is possible that there was leakage from the overpass above, or perhaps something more, something greater than our imaginations, is at work here at Seventh and Hillsdale. Donna, back to you.”
If you’re not doing, you’re wasting. That’s something my father would say. What use is all the talent in the world if you’re only going to sit your lazy ass on the couch playing video games? It didn’t matter what, exactly, the doing was, so long as one, myself most importantly, was indeed doing something. Learning, working, creating. Avoiding stagnancy, avoiding becoming a part of the sofa. After he died, though, it really seemed more clearly defined—my ambition to live was sustained only by the primitive and reptilian impulses of the brain stem. I wasn’t doing anything that anyone would consider worthy of the time spent. I was becoming less and less involved, turning into a figure standing in a window, three up from the street, just watching, fading out, losing clarity or substance. I was turning into nothing.
The same café as always, the same corduroy crowd, the same piss-water coffee, the same limitless life taken little advantage of. One hour turned to two, but beyond simply people watching, I was reading Hemingway—a task perhaps only I found great magnitude in.
“Hey. You again. You’re pretty much always here, huh?” The words flew like fingernail clippings during a trim.
“Yeah. They set up a cot for me after closing. I just kind of curl up and wait for the first customer before waking.” Sometimes I surprise myself.
“Comedian now, huh? Well, I shouldn’t chastise you, not that I was, but I shouldn’t—well, anyway. It would seem I’m always here, too. Funny though, I don’t really remember seeing you—“
“That shirt, what is that?”
“Oh,” she laughs that fake kind of laugh one does when taking pride in being clever, “you like it? They’re selling them down by the thing. It’s getting pretty wild down there. Have you been by?”
“I’ve heard about it, but no, I don’t really get into that kind of thing.”
“You have to see it. It’s so detailed. You know how some of them you see on TV or something and you’re like ‘oh, okay, I can kind of tell what that is supposed to be’? This one, there’s no mistaking. It’s really obvious.” She sips from a cup with a paper sleeve, looks out onto the street, and then says, “it’s really affirming, you know?”
“Day twenty-two, Donna. Can you believe it? The city has now allowed permits to set up tents now at the roadside because overwhelming amounts of people have shown up from seemingly everywhere. Just before coming to air I met a Japanese family as well as a group of priests in from Italy. If you look to my left here you’ll see vendors have popped up selling everything from mouse pads to t-shirts to bumper stickers—and people are just buying them up. Everyone is looking for their answers here, Donna. It all boils down to faith. Here live, channel fifteen. Back to you in the studio.”
“Scott. Scott. Over here.”
“Oh, hey.” Whether or not this is becoming routine is overshadowed only by the idea of this possibly going somewhere.
“Come sit. I got you something.” She pulls a small plastic bag from her designer carry-all. “Here.”
“Oh, cool. Thanks.” I open the little bag and find a black cord with a cheaply made pendant dangling from it.
“They’ve got all kinds of things down there now, and since you said you hadn’t been by, I thought I’d bring something to you.” She smiles sweetly, tosses the loose waves of her hair back from her shoulder. “I noticed you wearing something similar, so I figured you’d be more apt to wear it maybe that a t-shirt or boxer shorts or something. I could have gotten the bowling ball or the dog food dish.”
“No, no. Thank you. This is cool.” And it was cool. It was cheap, but it was cool. This sort of feeling, this kind of discovery, it’s probably what drove people across the seas in wooden ships, over mountains in moccasins. “Let me ask you though, what do you think it means? Like, on a real level? What’s it mean to you? Does it make God seem more real, or bigger, or more powerful. What?”
“Okay Mr. One-Question-At-A-Time. Have you ever, well this will sound silly, but have you ever bought a scratch-off ticket? You know that the winning ticket exists somewhere, right? Somebody has to win. So you scratch the little boxes, and nothing. Yet your faith remains, yeah? Just because you lost on that particular ticket doesn’t mean that you can’t win on the next one, or maybe even after losing on twenty. Not that I’m a compulsive lottery player at all, but do you get what I’m saying?”
“So, I don’t know. This is sort of like getting that money that you knew was there. Look, I know it’s stupid. It’s a water stain or oil or whatever it is. But things like that, people need to see them sometimes, to let them know that they’re not just wasting their time. I know, I know. You think this is all bullshit, right? And I’m crazy. But really, it just makes you feel good about being.”
I wanted to be an engineer. I would design layouts for new subdivisions. And then I wanted to design and maintain websites for corporations. I wound up with a degree from a nameless school that has led nowhere. What I’ve become has no meaning, no depth. Perhaps I’ve lost touch and try to blame too many external forces for things. I mean, really, who should give a shit about the poor and the starving, right? I’ve got rusty water leaking through fifty-year-old pipes straight into my closet that has ruined not one, but three pairs of shoes that cost a lot more than what someone in Zimbabwe can afford.
Perhaps faith has turned into a sort of consumerism. I mean, look at the money churches bring in. And how? People are giving their own money, money they sat at some shit job to earn, and they just give it away. But these people, they probably feel better about living the way they do after they drop a buck into the dish. And damn right. Because they have something. They’re a part of a system of beliefs and dogma that fills gaps, that cures disease, that holds families together, that keeps people from drinking themselves to death. But even still, everything has a cost.
“I’m going to tell you, Donna, I never thought this would go on for as long as it has! We’re forty-two days in and the believers keep coming out. There’s been quite the diverse group amassing here in the many days I’ve been on location. A gentleman I spoke with this afternoon has begun a fast and claims that he won’t eat again until he’s told by God to do so—a sort of personal sacrifice. I asked him how he’ll know, what sort of sign he’ll be looking for, and he responded simply ‘I’ll know when I’m shown.’”
“Can you hand me my jacket, please?”
“What, are you leaving already?”
“No, no. There’s something in the pocket that I want you to have.” I had planned on taking her to a dinner, somewhere nice, a place where they refuse to sing loud and in unison on your birthday. Instead, I found a brass turtle with the Hebrew word for ‘truth’ etched into the belly. “Here. Close your eyes. “
“Oh, I hate this! What is it, what is it?” She squeals in mock-terror. “Oh, I love it! How cute.”
“Turn it over. Look at the bottom.”
“Oh. What’s it say?”
“It’s, um, Hebrew. It says ‘truth’. I don’t know why I picked that one. It was that or like ‘clown’ or something.”
“No, no. I get it. Very thoughtful, Scotty. Thank you.” She kisses my lips quickly and places the trinket on a shelf amongst other similar trinkets very possibly given to her by past suitors whose biggest mistakes were all the same: giving trinkets as gifts rather than springing for fancy dinners. “It’s what it’s all about. Truth. Well that and love.” She looks at me with a secret smile, locks eyes. “Truth and love.”
“What some are calling a miracle or an affirmation of faith has drawn visitors near and far now for the past forty-seven days. The recent heat wave hasn’t slowed down the crowds here. Everyone is anxious to get a look at the image. There were reports earlier of a woman suffering from heat exhaustion, but word is she’s checked out fine. If you do plan on coming out, be sure to bring plenty of water and stay hydrated. You gotta beat the heat. You can see behind me the droves of people already assembled here today. It’s become quite the event. Earlier in the week we saw merchandise vendors. We now have food carts popping up, selling Jesus juice and Jesus dogs, amongst other aptly named items. Some might say this has turned into quite the circus, but to the devout and indoctrinated, it comes down to one word, Donna. ‘Faith.’”
Waking up today made it forty-eight days. The crowd was now visible, and had been for a week, from my third floor window. At night you could hear the group prayers, the chanting, the mantras. Today I come clean. Without dressing or checking voice mail messages, email, without brushing my teeth, I upload my video to youtube. In a short three-minute clip (edited down from the actual time of twenty-four minutes, eight seconds), I can be seen using a variety of artist’s tools and a mixture of tar, saline solution, iodine, and distilled water to paint an eerily transparent image of her lady of grace, the Mother Mary, in all her vague glory beneath the road, amongst graffiti exclaiming that Mark had been here, and TJ will heart FB forever. Proof that I am capable of doing something.
In fervent disarray I put on my clothes from yesterday, grab my backpack, and head out the door. I shoulder through hundreds of people. Every single one of them here to witness a lie. A lie that I created. This was my gift to the world. A hope that for forty-eight days was so gloriously real was no more than a crop circle, an alien sighting, Bigfoot.
Shoving past believers, gawkers, and peddlers, I get an idea of where to position myself so that my message will be clear. I walk past the image and around, down the street so that I am able to ascend the road that spans above the crowd. Once above the throngs of people I open my backpack and remove a compact megaphone and an LCD projector.
“Listen. You’ve been lied to. What you are witnessing is not proof of God. God had nothing to do with this.” My heart crawls into my throat, my pulse is felt in my ears. I click on the projector and aim it at the wall just beyond the Holy taco stand and the man selling leather goods with laminated copies of photographs of the image crudely sewn onto them. The sky is just grey enough that the projection is semi-latent; barely visible, but just enough.
“I have created this. And you all, you drove here, flew here, you collectively travelled thousands and thousands of miles to be here, to get your very own look at this lie. That’s right. This entire thing is a hoax. You can go home now and spend the next forty-eight days thinking about how misplaced your faith is, about how misguided your spirituality is.” I am becoming something. And I’m willing to pay anything to become someone.
“Donna, in an unthinkable turn of events, we have a gentleman projecting what seems to show a man painting the image here on the underpass. I don’t know if you can hear above the crowd, but he seems to be making a confession, and the people here seem none too happy about it.”
I’m engulfed in fists, kicking feet, open hand smacks and hair-pullers. Two-fold, this reaction, in proving the faithful to be naïve to a razor sharp point as well as hypocritical. My face is becoming more and more a bloody pulp while the devout kick my ribs in and scream ‘motherfucker’ and ‘lying cocksucker’. I don’t try to scurry away. This is martyrdom. This is my cost of becoming someone. This is me doing something.
“We can see a number of people in a mob up above the street now. I’m not sure what’s become of the man up there, but it doesn’t look good. Police are on the scene, but are having a difficult time getting through the dense crowd. From hope to chaos, we’ve seen a lot in forty-eight days, but no one could have predicted this. Donna, back to you.”
That was what was supposed to happen. Before the broken cellphone. The free iced tea. The brass turtle. It isn’t an overwhelming sense of guilt that changed my mind, though surely that has become a factor. I’ve gained a sense of understanding, of empathy I suppose. It is still a lie, and it is my lie. But does it make sense at this point to turn the faith of all those people on its ear? I’ve still done something. But do I want to become someone so badly as to destroy not only my own life, but the lives of countless others who have fed on the hope that that image symbolizes? I don’t think that’s fair to anyone, really.
What I’ve come to understand is that people need things to prove to themselves that there is a point to what they believe in. They need affirmation so they know that they’re not just walking through the dark to nowhere. They crave meaning and answers, even if those answers provide more questions. If it takes an image to give someone’s life solidity, realness, meaning, hell, if it takes another person to do so—well what I am if I take that away? Who or what do I become then?
Without something to provide substance to life, what can we expect to become? Someone once said there are two things that matter most.
“You know, I think I should say this.”
“You don’t have to say anything. I know.”