"Jesus was sighted again." This was not the first sighting, nor in any sense the most remarkable. Still, it was newsworthy, and had to be reported. Seven weeks ago he was seen descending from an A-Frame cottage in Vale, Colorado; previous to this there had been no mention of him, neither in the papers nor on TV.
"I looked up," the caretaker of The Golden Ski Resort told reporters, "and, glory be, there he was, on Cabin 9, halo and all! Hadn't been for my arthritis I'd have fallen to my knees."
"What did he look like?" Appearances had to be verified before anything else.
"He was everything Jesus should be - and then some!"
"Long hair, or short?"
"Some of each."
Questioning went on in this vein several hours. Everything was video taped; irrelevancies were edited out, so that no one watching the 6 o'clock news need suffer the caretaker's arthritis, or the invocations he had invented extemporaneously to mark the occasion, or his many anecdotes concerning caretaking, or his wife's in-laws.
"The man seen descending was not Christ of Nazareth, of course," the head psychiatrist at the nearby Denver Psychiatric Clinic pointed out. "Here we have the classic case of schizophrenic delusion. The man, in layman's terms, was schitzy. It's a common delusion among such types, thinking they're Christ." It was pointed out that the man made no such claim - made no claim at all. "Give him time," was the reply. "Nobody goes to the trouble to levitate fifteen feet in the air then, just at the opportune moment, descend as only Christ would without an ulterior motive. You may be sure the next time you hear of him he'll be holding his arms spread eagle as Christ on the cross did!"
This prediction held true. The second sighting found the Christ - Christ imposter, according to some - standing in an abandoned lane with his arms raised and outstretched, parallel to his trunk, exactly as if he had just stepped down from the cross. By chance he was photographed. A young woman from the Group B Photo Club, visiting Colorado, happened upon the figure and wishing to capture the lovely shed just off the road, took the picture.
"Do you mind moving sir?" she asked. "So I can photograph that shed." Obstinately the figure refused to get out of the way. "Oh hell," she said and clicked the shutter anyway. When her slide was developed, the figure showed very clearly - but there was no shed, it had vanished entirely from the scene.
"That's curious," she said to her fellow Photo Club members. The following day they all went to the lane where she had taken the picture. Jesus was there again, standing right in the way of anyone wishing to photograph the shed. They could see the shed well enough behind him through their viewfinders; they all took photographs; but on no one's did the shed appear. The evening news got wind of this and reported it, calling it a Second Sighting. The photographs of Jesus were shown. Everyone agreed that the man looked like Jesus - even the psychiatrist, who explained it away as "charisma," however. The figure wore a long white garment, like a tunic. The face, the eyes, the mouth, the shape of the nose, the slant of the forehead: all were Christ-like. No one had any idea beforehand what "Christ-like" meant, yet everyone felt that this face was indeed the face of Jesus Christ. And when showed the photographs, the caretaker who had first sighted Jesus identified the man in them as the same man he had seen descending from the A-Frame of Cabin 9 one week earlier.
"George In Earnest, this is too big for Colorado," the bureau chief of broadcasting telephoned his boss in New York to say. "Better send a crew. Send your top investigative reporter."
"He's in the Middle East," was the reply. An alternate reporter was dispatched, along with a camera crew, to look into the Christ Sightings, as they were now being officially called. Two days later it was on national television.
Looking up from the floor where he always sat watching TV, Norman R. Zellor beheld for the first time ever the face of Jesus. In his mind was a song, a folk ballad from the 1960's which had been popularized by a gifted black singer in the 1970': "The First Time Ever I saw Your Face," written by Ewan McColl, sung by any number of singers until Roberta Flack cut the definitive version.
"The first time Jesus ever I saw your face," Norman Zellor whispered reverently into his television. Jesus bowed in acknowledgment. Everyone in the country saw the figure in the photograph bow, but only Norman knew why.
"Still Life with Shimmers," the photograph was thereafter known as. It was put on display in the lobby of the Broadcasting Building, where half a million tourists saw it the first two weeks alone. Cripples were brought before it, incurables, the dumb and the deaf and the blind and the maimed; old men and women seeking rejuvenation; babies seeking a blessing; bed wetters; victims of frost bite - this, since the Christ had come from the Rockies; sufferers of scabies; in a word, the world had forsaken Lourdes and Guadalupe both as grottoes of healing. The Blessed Virgin despaired that her only son should take away her greatest joy in life.
"Come back!" she cried in vain as the last wheel chair was carted off, the old woman in the chair who had been a regular visitor for the past forty years turning to wave good-bye.
"Grand-mama!" the woman's excited grandsons and daughters all cried, "we're taking you now someplace where you'll finally be cured!" The old woman shook her head wearily. She had never come here - not once - to be cured. Oh, maybe the first couple times. But after that: she came mostly to discuss knitting and other womanly pursuits with the Blessed Virgin.
"Take it from a grandmother, Mary: your son should have taken a wife. What you need is grandchildren in your old age to keep you company!" She had told Mary this time and again; now she wondered. Here they were taking her away from the most peaceful place she had ever found, just so she could be "cured" and get up and walk again. A tear fell from her old eye, a sad tear from her sad eye; only tears of joy fell from the other. "Mary," she now whispered, not knowing if her words would carry back to Lourdes, "take it from a grandmother: be glad your Jesus didn't mate!"
The old woman was brought to New York, taken by subway to the Broadcasting Building. She was terrified, she thought she was in hell, floating along beneath the ground, being crowded by so many weeping and moaning persons she could hardly breath. Then she had ascended to Madison Avenue and was speeding along inside a taxi toward the Broadcasting Building. Every red light she covered her head in terror for fear the taxi would not stop in time. Finally, trembling from head to toe, she was brought before the photograph of Jesus.
"Got his mother's eyes," she said. For this, she was cured on the spot. Jesus winked at her and asked how Mary was. "Take it from a grandmother Jesus, she'd be a lot happier now if you hadn't been quite so particular who you slept with!" Jesus blushed. The old woman laughed and wheeled herself away. She knew she was cured, but she had no desire to negotiate these perilous streets of New York on foot, so she never let on that anything happened.
Jesus started feeling very badly about not having given his mother grandchildren. "I never really thought of it," he realized, after all these years. "I suppose I thought she'd just pray all day. You know what? Now that I think about it, I'm going to find a little street urchin somewhere, adopt him, and let mother look after him. Shit, that'd be almost like having a grandson, wouldn't it?"
"I've got to go see Jesus," Norman Zellor said to himself. "But the Broadcasting Building, New York: it's all so fancy." He went to his closet to see what he had to wear. His best shirt was dirty - there was a lipstick stain on the collar. "Rats!" he said in disgust. His best pants were in even worse shape. "Shit!" he cried. "I'll never get those stains out!"
"I've got to try though," he resolved, so he gathered a few things to wash along with his shirt and pants, and went to the Laundromat. It wasn't very crowded. He counted four other people: three men, one woman. Plus the attendant, a heavyset lady of about 40 who spent most of the day discussing Astrology with the customers.
"Pisces - you're a Pisces!" she would say. She always said that; she was bound to hit it right sooner or later. Actually Norman had Pisces on a cusp somewhere in his natal chart, but he always denied having a Pisces whenever she would ask. "When you make love," she would ask, "I bet you wrap your legs around her and stroke her ass with your feet, don't you? It's a typical Pisces maneuver!" That was pretty much what he did, which was why his pants got stained as they did.
"Now take an Aquarius," she would explain, whether asked or not, "he always takes his pants off too soon or too late - never at the right moment! Drives a woman batty!"
Norman felt a little uneasy with this kind of talk. He did not care to discuss intimate relations even with another man, let alone with a woman. And what if she should see the stain on his pants? Being, he presumed, something of an expert on stains, she might immediately recognize it for what it was.
"Now a Virgo, honey," she was explaining, watching every move he made as he separated his clothes into light and dark, "he knows exactly how many eyelets there are in his zipper, and to the fraction how much space between his pants and his drawers. You'll never catch him with a piece of underpants or a pubic hair in his zipper!"
Norman tossed his light clothes into one washer, the dark clothes into the one beside it. He sensed the attendant's eyes on him the whole time; when he came to his good pants - a navy blue patterned polyester - he deliberately bunched them up to conceal the stain.
"Don't toss 'em like that honey!" the attendant cautioned. "Good trousers need fondling, just like a kid's glove. Now stretch 'em out - here, like this." She took the pants and demonstrated. Norman was sure she saw the stain, though she made no direct reference to it. Into the washer the pants went.
"Now take a Gemini," she was saying as he put his coins into the slot, selected the proper temperature and sprinkled soap powder into the two washers, "he's a kinky one, he is. Sometimes he'll have sex with his pants still on. That's risky for the fabric honey."
Her name was Yvonne; pinned to her smock was a little brown plastic tag with her name on it. She always wore a yellow smock, except when she had a yellow ribbon in her hair; on those days she wore neither smock nor name tag and only the regular customers knew she worked there. Whenever the local TV station had "John Wayne Week," during which they showed only John Wayne movies at 4 P.M., Yvonne would get out her yellow ribbon; it was a tribute to her favorite movie, "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon," co-staring Joanne Dru. Her first love, however, was Astrology; movies came third; second was her work. She loved the concept of washing and drying; she relished the workmanship that went into the machines; she felt more than a responsibility, more even than a kinship to these washers and dryers: she felt they were somehow a projection of her innermost psyche. She lovingly cared for them. The washers were green, pale green, the dryers pale yellow: color coordinated. Blackstone manufactured them, the oldest company in the business. When a machine broke down, she swore she could feel it in her soul, her psyche - which she pronounced "psycle" in honor of her machines. When a machine could not be fixed and had to be taken away, something within her died. Number 16 had just been removed this morning. She had come in, seen it gone, cried a little, then, by the time her first customer arrived, had hidden her sorrow. No one ever saw Yvonne anything but happy.
Once his washers began agitating, Norman Zellor went and took a seat against the wall. He chose a blue seat. They were lined up, metal chairs, all connected, alternating red, blue, brown and orange. Sometimes he chose a red seat, sometimes he had no choice but to sit on a brown one; he would stand, however, rather than take an orange seat, even though Yvonne had assured him "they won't bite your butt!" Today it was blue, the third from the end nearest the door, sandwiched between a brown seat on the right and an orange on the left. He had brought a book to read, a novel, "Seven Serpents And Seven Moons" by an Ecuadorian, Demetrio Aguilera-Malta. Before he could take it up, however, someone spoke to him.
"What's the good word stud!"
He looked around. He knew there was no one there, he would have seen anyone sitting nearby and would have seated himself at the other end, near one of the big tables used for folding clothes, if there had been. He preferred sitting alone. Nobody was anywhere near him, the only other person seated was an old woman, and she was sitting on the table folding her clothes, perfectly oblivious to everything around her. Besides, this had been a distinctly masculine voice. He looked to the left then to the right. No one was at the window either - there was a window at the end of this row of seats. The only thing in sight was an open pack of matches on the brown chair beside him, the matchsticks twisted outward from their base. Talking matchsticks? he wondered; must be hearing voices. Schizoid. That's all I need: Jesus'll never see me now, for fear I'll do him some harm. Norman opened his book and began reading.
"What you reading?"
There it is again, he thought. Once more he looked around, once more nothing. "Talking matchsticks!" he said, reaching over to brush the matches off the seat.
"Hold it dude!" the voice cried out in some alarm. Norman stopped his movement. As he watched, the pack of matches began stirring and right before his eyes turned into a spider, somewhat on the order of a Daddy Long Legs.
"That was close," the spider looked up at him to say. "Not that I couldn't take it, you understand: I can land on my feet, if you know what I mean. Got the agility of a cat. I just don't choose to have to waste time trying to climb up that metal leg all over again. Not that I can't do it - you want to see me do it?"
Before Norman could answer, the spider had disappeared over the edge of the seat and began shimmying up the chair leg. A little out of breath, he said "There, how's that?" when he had gotten back up.
"What do you hold onto, that leg's so smooth?" Norman asked.
"Jesus man get with it!" the spider rejoined. "I've climbed up surfaces'd make that look like a G.D. cinder block!"
All Norman said was "Oh."
And awkward moment passed. Finally the spider asked "What's your name?"
"Norman R. Zellor." Another moment passed.
"Well," said the spider, a little insulted, "aren't you going to ask me my name?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be rude, I just didn't think -" Norman did not finish his statement.
"Yes?" the spider prompted. "Didn't think what?" He knew perfectly well what it was Norman didn't think: he didn't think spiders had names.
"I wasn't sure you...had a name."
"Well I do."
"What is it?"
Just then Yvonne came over. "Oh Sam will you leave the poor man alone? Can't you see by his look he's worried about the stain on his navy blue trousers?"
"Yeah?" Sam looked up and asked Norman in a sly tone of voice, then he added "Been getting any lately?"
This embarrassed Norman, who felt it was none of Sam's business and would have said so if a lady hadn't been present. Sensing Norman's chagrin, Yvonne turned to the spider and in a scolding voice said "I've told you Sam: don't bother the customers!"
"Okay, okay, I'm just minding my own business, doing my thing, not bothering anybody, I'll just sit here, still as a mouse, I won't say a thing, you won't hear a peep out of me, I promise!"
Yvonne turned to Norman questioningly. He nodded. "I'll see he doesn't bother anyone," he answered her.
When Yvonne was out of earshot, Sam looked up at Norman and said "Jesus what a bitch!"
"Don't blame Jesus," Norman said rather coldly.
"What, are you a Jesus freak or something?"
"Back off," said Norman.
"Okay, sorry, I didn't mean to step on anybody's toes - just a figure of speech, you understand. Hey Norman? Did you notice something? The bitch doesn't talk about Astrology around me - I'm a pretty good guy to have around! See, she thinks it's above me and all that. Shit, man, I used to stargaze too! I've been there, done it, I know all the aspects, the parallels, the ruling planets: the whole bit. Guess what my sign is?"
"I don't know: maybe an Aries."
Sam burst out laughing. "Try again!"
"Okay, how about Sagittarius?"
Again, Sam broke into great peals of laughter, which brought on a coughing spell, after which he said "You'll split my sides yet! I'm a Capricorn - just like Jesus Christ!"
"Jesus wasn't born December 25th damn it!" Norman insisted. "The evidence points to sometime in the middle of October."
"Oh, I guess you're a Libra!" Sam snorted indignantly.
Norman turned away. He didn't have to take this abuse. Beside him, on the left, on the orange seat, was a coin. He did not recall having seen it earlier. "Oh look," he explained, "there's a penny!"
"Look again," Sam advised. Norman turned back to his left.
"Yeah," he was about to say, "a penny!" when suddenly it began stirring, as if stretching. He caught the distinctive sound of a yawn. Five seconds later the penny had transformed itself into a beetle.
"What do you see now?" Sam asked.
"A beetle," Norman replied.
"A scarab to be exact," Sam corrected him. "I'd introduce you but he doesn't speak English, just some gibberish. No one even knows what his name is. He just turned up one day, next day he was gone, now here he is again - like the bad penny!"
Norman looked down at the scarab; he could not help smiling: it seemed to be smiling up at him. "But he seems like a good Joe to me," he said.
"Then by God we'll call him Joe!" Sam decided right there and then. "You're getting damn good at name calling my friend."
Norman could not take his eyes off the scarab; it fascinated him, in a sensual sort of way. Sam began to grow jealous of all this attention being paid the foreign bug.
"Hey Norm," he said, "did you know I used to manage a rock group called the Swedish Meatballs? Well, I did. we patterned ourselves after ABBA. It didn't work though, we broke up."
"Why?" asked Norman.
"ABBA has talent, we didn't," Sam was forced to admit. "Okay, can we drop the subject now?" he asked, a bit sarcastically.
"Sure," Norman readily agreed, turning once again to the scarab. A kind of purr arose from the creature, which further enchanted Norman.
"How come you never ask why I disguise myself as a pack of matches?" Sam asked. "By the way," he added, "do you mind if I get up on your knee?"
"God helps those who help themselves!" quipped Sam as he leaped onto Norman's knee. "Well," he said "aren't you the least bit curious?"
"About why I turn into a pack of matches!"
"Oh yeah, sure, why do you?" Norman asked in a monotone.
"Well," Sam explained with diminishing enthusiasm; Norman's indifference was not lost on him. "It's like this: most people don't go for spiders. They see one, they go into hysterics: 'Ooh, there's a spider! help! help!' and they start screaming and carrying on and if you don't get the hell out of there they'll squash a magazine on top of you and that's the end of Mr Spider! Not that you'd care. I don't know why I even bothered to tell you. See, I check people out first to see if they're likely to go bananas if I show myself. I could tell you wouldn't." Sam paused, hoping for some response from Norman; he got none. "For sure I'm not going to tell you what'll happen if you put your clothes in dryer 13," he then said.
"What'll happen?" asked Norman.
"You'll see," Sam replied, changing back all of a sudden into a pack of matches, which Norman gently set back onto the brown seat beside him. When he turned back to the scarab, it too had morphed, it was a penny again.
"Honey!" Yvonne called from across the room, "your washers have stopped! Better hurry - you don't want those nice pants to wrinkle!"
"You don't want the bitch to see your sex stains either!" Sam, still as a pack of matches, pointed out. The penny on the orange seat cooed at this. Norman excused himself and got up.
"How'd they do?" Yvonne asked. Norman feigned a peek at his pants.
"Very nicely," he said.
"Honey, these Blackstones'll clean the stains right off your teeth!" Yvonne was proud of her machines. As Norman removed his clothes from the washers, putting them into a laundry cart to take them over to the dryers, Yvonne mused over her work. "Whenever I see a washer or a dryer spinning 'round - well, now I don't see the spin cycle: you've got to keep the lid closed during that, I just mean spinning in general - every time I see them going 'round, I think of the Zodiac. I can just picture all those constellations, one by one, passing the ascendant, passing behind the sun and planets, causing all manner of catastrophe, and I think to myself 'What a Wonderful World!' Oh there are problems. Like me: I lost a daughter once. Went to Taco Bell for a Taco - love Tacos, money: now I'm not prejudiced for Mexicans, but I love their Tacos. I took little Oven with me. That's her name: Oven; I never liked, but it was my late husband's mother's name till she had it changed. She had it changed when I lost little Oven. She insisted I lost her on purpose because I never liked the name. Well, honey, names don't matter much to me. Oven was a little Pisces, God love her, wherever she is! In fact she had Pluto in the fourth house: which if you know about the stars means you might become homeless, or be in a flood or something. Anyway, I got my Taco, and a big Coke - love Coke, honey! - and I went on home to eat. Well it wasn't till after lunch it hit me: 'Where's little Oven?' I asked my mother-in-law. 'I wondered how long it'd take you to notice,' she said. Then she told me I hadn't brought her back from Taco Bell. 'Oh my heavens,' I cried, 'she'll be sent to Mexico as an illegal alien!' Honey, that's the last I ever saw of her. She'd be just about your age now. I've tried to learn to speak Mexican, honey, so if I ever run into her again we'll have something to talk about. Horno is Mexican for Oven, I learned that the first thing so I could call to her. Mother-in-law says 'You won't know her anyway'; but I will, I'll know her, a mother knows. A mother knows, honey."
Norman had his clothes out. Yvonne ceased talking: she loved to talk, but she had no wish to keep nice clothes from being dried, so she stopped. Norman excused himself and headed for dryer number 13. When she saw him stopping beside it, Yvonne called to him.
"Honey, be careful of 13, it's the most temperamental one here!" Yvonne cautioned. Norman thought he heard a sound like "Humpf!"
"I'll be careful," he said. Now that he was alone, he took a closer look at his navy blue trousers. Sure enough, the stains were still there. "Damn it!" he said, followed by "Shit!" The stains were still there. "Hell," he said, "I can't go see Jesus with stains on my pants!"
"Yes you can!" came a voice from somewhere beside him. He looked all around. At first he thought of Sam, but as this was a woman's voice, he did not really think it could have been Sam; besides, he could still see the pack of matches on the brown seat where he left them. Neither had Yvonne spoken: she was back at the washers cleaning the rims with a damp cloth.
Again the voice spoke, as if thinking it had not been heard the first time. "Yes you can, I said!"
"I don't know or care who you are - whether you're a bee or an ant or a cockroach - but damn it I can't and won't visit Jesus with...with...stains on my pants!" Norman could not bring himself to say what kind of stains they were.
"Once I called on the Supreme Ruler with blueberry on my shawl," the voice said, "and she was not offended in the least. In fact she applauded my lack of pretension. So don't let it worry you."
"What are you talking about 'Supreme Ruler'?" Norman asked, a bit sarcastically. "Are you a feminist, trying to say God's a 'She'?"
"I didn't say God, did I? I said 'Supreme Ruler' - there's a difference.
"Who are you?" asked Norman. "And where are you?"
"My name is Joanne, and I'm here, in dryer 13."
"Does Yvonne know about you?"
"Only Sam does, and maybe the scarab - but who can tell, the poor thing only speaks Arabic."
"I know Arabic when I hear it," Joanne, the voice in the dryer, insisted, "even if I can't translate it."
"How come they know you're here and Yvonne doesn't?" Norman asked.
"Because when we were brought here, they cast a spell over all the people which put them in a trance. Except they didn't realize Sam or the scarab were witnesses, Sam was a pack of matches then, the scarab a penny. But they saw, they would testify - except the poor scarab, who can only testify before Allah!"
"But who are you, why are you here?
"Listen, I suggest you get your clothes to drying first, or else Yvonne'll come snooping around and I'll have to stop talking - I don't want her to know I'm here, she's insulted me too many times, calling me temperamental.
Norman put half his clothes in number 12, half in number 14, put the proper coins in, and started the dryers going. Then he returned to stand beside number 13.
"Act casual," Joanne advised; "in fact, pretend you're reading so she won't think you're talking, if she overhears you: she'll just think you're reading out loud."
Norman took up his book. "Ah," said Joanne, "Demetrio Aguilera-Malta: excellent! I was in Ecuador not long ago. Seems like an eternity though."
Norman suddenly recalled something Joanne had said. "You said 'We'" he pointed out. "'We were brought here.'"
"Yes," Joanne admitted. "There are two of us here. Myself and Lisabeth. "We're both witches."
"What do you mean 'witches'?"
"Just witches - don't worry about it. The main thing is how we got here."
"How did you?" Norman asked.
"Reading aloud?" Yvonne called from across the room.
"Yes, I am," Norman called back. "I'm not making too much noise, am I?"
"No," Yvonne called. "You're like a Taurus honey: he'll read to his lady love in bed - before and after!"
"Ooh, I could strangle that woman sometimes!" declared Joanne. "Anyway," she went on, "to get back to my predicament, Lisabeth and I were locked inside these God-awful contraptions six months ago. I think it was six months. Maybe longer."
"How is she faring?" Norman asked.
"I've no idea, we don't speak."
"Please, first things first," Joanne insisted. "The Snowmen -"
"Snowmen," Joanne repeated. "I don't know if that's what they're really called, it's what I call them. They captured Lisabeth and myself last July. We were on our way to Colorado. We'd gotten advance word that the Christ was going to pay the ski bums a surprise visit. We wanted to have a word with him, so we set out. This is how far we got before we were captured. The Snowmen - or whoever they are - don't like Jesus."
"Who in hell wouldn't like Jesus?" Norman asked indignantly.
"Boy that's some good novel!" Yvonne called to him. "Great dialogue!" she declared. Norman agreed - what choice did he have?
"Well the Snowmen don't! And keep your voice down, or else old snoop sister'll be coming over to read the next chapter!"
"Okay, I'm sorry, I just can't imagine anyone not liking Jesus. I mean, I don't really - this'll sound dumb, I know, but I don't really like God, but I really like Jesus."
"What about the Holy Ghost?" Joanne asked.
"I can take him or leave him," Norman had to admit. "It's just, well, if you'd seen him - Jesus, I mean - like I did, on TV, oh Joanne you'd know what I mean!"
"Jesus Christ was on TV?"
"Then he's here already. The millenium. See, you don't learn anything in a place like this," Joanne complained. "The whole world can stop turning, and all I ever get around here is 'Leo this' and 'Scorpio that' and 'Taurus the other' - it's enough to make you scream! Anyway, the Snowmen had followed us from our cloister in Dunkirk. Oh we saw them, you can't miss them, they're about as obvious as a cheese Danish in a Bagel Shop. Everywhere we'd go, there they were: deep set eyes, sunken cheeks, no noses, big cavernous grinning mouths, pot bellies, little arms, carrying broomsticks, top hats on their heads: the whole Snowman bit. First outside the cloister, then at the train depot, then on the pier, on the boat, on the poop deck - trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. 'I say mates, where'd Frosty come from?' the captain asked his crew, but no one had the least idea, so he went up to them. 'Have a care, gents, you don't go near the boiler room!' he warned them. They thanked him. The purser said they left a tin box in his care, but that they were not on the passenger list. 'Last minute changes perhaps, mate,' the captain dismissed the implication that they may have been stowaways. They watched every move Lisabeth and I made. They even had the gall to challenge us to a round of shuffleboard! They intimated a 'Small Wager.' We witches do not gamble though and we let them know this in no uncertain terms. They just snorted and followed us. When we reached New York, and went through customs, there they were still behind us. 'Got anything to declare?' the Customs official asked them. They said no. 'Next!' - and that was it! Six full grown Snowmen on their way to kidnap Jesus - and that's how easily they got into your precious United States of America!"
Norman blushed for his nation. Joanne went on with her story. "Still they followed us: even to the lingerie department at Bloomingdale's! 'Can I show you gentlemen something in sleepwear?' the saleslady asked. They said they were gift shopping for their mistresses."
Just then something dawned on Norman which the embarrassment for his nation's security system had obscured. "Hey," he interrupted Joanne, "you said they were here to kidnap Jesus?" Joanne said yes. Norman grew more excited. "Jesus? Someone would kidnap Jesus?" Joanne said yes. "Holy cow!" Norman shouted, "we've got to stop them before it's too late!"
This outcry was too much for Yvonne, she could no longer resist interrupting her customer's reading. She dropped her work and hurried over to dryer 13.
"Now you've done it," whispered Joanne. "Here she comes! Get rid of her as soon as you can, and I'll finish my story!"
"Honey," said Yvonne as she drew near, "that must be Mike Hammer you're reading! I just love his books! I've read every one but the fourth! This must be the McDonald Caper - right?"
"No," Norman admitted, "it isn't. In fact it isn't Mike Hammer."
"He's damn good anyway!" Yvonne insisted. "Maybe it's Agnes Christie?" she hinted. But no, it wasn't. "Who the hell is it?"
Norman showed Yvonne the book, a Bard/Avon paperback edition depicting various characters of the novel on the front cover. "Hmm," she mused, "this must be a new mystery writer I haven't heard of yet. Got frogs, crocodiles, snakes, a monkey with a cigar, and a man posing as Christ. Hmm. Sounds boring."
"Sounds great to me!" Sam shouted out from his seat over against the wall, His hearing was exceptionally keen, as were all his senses. Yvonne simply ignored him - not for her sake but because she did not wish to encourage him to pester the customers. For her part, she could spend all day talking to him, except for the subject of Astrology, which for some reason she refused to discuss with a mere spider.
The book having proven, in her estimation, a dud, Yvonne returned to her work over by the washers. "Thank God, I thought she'd never leave!" said Joanne. "You've no idea how exasperating that woman is - and, as witches, we're trained in patience and just about every other virtue except humility. She's gotten me so flustered I've forgotten where I left off."
"You left off disparaging this great nation," Norman reminded her.
"Oh yes, that's right: Customs. Did I tell you about Bloomingdale's?"
"The sleepwear: yes, you did."
"That was the Snowmen who looked at sleepwear," Joanne reminded Norman. "Lisabeth and myself needed ladies' undergarments. Poor Lisabeth: she bought those skimpy little bikinis - and I could have told her they were three sizes too small! She couldn't even begin to get into them. See: she was a beauty in her youth, every once in a while she can't resist trying to recapture the past. Can you believe this: those Snowmen actually peeked in the window when she was trying on her bikini! How they got up to the seventeenth floor on the outside I've no idea."
"Levitation," Norman suggested.
Sam burst out laughing. "Levitation my ass!" he cried. "They used ropes I bet!" he then said before perceiving a dirty look from Yvonne aimed his way, which shut him right up.
"They followed us everywhere we went," Joanne continued her story. "We even cancelled our noon flight to Colorado. We decided to go Amtrak. This is all the farther we got: Vandalia, Illinois."
"You should have reported the Snowmen to the police," Norman pointed out.
"We did, but they have no jurisdiction over cold blooded mammals - all the Snowmen had to do was take their temperature and show the police the thermometer: 47 degrees Fahrenheit. That was that. We were told to contact the Bureau of Wildlife; they in turn referred us to the Fish and Game Department, who informed us that since Snowmen were neither protected nor endangered, nor required a license to hunt, it was out of their jurisdiction - unless they were creating a public nuisance in a national park, or game preserve or an offshore drilling site. Our hands were tied up in bureaucratic tape. Well, one day Lisabeth and I came into this very laundry to do our clothes. In the corner was Yvonne doing somebody's horoscope; and I'd say about six other customers were scattered throughout the place. Suddenly, everything stopped - I mean just stopped, in mid-air, so to speak. Yvonne was halfway through her natal lunar aspects - she had just begun to mention the Moon's sextile to Mars - when she stopped right in the middle of the word 'sextile.' Everything else too came to an utter standstill -"
"Not everything!" Sam was quick to point out. Another look from Yvonne kept him from saying more.
"True," Joanne agreed, "Sam and the Arab scarab were not affected by the Snowmen's spell. Everyone else was. Then before either poor Lisabeth or I knew what was happening, the six Snowmen had cast a spell over us and here like this we've been ever since!"
"They put you in a dryer?" Norman drew the obvious conclusion.
"They put us both in dryers -"
"Well, both," Norman had meant to infer.
"- And that's not even the half of it - literally, the half of it - and of us! Through some hideous infernal magic they somehow disjoined our torsos from our heads, the one going one place, the other another. My head in a dryer, my body in a washer - and I don't even know for sure which washer! And poor Lisabeth! They put her body in a dryer, her head in one of the washers!"
"Maybe she knows which washer your body's in!" Norman suggested.
"Perhaps she does: I know perfectly well which dryer her body's in: it's in number 11."
"Maybe you could ask her," Norman advised the witch. "She's just two dryers down."
"I could," Joanne admitted, "but I do have my pride: I do not choose to converse with a woman's rump! And to call to her poor head stuck in a washer way over there would only invite Yvonne to a never ending tete-a-tete with us! I already know more of Astrology than I care to. The first thing she'd do would be to construct a horary chart for the exact moment the spell was cast, after which she'd pester me to death finding out if I'm a Pisces! No thank you! I'll stay right where I am! Besides, it wouldn't get me out of here just knowing where my body is, any more than it would free poor Lisabeth from her prison. You see, before either of us can be released from the spell, certain very precise and definite things must be affected, different things in each of our cases. Lisabeth - owing, I suspect, to their having seen her struggling with her bikini at the Hilton - the poor dear - really has it much easier than I do. All she requires to become whole again is to have Our Lady of Guadeloupe wash her image off the peasant's cloak and then dry it - in the same washer and dryer she's in. Me though: I have to have Jesus' shroud washed and dried - washing the image completely off! An impossibility."
"Nothing's impossible!" Norman insisted.
"Bully for you stud!" cried Sam enthusiastically. The scarab purred and cooed.
"You don't understand," Joanne explained. "Even if I get Jesus' consent to have his shroud washed, there's still red tape involved. The shroud is locked away in a vault in Turin and only the Pope has the key!"
"What's this? You mean Jesus didn't have his own shroud?"
"No," said Joanne. "The Pope does!"
"The Pope? What the hell, man, the Pope's got his own shroud! Let him wear it!"
"If the Foo shits!" cried Sam.
"Oiy, such blasphemy!" cried Joanne.
"Hey, are you a Jewish witch?" Norman asked.
"No," replied Joanne, "I'm strictly non-denominational, but the owner of this Laundromat is such a nice Jewish man - and, well, you know how it is, you pick up the idiosyncrasies of those around you, the expressions rub off."
"I guess," Norman tentatively agreed.
"Believe it man!" advised Sam. "Why, I say 'oiy' half the time - and I ain't even been circumcised! At least, I don't think so." The scarab heaved a deep sigh. This time Sam received no dirty look from Yvonne, whose attention had for the past few minutes been riveted on a magazine she'd just found, one she has misplaced last week and feared some of her customers had made off with: the latest monthly edition of Horoscope Today, in which there was a rundown, sign by sign, of bizarre psychic experiences. She hoped possibly her long lost daughter's was among these: the loss of one's only child, she reasoned, had pronounced psychic overtones.
"I still don't see why it'd be harder for you to wash and dry Jesus' shroud than for Lisabeth to launder Mary's cloak," Norman persisted. "After all, the cloak's supposed to have miraculous properties - and when's the last time you ever heard of anybody being cured by the shroud of Turin? Hell, it's hidden away in a vault - you said so yourself! So what's the problem?"
"I'll tell you the problem," said Joanne, rather testily. "Jesus is a man, Mary's a woman - so no matter what the proven value of the garment, his gets preferential treatment! The people'll give up their miracles sooner than they'll do without their chauvinism!"
"Ah Joanne," Norman rebuked, "come down from your high horse! Lisabeth'll have just as much trouble as you - you wait and see!"
"Hey you guys: shut up over there, will you?" Sam cried out in a fit of passion. "Yvonne's about to say something. Give a listen; it's important.
No sooner had Sam spoken than Yvonne exclaimed "Oh my God!" and began reading aloud from her magazine.
"Young Piscean weathers storm in Tampico," she read. "Oh it's her, it's her - it's got to be! My Oven, my precious Oven!" she cried. She ran first to Sam. "Oh Sam, it's her - it must be, don't you think? 'Weathers storm,' Sam: what do you think of when you hear that if not of a foundling, carried off to an alien land, taught a strange tongue, raised by dirt poor farmers, growing up in the heart of an oil farm town on Mexico's Gulf Coast? Who else could it be Sam?"
"It's her alright," Sam concluded.
"Oh little scarab," Yvonne turned to the penny to give assurance, "we'll find her - don't you worry honey we'll find her!" The scarab, in a soft voice, mumbled something in Arabic then got all choked up and had to stop speaking. Finally, Yvonne made for Norman.
"I set out tomorrow for Tampico," she told him. "Look, you finish up your drying, I've got to go call my travel agent - I've had him on standby these twenty-odd years just waiting for some news like this. I won't be long though, I promise. I'll be right back!"
With this she left the Laundromat and headed for the telephone booth across the parking lot. Norman turned to dryer 13. "Joanne," he sad, "it's time you told her everything. You can't pass up a chance like this. Tampico's not all that far from Guadeloupe. This may be Lisabeth's only chance at Mary's cloak. Maybe we can talk her into taking Lisabeth with her. I realize it'll cost for the excess baggage, and there might be an import duty - but it's worth a try!"
"Well, I suppose I do owe it to her," Joanne agreed, if reluctantly. "Though God knows how I'll get to Colorado."
"Colorado?" Norman asked.
"To see Jesus," Joanne pointed out.
"You won't have to," Norman explained. "There's a life size portrait of him in New York, at the Met I think, or somewhere, and it talks to you, looks at you, smiles at you, bows to you, performs miracles, does everything the real Jesus can do! All you have to do is get to New York and you've got it made!"
"It might as well be China for all the good it'll do me," Joanne moaned. "How am I going to get there?"
"Well," Norman mused, a bit reluctantly, "maybe, I mean perhaps, well, maybe - perhaps - I could, ah, take you when I go."
"Oh I don't know," said Joanne, "that's asking too much of you."
"It is asking a lot," Norman readily agreed. "But what the hell!" he cried after a moment's reflection, "if I can't help a fellow traveler get to Jesus, chances are he'd refuse to see me anyway! So it's settled! By God, Joanne, it's you and me babe! We're going to New York to pay a call on Jesus H. Christ!"
"Alright!" screamed Sam, who knew in his hart Norman would come through, even if he did have a moment's doubt there toward the end. The scarab made a sound distinctly akin to applause. Joanne simply muttered under her breath "Whew, that was close."
In a moment Yvonne returned, a little dismayed. "The bum!" she said. "Best he could do was get me a flight out of New York Thursday. How I get to New York's my problem, he said; then he said it was a pleasure doing business with me! Maybe for him it was."
"Relax," said Sam, "Norman's got something to tell you I think you'll like."
"Norman? Who the hell's Norman?"
"Over there," said Sam.
"Oh him, I forgot." Yvonne went to dryer 13. "Sam tells me you've got a problem with your clothes," she said.
"What a bitch!" Sam muttered to himself.
"Not exactly," said Norman. "At least, not with my clothes. With the washers and dryers."
"Oh good God! Don't tell me they don't work!" Yvonne exclaimed. "Look, I'm going to visit my daughter Thursday for the weekend, but I promise, first thing Monday, I'll have a look at them."
"No, let me explain what it is," Norman interrupted. "There are two ladies - two witches to be exact - caught in your equipment." Yvonne began looking all around; she expected to see feet sticking out somewhere. She thought to herself: I just step out for a moment and all hell breaks loose! "Don't bother looking for them," Norman advised. "It's not what you think: nobody fell into the washers. It's like this: some - well - some Snowmen, it seems, cast a spell on two witches on their way to Colorado to see Jesus." Norman kept assuming Yvonne would interrupt him so he left a space after every few words; but she said nothing, although she did take note of how long it was taking to get his story told. "Anyway, to make a long story short, they were put into four of your machines, these witches."
Only now, when he was finished, did Yvonne have a question. "Wait a minute," she asked, "I thought you said there were two?"
"There were," Norman replied.
"Then why use four washers?"
"Oh my God!" cried Yvonne.
"The heads went one place, the bodies another," Norman explained.
"Have the police been notified?" Yvonne asked. She was stunned by this terrible news. "And I was only gone five minutes!" she despaired. "Poor Mr Fish, his reputation'll be ruined, he'll be driven out of business! They made such a stink when they found a few half dead roaches out back - imagine what they'll do over this! Well I'd better go to work cleaning up the mess before the police get here - show me where the bodies are."
"I'm afraid I still haven't made myself clear," Norman said. "No one has been killed. There's no blood, no mess to clean up. This was all done by magic. Sam can verify what I'm saying, he was here at the time and saw it all - for that matter so were you, but you and your customers were put in a trance so you wouldn't remember anything."
"Tuesday morning, eleven fifteen A.M., August 17th! That's right when it happened, I bet you dollars to donuts! Miss Elsie's wash was done before we could blink our eyes - and we'd just put it in! Her fine washables were wrinkled worse than her face when they came out! She swore she'd never set foot in this place again, and by God she hasn't either! And that was last August 17th."
"That's absolutely right," said Joanne, who had not meant to speak until spoken to, but could not resist complementing Yvonne's superb memory.
"Who said that?"
"I did, I'm -" Joanne began but was interrupted by Norman.
"Please," he insisted, "let me make the introductions. Yvonne, this is Joanne, one of the witches: she's here, in dryer 13, at least her head is, she doesn't know which washer her body's in just yet. And Joanne, this is Yvonne, you've probably seen her around here, she tends this place."
"Pleased to meet you," said Joanne.
"Same here," echoed Yvonne. "Say honey, what's your sign?"
"Cassiopeia," Joanne replied after a moment's reflection.
"I was born under the constellation Cassiopeia. Orion on the ascendant. Demos was culminating in Pegasus, Phobos descending onto Ursa Major. Any more questions?"
"No," said Yvonne with a sly grin, "I'll just be on my way." She started to leave.
"Well," Norman called to her, "there's one other thing."
"Yes, we - well - we need your help."
"I figured as much," said Yvonne, "or you wouldn't have brought these witches to my attention - not that I have anything against witches, mind you," she said this directly to dryer 13, "but it does seem a bit of a coincidence their revealing themselves to me just as I'm off to New York, doesn't it? Or is it Tampico they want to go?"
"Both," Norman admitted. "That is, Joanne here needs to go to New York, Lisabeth to Guadaloupe - which is on the way to Tampico. You practically go right past it!"
"Well, where's Elizabeth?" Yvonne asked.
"That's Lisabeth - there's no E," Joanne pointed out, "and I only know where her body is: it's in dryer 11. Where her head is or my body is - God only knows! Maybe if I call to her, she'll answer," Joanne suggested.
"Be my guest," Yvonne invited the one witch to summon the other.
"Lisabeth, oh Lisabeth!" Joanne called. At first there was no response, so she called again. "Lisabeth! It's me: Joanne!"
"Joanne?" came a cry from the area of the washers. "Is that really you?"
"Yes, it's really me."
"Really really you?"
"Yes, really really me."
"Really really with newt's eggs on it?"
"Yes, it's me, God damn it, can't you tell my voice when you hear it?"
"I thought it might be one of...them...you know...the abominable Snow -"
"Lisabeth," Joanne broke in, "they're not abominable Snowmen - just Snowmen!"
"Well Joanne, you have to admit what they did to us was pretty abominable!"
"Alright, alright, I admit it, you're right, as right as rain - rain with the eyes of a thousand newts in it: there, are you happy now?"
"Oh not very: I keep thinking about those bikinis and how badly they shrank -"
"Shrunk!" Norman corrected Lisabeth.
"Who's that?" cried Lisabeth. "Is that one of them? You said they were gone."
"No, I merely said I wasn't one of them, I didn't say they were gone. They're all around us!" Lisabeth gave a little scream. "I'm only kidding Lisabeth," said Joanne. "Don't you remember: they've gone to Colorado to kidnap Jesus!"
"Oh, so they have," Lisabeth recalled.
"Lisabeth," Joanne asked, "where are you? Which washer are you in?"
"Well, I'm two washers down from you."
"From my body, you mean - my head's over here, two dryers down from your body, in dryer 13."
"I'm in fifteen?"
"Oh. I'm in eleven here too," Lisabeth remarked. "Isn't that strange? And you're in thirteen. At least, I think it's 13 - it's to the left of me."
"It's 13," confirmed Yvonne.
"Was that Yvonne?" Lisabeth asked.
"Yes, I'm here too!" said Yvonne.
"Oh, I have just been dying to say this to you ever since I got here, Yvonne, but one thing and another always seems to interfere: Yvonne, guess my sign? You'll never guess, Yvonne - but guess!"
"Cassiopeia?" Yvonne spoke wryly.
"No that's Joanne's sign. Mine's Ursa Minor. Isn't it exciting, Yvonne? I have the North Star for my ruling planet! Destined to travel to the Arctic Circle - as far North as you can get!"
"I wouldn't hold my breath honey!" Yvonne cautioned.
"Ah," Lisabeth mused, "you would if you lived in here where I do!"
Norman was getting a little concerned that things were getting bogged down with small talk. "There's a lot to be done yet," he reminded the ladies. "We mustn't overlook the logistical problems."
"Such as?" Yvonne asked. She was not entirely certain what constituted logistical problems; but her late husband had been a supply sergeant for the Army, and she had a vague recollection of his having used the term in connection with his work.
"Such as, well," Norman hesitated to come right out and say it, "well...it's like this, Yvonne: Thursday, when you go to New York, how would you feel about taking along...well...two washers and two dryers...as traveling companions?"
"Any particular ones?" Yvonne asked, a bit dryly.
Here Joanne interrupted. "Oh, Yvonne, it's so much to ask, I know. Actually, Norman and I were already on our way. We both wanted to see Jesus at the Met. Now, however, there's a chance to take poor Lisabeth along too."
"Honey, I wouldn't think of leaving her!" Yvonne insisted.
"Oh bless you, Yvonne," said Lisabeth. "And just think," she added enthusiastically, we'll have so much fun trading Astrology stories! You've no idea the combinations you can come up with on -"
"That's enough Lisabeth!" Joanne interrupted. "Yvonne, there's one more thing - a very big favor we have to ask you: can Lisabeth accompany you to Tampico?"
"Oh I don't know about that. Why would she wish to?"
"Well," Norman began explaining before Joanne could say anything: he felt, this being a lot to ask, it would be better asked face to face. "Lisabeth must get to Guadeloupe."
"Is that near Tampico?" Yvonne asked.
"It's on the way," Norman assured her.
"Elizabeth," Yvonne called, "why do you need to get to Guadeloupe?"
"I've got to wash and dry the peasant's cloak," Lisabeth explained.
"Honey," Yvonne pointed out, "there are probably peasant's cloaks galore in Tampico - why stopover in Guadaloupe?"
Here Norman again cut in. As the male of this party, he could not shake the feeling that he should be the one making these arrangements, shouldering the responsibilities, and so forth.
"It's a special cloak," he said. "It's Our Lady of Guadeloupe's, and it has miraculous properties."
"If it's so miraculous, why can't it clean itself?" Yvonne asked.
"It's not so much to clean it per se as it is to break the spell that put Lisabeth into the washer and dryer in the first place," Norman explained.
"Oh," said Yvonne, only half convinced. "And this 'Our Lady': she's a peasant you say?"
"Why it's Mary," cried Lisabeth, "the Virgin Mary!"
"Her cloak?" exclaimed Yvonne. "You're going to wash and dry her cloak? I've never heard of anything like that!"
"Joanne," Norman deferred the floor to dryer 13, "you want to tell her the rest of it?"
"Yvonne, it's like this: while you and Lisabeth are in Guadeloupe laundering Mary's cloak, Norman and I'll be on our way to Italy, to Turin, to wash and dry Jesus' shroud! How's that for a parallel?"
"Oh, you wouldn't give a gram for that parallel!" shouted Sam with a laugh.
"Is that Sam?" cried Lisabeth. "Did I hear Sam?"
"Yes, ma'am," said San, "you sure did!"
"Sam, I've heard so much about you, I've been just dying to say hello!"
"Then say it!"
"Hello to you too!" Sam called back to Lisabeth. "By the way," he added, "where have you been hearing all this 'so much' about me from?"
"Why from everyone," Lisabeth said. "Yvonne in particular, of course - but in general everyone. People come over here, and they'll whisper to one another or to themselves: 'I could have sworn that pack of matches asked me 'How's the weather!'"
Sam burst out laughing. "God bless their crazy mixed up souls!" he exclaimed. "Hey Lisabeth, did you know I used to manage an indoor soccer team?"
"No, Sam, I didn't!"
"It's true! We called ourselves 'Just for Kicks': how do you like that? Some classy name, huh? We patterned ourselves after the Baltimore Blast. We broke up though."
"Why?" asked Lisabeth.
"We lost every game," Sam admitted. "Can we drop the subject please?"
"Hey, come on Sam," cried Norman, this time with real annoyance in his voice, "we've got too much to do here to waste time on tall tales! We've got to plan this thing out, damn it!"
"Tall tales!" Sam muttered to himself in a hurt voice. "Jesus what a stick in the mud!" He sighed. The scarab made little noises like it was perhaps crying. "Hey Joe," Sam whispered, "don't let it upset you kid: it doesn't bother me! Shit, I wish you could speak English, Joe: I bet you've got some kind of far out story to tell. But then, who doesn't, eh Joe? Norman's just feeling his oats, that's all; he's okay, really. I guess he doesn't get much of a chance to feel big and important - maybe this is the first time ever, maybe it's his one and only chance to be somebody. Who knows? Humans are strange creatures, Joe - take it from an expert: man is a weird dude kiddo!"
Yvonne immediately took up for Sam. "I know he's a pest, damn it," she said, "but look here, you've got no call to insult him. And you don't know they're 'tales' do you? They could be true. What, you think because he's only a spider he's never played soccer? He might have a great throwing arm for all anybody knows! He doesn't know the first thing about Astrology - granted; but sports is different, you don't have to have a great intellect to throw a ball or umpire a world series! You just need good eyesight. Anyway, we've already got all our plans made, haven't we? You and Joanne are going on a tour of Italy, Elizabeth and I are off to Guadeloupe to help the poor peasants do their laundry. What could be simpler?"
"Well," said Norman, a touch of sarcasm in his voice, "there may be one or two minor details still to be worked out - like how are we going to get two washers and two dryers out of here, how are we going to haul them first to New York then to Mexico and Italy respectively, how are we going to pay for it all: minor things like that!"
"I'm glad you mentioned that," said Yvonne, "I've got to call Mr Fish and let him know I'll be gone for the weekend. Then I'll ask him if I can borrow the machines till I get back." With this, she went out across the parking lot to the pay phone and called her employer.
"Mr Fish," she said into the receiver, "it's me. I've got to go South for a few days. I'd like to take dryers 11 and 13 and washers 11 and 13 with me - there's something caught inside. Washer and dryer 13 I might have to end up sending to Italy -"
"So far?" Mr Fish asked.
"They've got the part I need over there," Yvonne explained.
"What about having the part shipped here?"
"The Pope won't let it out!"
"Oiy!" cried Mr Fish. "Take it from me," he said, "when a church get too big, it's nothing but red tape from then on! What about the shipping fee?"
"Well," said Yvonne, "I'll try and charge it on my Monkey Ward's account, but I don't know if the airline'll honor it or not - even though Airline is, as you know, one of Ward's products!"
"Stereos and TVs," Mr Fish reminded Yvonne.
"I have one of each already. If I can't charge it to Ward's, though, I don't know what I'll do."
"If they've got to be fixed," Mr Fish resolved, "I'll pick up the tab. Have the airline call me. And the movers - you'll have to get North American or someone to move the machines to the airport - have them charge it to the store."
"Will do, Mr Fish. Bye now."
"Have a nice trip. And don't forget to lock up before you go."
"Everything's taken care of," Yvonne announced upon her return from the phone booth. "Movers are on the way. We're off to see the Lord!"
"Alright!" cried Sam.
Half an hour later, fifteen burly gentlemen arrived. They wore immaculate white uniforms complete with matching caps and gloves; their boots were an off-white, a brushed suede with crepe soles, something like Hush Puppies. They inclined their heads first to the lady then to the gentleman.
"Ah," said Yvonne, "the men from North American! That's fast service.
The leader of the movers spoke; all the others remained still. "That's Norse American," he corrected Yvonne.
"It's pronounced North," Norman pointed out. His father had been an associate professor of linguistics at a state university till he made an impromptu remark impugning the good name of both Noah Webster and Ludwig Wittgenstein, after which he had to be dismissed; from then on, till his retirement two years ago, Mr Zellor worked a pneumatic drill for the state highway administration - all of which prompted Norman to correct the head mover's pronunciation.
"No sir," the gentleman stood firm. "We are not affiliated in any way with North American Van Lines. We represent the Norse American Transport Company of Grand Teton, Wyoming. We are Teutonic, sir. If you'll look outside, you'll see our logo on the side of our truck. Do you see it?"
"Yes, I do," said Norman. "It looks like Thor."
"It is," the lead mover confirmed Norman's assertion. "Generally we only move opera companies - sets, costumes, lighting, and so forth. Were this not the off season, we would not be available for other jobs. Now, if you'll show us what needs to be moved, we'll proceed."
"Honey, you won't need fifteen men for the job we've got," Yvonne pointed out.
"We at Norse American do not wish our movers to strain themselves," the lead mover explained coolly.
"No danger of that," said Yvonne. "Norman," she said, "why don't you show these men what needs to be done. And I'll go turn the water and gas off. You seem better acquainted with the machines!" This was not easy for her to admit, but it was clear that, at least where washer and dryer 11 and 13 were concerned, Norman was the one to supervise the job. She was rather pleased it was the slow part of the day, otherwise there would be a steady stream of questions: "Oh, what's the matter?" "Are they broken?" "You going to replace them?" "Going to be hard finding a dryer till you get these two fixed, won't it?" - and a host of other questions from her customers. As it stood, Norman was her only customer right now, and he knew what was going on.
The head mover went to the row of seats against the wall to have a seat while his men worked. "Gentlemen," he issued a warning, "if you feel yourselves getting tired, by all means sit down awhile and rest." As he sat down, he said "Ah! That feels good!" A moment later a voice - it was Sam's - caught his attention.
"Sprechen sie Deutsch, mein herr?"
"Ja, mein herr!" the head mover replied, then looked around to see who had spoken.
"I could have sworn I heard," he muttered to himself, letting his thought end in mid-sentence. He shrugged. "I should have brought a book," he mused. "Careful!" he called to one of his men who appeared about to strain himself trying to extricate the two washers from those on either side. The man stepped aside and took a few deep breaths.
"If you don't watch 'em like a hawk, they'll overdo, won't they?" Sam asked.
"Indeed they will!" replied the head mover, this time without looking around: not having seen anyone previously, he concluded this tete-a-tete to be an interior monologue.
A moment passed, then Sam made a suggestion. "If you like Mike Hammer," he advised, "there's a book by him over near dryer 13. Oh wait a minute," he corrected himself, "it's not Mike Hammer, it's somebody from Ecuador."
"No Goethe, no thanks!" the head mover replied. "By the way," he added, "who are you - and where are you?"
"Three seats over," Sam told him. "See the pack of matches? Watch!" Sam changed into his real form. "Voila!" he said. "How's that?"
"A bit theatrical," the head mover said, "otherwise good."
"If you think that's good, watch this!" Same crawled to the edge of his chair, slid down the leg, climbed back up - just as he had earlier done for Norman; and, as before, he was a little out of breath. "Well?" he prompted. "Pretty damn good, eh?"
The lead mover ventured no assessment of Sam's feat. His attention had been diverted from Sam to one of his men. "Werner," he called, "take care you don't strain yourself!" Werner, who had taken one side of washer 11 - despite his associates warning to let a second man help him lift that side - had no choice now but to relinquish half his task to another; together, Werner, his partner and the other two movers lifted the washer.
"They'll work themselves to death if you don't watch them," the head mover explained.
"I know what you mean," Sam agreed. A moment passed. "Incidentally," Sam said, "I used to manage a SWAT commando team. We patterned ourselves after the Green Berets. We once rescued the mayor's kitten from a tree. We had to disband though."
"The mayor had put the kitten there to watch for mice - mice were getting into his attic. We didn't know. We lost our credibility - not to mention our subsidy. Do you mind if we change the subject now?"
The head mover said nothing. Another moment passed, during which he had been watching Norman directing his movers; he felt they were being worked too hard and was about to call for a rest break. "That man," he pointed, "he's a bit pushy, wouldn't you say?"
"Him?" Sam asked. "He has no class," Sam informed the head mover. "This bug here would tell you the same thing if he could speak English."
The head mover turned to see the penny in the chair to the right of him change to a scarab. "Sprechen sie Deutsch?" he asked.
"He doesn't speak German either," Sam explained. "Only Arabic. But Norman there: he's done me some dirt alright."
"Maligned my reputation," Sam whispered. "All but accused me of devil worship for starters." Sam was preparing to rattle off a whole list of offenses which Norman had committed against him when the lead mover arose and walked away.
"Same to you buddy!" Sam muttered as he changed back into a pack of matches. The scarab sighed and once more became a penny.
The last piece of machinery was being lifted onto the moving van. When everything was done, the head mover brought out fifteen disposable thermometers, which he passed around to his men, instructing them to take their temperatures. Satisfied that they were all normal, he helped them into the back of the van then got into the cab and drove off.
"Well," Yvonne said to Norman, "you better collect your clothes up and let's us be on our way to New York, honey! We don't want to leave those witches stranded in the big city. I'll just gather up Sam and his buddy, lock up. and we'll be off!" She put the match pack and the penny in the pocket of her smock while Norman collected his clothes and his book, then together they left. Neither had a car so they were forced to hitch a ride to the bus terminal, stopping along the way at each's house to get money, a change of clothes, and a few items of personal grooming.
"Hello, police: I want to report an armed robbery!" a voice spoke into the pay phone across the parking lot from Fish's Laundromat. Miss Elsie, the customer whose fine washables were ruined by the Snowmen's spell and who subsequently refused ever to set foot inside the place again, had happened to be shopping in the sewing shop next door to the Laundromat when the movers arrived. Peeking from the store window, she saw Norman and Yvonne supervising the loading of washers and dryers 11 and 13 onto the van. As soon as she felt it was safe, she headed for the phone.
"Yvonne - that's the caretaker - Yvonne's run off with her paramour to open her own laundry!" Miss Elsie informed the police detective. She then gave a description of the thieves. "Be careful," she warned, "they're dangerous." "Dangerous?" the detective asked. "If you'd seen what they did to my fine washables you wouldn't ask!" Miss Elsie said ominously.
Mary packed her things. Neatly, into her suitcase, first she put her mementos: plastic Jesus, which she had been given by a boy who had come to Lourdes to be cured; a dried sprig of some plant indigenous to this part of France (she could never remember its name); a blue ceramic ashtray, the kind the vendors sold, which she had found one afternoon floating in the spring; a wooden mallet some little girl had carved for her; a place mat with her picture on it (in the 1920's she had thought about selling her own souvenirs but gave up the idea when one of the vendors from town threatened to throw himself into the spring); an Afghan someone had left at the grotto when cured, and a tiny silver spoon whose handle was carved from a coffee bean (this was from Guadeloupe, which she visited from time to time in the last century). Then came her clothes: underwear, a petticoat, a slip, a blue duster, a purple moo-moo, a garland of flowers for her hair, a nightgown, a skirt, three blouses, one good black dress made of a blend of wool and Dacron, a pair of navy blue polyester slacks, and a cream colored shawl with burgundy threading. She hummed a tune she had heard from the soundtrack of the rock opera "Evita" - "Another Suitcase, Another Hall" - as she packed her things.
"I'll go to New York first," she had decided, "and spend some time with my son - and please, dear God, don't let him get me anything else!; then I'll maybe head down to Guadeloupe. Then...who knows? I guess it'll all depend how long Jesus remains. When he goes I'll maybe make an appearance before some little girl or some peasant somewhere and maybe get another shrine started. It'll have to be in a warm climate though; maybe the Philippines: I met the most charming boy from there - my, if all his people are like that, it's worth a visit, dictatorship or not! Oh God I'll miss this place though. Maybe if I'd been a little better at curing people the word would have spread farther, more people would have come, chances would have been better that some would have stayed. I miss Grandma Julianne most of all. Oh my, the fun we'd have, the long afternoons talking, knitting, trading gossip. I must have apologized a thousand times for not being able to cure her. At least, I assume she was never cured. 'Mary,' she'd say, 'don't worry about it: take it from a grandmother, the less you can get around the more time you have to relax! I see my grandchildren's other grandmothers and how they're run around in circles all day and I thank God for my wheelchair! Well, sometimes anyway.' What a jewel! So many others are so disheartened when nothing happens; they travel all the way here just to go home the same way they came; they're so bitter. Some even accuse me of being a fraud. I don't cure anyone; I'm just an instrument. I've grown used to this little town. I'll miss it."
She dialed the travel bureau to reserve a space on the next flight to New York. While the travel agent checked his bookings, Mary hummed a tune she had picked up somewhere: "My Little Town," a song by an American composer, Paul Simon.
"Yes? You do? And when does it leave?" she asked.
"Twelve noon," the agent advised. "And your name?"
"Last name please?"
"I have none," Mary said.
"Ah!" exclaimed the travel agent. "Then you are the Mary! Of course - from Lourdes - I should have known! Let me assure you, blessed mother, you will not be sorry for having chosen us to fly with. Why just last month our ambassador to the United Nations booked a flight on our jumbo jet to New York; he was most pleased with the service. Of course he flew first class. Shall I put you down for the same?"
"I rather thought I'd give your tourist class a try," said Mary.
The travel agent cleared his throat. "The caviar in tourist," he informed the blessed mother, "is actually roe! The Chateau Lafitte a '75 - very bad year for that vintner! Your holiness, I cannot urge you too strongly to take first class. Besides which, you get a movie: we're having a Truffant festival all month long!"
"Actually," Mary admitted, "it's a matter of finances. I find myself a little short on cash just now. Our budget here at Lourdes, you may have read in Le Monde, has been cut sharply by Rome since Jesus appeared in the States. They want to concentrate where the market is - who can blame them? they've got a business to run! Our funds, of course, are directly linked to our annual body count: we're down to nobody this year. Not a single visitor in over a month. The Cardinal in charge of expenditures says we'll have to tighten our belts awhile. Well it's been a bad year for the Church, I can sympathize: they've got to cut somewhere. Anyway, to make a long story short, I'll have to settle for tourist. And when I get to New York I may have to get a job - but we'll see, things might pick up by then. Thank you so much for your trouble."
"Ah, your holiness: the trouble was all mine, I assure you!"
Mary's finger twitched reaching to turn the light switch off. Her eyes watered. "Lourdes," she whispered. "My home away from home. I'll miss you. I'll miss my little velvet couch against the grotto." She thought of it, of the many afternoons - sometimes well into the evening - spent receiving visitors, knitting Afghans, exchanging tales of growing boys and of last minute all night journeys to get where you wanted to be to have your child: she thought of it, and the thought brought tears to her eyes.
"Mary Mary quite contrary," she recited, "how does your garden grow?" She could never remember the rest of it - except for the parody some elderly gentleman had jokingly told her: "With silver bells and cockle shells - but not one damn flower!" It made her smile. She wiped her eyes, switched her little apartment over to darkness, and left. "Another suitcase, another hall," still on her mind.
"Should I look back?" she wondered. "Sometimes terrible things happen when you do. Worse than turning to salt is not saying farewell one last time." With this, she turned; and, as she did, she beheld her lovely grotto dissolving into a canvas of salt which from then on stood like a muted tapestry against the majestic Pyrenees. The natural spring she had coaxed from the rock trickled to a slow stop. Her healing powers here, whatever they were, had come to an end. Her little velvet couch, smooth and purple like the subtle fabric God creates orchids with, stood apart from the grotto-tapestry. Ah, she realized: man made, it must remain to disintegrate with time; it cannot magically cease. God will send moths to disassemble my couch. All in all, I am glad I turned to watch. Without people, laughter, of course tears, gossip and off-color stories, without rugs and Afghans to knit, children to wipe dry, meals to serve, without the hustle of their coming, the quiet after they're gone, without their little arguments, battles, making peace, mending their wounds - without life, as my lord God knows only too well, no place on this earth is holy or worth preserving. Salt it was before there was life...salt let it be again.
"Thy will be done," Mary whispered, suitcase in hand, as she walked away from the little French town she had called home for more than a hundred years. To her eyes were shown balls of time and space, one to the left, one to the right; between them she passed, God had made the universe a corridor for this most extraordinary lady to traverse. Orion and Cassiopeia shone over her shoulder, Pegasus and the Crab behind her, her fingers scraped Piscean scales, her skirts a breeze encouraged to draw near the Twins, while her loose brown hair ascended gently to gather silver from the great moons of Saturn and Jupiter. And when her jet took off, the skies flashed a sudden green light then grew dim. The mother of Christ was on her way to New York to visit her son.
"Jesus was sighted again!" the nightly news reported. "This time, it ended in tragedy for a little boy in the Bronx. We have details from Amos Andee of Station TOKEN." The anchorman gave way to a newsreel showing reporter Andee standing beside a busy intersection of the Bronx, microphone in hand.
"It was here," he said, indicating to his left. "Witnesses claim to have seen Jesus approaching this intersection at 2:30 P.M. - just as school was letting out. Nearby is PS I-LUV-U - a new school, newly named, its name now tragically ironic. Momentarily Jesus disappeared, just as a nine or ten year old boy wearing a red ski cap and a plaid CPO shirt and jeans was approaching the intersection. Witnesses say the boy's face looked transfixed, as if - and this is a direct quote - 'he was looking into God's eyes,' endquote. 'Looking into God's eyes.'"
Here the camera switched from the reporter to a police lady, who said "And not watching where he was going!"
"What happened then?" Andee asked.
"The flow of traffic here at this hour is quite often intense. As you know, here in the Bronx employees like to periodically surprise their workers by giving them the afternoon off. For some untimely reason, they all chose this same afternoon to give their employees off - usually chance dictates a staggering of these little surprises, but today every employer in the Bronx at the very same moment let their people go. It's as if a higher power dictated it."
"Let me note here that this 'higher power' was not - repeat: was not - Washington DC," reporter Andee interjected.
The camera now switched to three people, all claiming to be eye-witnesses to the tragedy. The first was a middle-aged housewife who had been on her way home from the grocery store at the time.
"He simply darted into the street, right in the path of a delivery van - a black and yellow Crazy Ernie Discount Data Systems truck. I know their trucks, my husband bought me a terminal last Christmas from Crazy Ernie so I could monitor the traffic at LaGuardia. My hobby is collecting model airplanes."
"What happened then?"
"The terminal broke down. Crazy Ernie said he's never had one do that before -"
"No, I mean at the intersection," Andee explained.
"Well I seen the truck so naturally I assumed he was on his way to our place to repair the terminal. I had my eyes on the truck the whole time when suddenly this boy in his CPO ski jacket jumps right in front of it!"
"Did the truck slam on its brakes?"
"I don't think it had time. I'm not sure the driver even saw the boy. He just kept right on going. It may have been Crazy Ernie himself in the truck."
"Then what happened?"
"Well I hurried on home so someone would be there to let the repairman in! But he never showed."
"And the boy?" Andee asked.
"Well, I don't think he got up," the housewife replied.
Traffic came and went all the while these interviews were going on. The place where the accident happened was at first cordoned off with flares, but only till the coroner came and ordered the boy removed; then the traffic resumed its normal flow. No news clips showed the boy directly: this was not permitted; however, shots from a distance did manage to reveal his basic contour, and the bloodied black and tan of his CPO and his bright red ski cap and his blue jeans, splattered with blood and road debris, and his dingy white Addis sneakers, which escaped being stained. The coroner's men carried the boy with a sheet; viewers of the nightly news saw it happen. Many were moved by the little Bronx tragedy; a discriminating few maintained that the audience was being milked, the sequence was too long, they should have cut just before the body was draped over, it would have been more effective; and a few - a very few - even said the whole thing was staged, the boy was a bit player from a local theater, the coroner a TV actor.
The camera now switched to a young man in his early twenties, a lanky youth with what appeared to be bleached blonde hair. He wore a denim cap and a denim jacket, but corduroy jeans, gray, and tan boots.
"I saw Jesus first," the young man said. "I knew him from the snapshot on TV. Jesus has this really peaceful look, you know? You can't mistake him. I...I don't always live up to the good book. But I care." The young man was a street hustler. Sometimes he would pick pockets; once he had snatched a lady's purse, but she chased him and he dropped it: the incident made the papers, though he was never specifically identified or apprehended; mostly, though, he hustled for sex, with whomever he could, for however much he could get.
"Then I lost sight of Jesus," the young man said. "And all of a sudden, just as he disappeared, this kid - the one that got run over - he appears like from nowhere. I saw him running right for the truck - a big black and orange delivery truck, I think a milk truck, yeah I'm sure a milk truck: it had a big cow's head painted on the side. I just had time to look at the kid's face. "I look at people's faces, I read their faces, I know faces, I know what they say. This - I swear, as God is my witness: this was Jesus' face! The same face I'd seen on TV; the same face I'd seen coming from the opposite direction a moment ago. Jesus' face. On the kid's shoulders. I ain't crazy mister, I really ain't."
A quick cut of the camera showed the ambulance speeding away. The boy was pronounced dead at the scene, of multiple internal injuries and a sustained trauma to the head. Nevertheless, he would be autopsied to determine exactly which organs were injured, which was the fatal injury, and so on: this was the least the borough could do for him. On his face, just below the left eye, was a wound where the headlight had struck, had shattered upon impact, had gouged his flesh on a jagged piece of glass. From this wound blood had covered his entire face.
The third eye witness had his turn before the camera of station TOKEN. Amos Andee stuck a microphone in front of a derelict's mouth.
"Testing two, testing two," the man said, then he pulled the microphone out of Andee's hand. "I can manage," he said. He looked up, as if a sky writer were transcribing his story onto overhanging cue cards. "Yeah," he said, "I seen him. Jesus H Christ. Per se. No sir, wouldn't no moss grow under his feet. He skidattled like - what you call it? - old Doc Seuss's Grinch was high tailing him. I would have gone asking him could he spare a dime or a quarter, sir, but Jesus don't wait up on any man. I'd have gotten me coffee; I wouldn't have gotten anything more than that with any money Jesus gave me. Then I turned and there was this boy - not ten years old yet - slam banging into a big electric blue and vermilion red truck. First I thought it was an ambulance. But an ambulance wouldn't be the one to run over someone - it'd be the one to scrape 'em up afterward, don't you see. More I think about it I think it was a bookmobile from the library. Yes sir, that's what it was: a bookmobile. Not the kind you make bets with either - the kind you read. Yes sir, I seen me Jesus today. And tonight...I'll go out and get me a pint of rot gut just like I always do. Life goes on mister, Jesus or no Jesus."
"This is Amos Andee reporting from the Bronx."
The report was long, extremely long for an evening newscast, and was carried in its entirety - this, owing to the almost phenomenal interest in Jesus Christ since his first appearance in Colorado. At its conclusion, four whole commercials were shown - without interruption - before the anchorman was allowed to present more news to his audience. For the next two nights - the first item was on Wednesday's telecast - but buried increasingly nearer the tail end of the broadcast were updated reports on the incident. The results of the autopsy were revealed: liver and kidney failure, extensive hemorrhaging of the brain, and the chest wall completely crushed. All attempts to locate the truck which hit the boy proved futile: by all accounts - and literally by some accounts - the truck had simply vanished into thin air.
Friday's broadcast ended with an eyewitness, a member of some obscure religious sect, describing how the truck disappeared before her very eyes.
"Right into the sunset," the girl said. Immediately, the pundits dubbed this vehicle "Phantom 309," after a recording by Red Sovine - a trucking song - about an eighteen wheeler which exists only in the abstract and only one day a year.
This was reported as a footnote to the Bronx tragedy and was the last news report concerning the event. It was not reported, not even in the newspapers, that the boy was never identified, that no one came to claim the body, nor that on the third day the body mysteriously vanished from the morgue. Everyone there assumed someone else had removed it - either to one of the awaiting classes at one of the medical schools to be used by the students or to potters field for burial or else for some yet more bizarre purpose. No one bothered checking; no one made a fuss over the disappearance. The daily routine was barely rippled.
It had not been easy finding a Laundromat willing to lease floor space for two washers and two dryers. The machines had to be put in storage at Norse America's big Long Island warehouse while Norman and Yvonne scoured New York in search of a place willing to take them. Time was of course of the essence if Yvonne was to make her flight to Mexico. Luckily a little Laundromat in mid-town Manhattan agreed to rent some space, but only enough to accommodate one washer and dryer.
"It won't be a problem," Yvonne assured Norman. "Since I'll be taking Elizabeth with me, we'll just leave her in the warehouse another half day."
"I don't like it," Norman expressed his reservations. "The ladies should stay together."
"Honey, me and my daughter should have stayed together too, but fate had other plans for us! Take the space, put Joan there, I'll collect Elizabeth up before I leave."
Reluctantly, Norman agreed. He called the warehouse. "This is Norman R. Zellor," he said. "I'm calling in reference to the two washers and two dryers you have stored there. I'd like one delivered to the following address: Clean-Your-Rama, 42nd Street, Manhattan. This is important: I want the washer and dryer marked with an X delivered; the ones marked with a Y are to remain. Do you have that?"
"I'll check," came the reply. "We had some Snowmen come around awhile ago asking about these machines. They were most upset when I refused to let them take the machines - they said they were your agents -"
"They are not!" Norman emphatically said.
"I didn't think so," was the reply, "so I said no. Ah were they angry! It's a wonder they didn't melt. I wouldn't put it past them sneaking in and making off with your machines anyway. So the sooner you get them out of here the better!"
"That does it," said Norman. "Send all four machines."
"You heard me: all four!"
"Yes sir!" came the reply.
Within an hour the big Norse American van pulled up in front of Clean-Your-Rama. The Laundromat was owned by a man from India who spoke very little English.
"What are you going to tell him?" Yvonne asked.
"I'll think of something," Norman replied. As it turned out it was unnecessary to explain anything.
"Ah!" the owner exclaimed when he saw four machines being unloaded. "It is a miracle! From only two comes four: the god Vishnu manifests his will." The owner immediately made a place for the duplicate washer and dryer and, when all four were installed, hung cowbells from the ceiling directly overhead.
"Your receptionist tells me there were some Snowmen inquiring about these machines," Norman mentioned to the head mover.
"Ya!" was the reply. "Six of them. Very cultured gentlemen. They performed the aria from Carmen - not our favorite opera, but they did it well. 'Do you know any Wagner?' I asked them. They looked at one another. 'We can do the Pilgrim's Song from Tannhauser,' they said. 'Proceed,' I invited. That was when they tried to strike their unholy bargain. 'We need four washers and dryers as props,' they said, 'the washers pale green, the dryers pale yellow. 'Whoever staged Tannhauser that way?' I asked. 'John Waters,' they said, after puzzling for a reply. 'Gentlemen, there is no such impresario," I informed them. 'Please leave these premises immediately!' That was that. John Waters indeed!"
"One last thing before you go," Norman started to ask.
"Oh we're not leaving till my men take at least a full fifteen minute break," the head mover informed Norman. "They will sit - and sit still - until their bodies have recovered from the trauma of lifting heavy industrial machinery. And do not allow them any liquids before their stomachs have settled. Just an added precaution: we received a last minute call to appear as extras in an opera company's summer stock. I won't have my men appearing before the public in an exhausted condition. Otto!" he called. "Round the men up, I want them all seated and their eyes closed till I give the word!" Once the men were seated, the head mover turned back to Norman. "What was it you started to ask?"
"I'm going to need two of these machines - one washer and one dryer - moved out of her first thing tomorrow morning. Can you help us out?"
"I'm afraid not," said the head mover. "Our performance lasts till ten-fifty. My men require at least eight hours sleep. It will be past midnight by the time we return from the cast party. Moving anything much before noon tomorrow is out of the question!"
When fifteen minutes were up, the head mover signaled Otto to rouse the men. Then they left. Norman apprised Yvonne of the problem.
"Getting someone on such short notice won't be easy," he told her.
"Take a taxi!" came a voice from inside Yvonne's pocket. The suggestion was Sam's.
"Sam," explained Norman, "no cabbie in New York is going to load a washer and dryer into his cab."
"Won't hurt to ask!" Sam persisted.
"We'll see," said Yvonne.
"Don't look now," Joanne all of a sudden whispered, "but we're being watched from outside. Please, neither of you turn around: don't let on in any way you know they're there. Just act natural."
"Who's out there?" asked Norman.
"The Snowmen," Joanne whispered. "And whatever you do," she cautioned, "don't let Lisabeth know they're there!"
Outside, looking in the window, yet striving to appear inconspicuous so as not to draw undue attention to themselves or to be perceived as spying, the Snowmen had taken up a kind of vigil. Through keen eyes, which from the outside looked more like empty sockets, they watched every movement within, confident of not having been noticed. They were of medium height, quite rotund, they held stubby arms almost straight out, they achieved locomotion upon a rather flat protuberant base, and they each puffed on a corn cob pipe filled with a rich blend of tobacco and opium: the opium, they maintained, was for their sinuses: it certainly beat a Vick's Inhaler, which they would have had trouble gripping anyway. Each wore a top hat, each had a cravat at his throat and a belt at his waist, and each wore woolen mittens. Occasionally, a passer-by would stop to stare or would look over his shoulder either to verify that he had indeed seen six Snowmen loitering outside the Clean-Your-Rama or else to determine if there were more on the way. Only one person actually spoke: "Got a light?" the person asked, then laughed and walked on.
"These New Yorkers are a bit too friendly for my taste!" one of the six Snowmen remarked.
"Quite," the other five agreed.
"That man - the one they call Norman: I'd keep a close watch on him. He may lead us to Jesus," one of the Snowmen instructed.
"Or," postulated another, "he may even be Jesus. He's got a take-charge manner - he might very well be Jesus."
"We'll just have to wait and see," maintained a third.
"Wonder if Joanne's alerted him to us?" asked a fourth.
"No," said the fifth, "these humans could never resist turning to see who it is spying on them. They'd be sure to give themselves away in no time at all."
"Don't underestimate them," cautioned the sixth Snowman, "they're a clever, deceptive lot. And if they don't turn around soon I'll begin to suspect Joanne has tipped them to us: the law of averages dictates one of them chance to pursue this direction. Save for a Buddhist monk no one faces the same direction very long at one time. Each human thinks of himself as a world unto himself, a complete universe; and as such he instinctively, I would even say compulsively, rotates his entire person, however subtlely, at least one complete revolution every several minutes. Over-identification with the forces of nature: one of the traits of their species. Mark my words."
Just as the sixth Snowman's words were being marked, Yvonne, almost as if she had overheard him, turned and looked straight at the Snowmen. This action put a kink in their strategy. Yvonne was cool about it; she let them know she saw them, yet gave them no reason to suspect anything. She acted as if they were typical New Yorkers, neither more nor less. She then turned away and went about her business. The Indian, however, who had gone out for some curried rice and was just returning, found their presence annoying.
"If you've nothing to wash or dry," he informed them, "I'll have to ask you gentlemen to move along or I shall be forced to report you to New York's finest as loiterers or vagrants, whichever carries a stiffer sentence. And may Krishna go with you."
"We had our clothes stolen," one of the Snowman informed the Indian. "When we locate them, we'll be back to have them dry cleaned. Do you do dry cleaning?"
"We have machines you can do it yourself in," they were informed.
We do not do laundry!" the Indian was in turn informed.
"Then you'll have to go elsewhere," said the Indian.
The Snowmen drew a little aside for a consultation then, stepping back to the Indian, informed him they would make an exception this time. "We like your location," they pointed out then shuffled along. The Indian went to his tiny office behind the dryers to eat his rice.
"I'll mind the store for you, honey," Yvonne told him. Awhile later an old woman came in to do her laundry; with her was a little boy. He had on a brown, yellow and blue striped knit shirt, the pullover kind, with long sleeves; and he had on brown corduroy pants. The woman wore a white blouse, long sleeved, a pair of navy blue slacks, and a white ski cap which was only a shade or two lighter than her hair.
"Come on!" she cried as the little boy seemed to lag behind. She carried a laundry basket full of clothes. "Come on I said!" she again called. The boy speeded up. "Now stay here while I put the clothes in the washer!" She turned to unload her clothes. When she glanced around, the boy was heading over to the dryers. "I said stay here!" she called to him. Obediently he returned. She put her detergent in, then reached inside her purse for the proper change.
"Oh poh!" she cried. From her purse she had withdrawn coins of a foreign mint, which were useless in these American machines.
"What's wrong grandma?" the boy asked.
"I'll have to get change," she said. "Now you stay here - stay here I said!" Luckily she had a dollar bill. When she returned with the change the little boy asked to put it in the machine.
"Alright," she said, lifting him up. As he started to reach with the coins, one slipped from his hand and fell into the machine.
"All gone," he said, pointing to where it fell.
"Oh for heaven sakes!" cried his grandmother. First she took the other two coins from the boy's hand - "Here let me hold them," she said - "Let go of them, I said!" Next she reached down to get the coin which had dropped. Luckily it had landed on a piece of clothing. She almost had it when it suddenly fell to the bottom.
"Ah!" she cried and reached down as far as she could. After a moment's struggle, she managed to retrieve the coin. In lifting up, however, and unknown to her, she knocked her grandson from where he was sitting, backward into the other washer, where she also had clothes.
"Where did he go now?" she wondered, looking around. "Tony!" she called. "Tony? Where are you?" The boy was too amazed at finding himself among the clothes at the bottom of the washer to respond. "Oh where are you?" the grandmother persisted. "Let me just get these started and I'll go look for you!" With this, she closed the lids of the two washers, put the coins into the slots, set the water temperature to medium, the cycle to permanent press, and pushed the coins into the hoppers to get the machines started, calling "Tony!" as she walked away.
"Psst! Norman!" Joanne whispered. Luckily Norman was standing near enough to permit a whisper. He drew near.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Do you see that old woman?" Joanne asked.
"Senior citizen, you mean," Norman corrected her.
"Yes. Do you know who she is?"
"No, I've never seen her before. She doesn't look like anybody famous. She doesn't have that, you know, that air about her of being a celebrity. Who is she?"
"She's the Blessed Mother - the Virgin Mary!" Joanne announced.
"What!" exclaimed Norman.
"Shh! She'll hear you!" Joanne cautioned.
"Tony? Where are you?" the old woman kept calling.
"Who's she calling?" asked Norman.
"The little boy with her," said Joanne. Just then the woman approached Norman.
"Pardon me," she asked, "have you seen my grandson?"
"What! Your grandson?" exclaimed Norman. "You don't have a grandson!"
"I do now, and he's about to drive me wild?" the woman replied. Just then a cry of "Help!" came from the area of her washers.
"That's him! Tony?" she called. "Where are you?"
"In here!" came the frantic reply. "Help me I'm drowning!"
"Oh my God!" cried the woman. "He's climbed into one of the washers. She and Norman ran to where the washers were. "How will we ever find which one he's in?" the woman asked.
"Only these two are on," Norman pointed out. He opened both, and there, in washer 13, neck deep in soapy water, was the boy, reaching up for help. Norman pulled him out. The woman took him and held him to her.
"Tony," she scolded after comforting him, "you've got to be more careful where you play!" Turning to Norman, she thanked him for saving her grandson.
"It was nothing," he said. "By the way, my name is Norman - Norman R Zellor. And of course this here is Tony. And you're?" he prompted.
"Mary," the woman introduced herself.
"Mary?" Norman prompted for a last name, gesturing with his hand.
"Just Mary," she said. "No family name. Just Mary."
"Oh," he murmured. For a moment he stood, debating whether or not to address the information Joanne had given him; he decided not to and started walking away.
"Oh go ahead: ask her!" came a sudden voice from where Yvonne was standing, trying to read a map she held against the wall: a map of Mexico. "If you don't I will!" the voice - Sam's voice - threatened.
This boldened Norman. He again approached. "Forgive my bluntness," he said, "but there's something I'd like to ask you if I may: are you the Mary - the mother of Christ?"
"Why yes," Mary replied, "how on earth did you know?"
"I'm embarrassed to say."
"Don't be embarrassed," Mary encouraged.
"A witch told me."
"A witch? Here? in this Laundromat? in New York?" Norman nodded yes. "Is that her?" Mary indicated Yvonne. Sam burst out laughing.
"Hear that Yvonne?" he asked. "The mother of Jesus thinks you're a witch!"
Yvonne was so absorbed in studying her map that she only half listened. "That's nice," she replied. Meanwhile Norman assured Mary that Yvonne was not a witch, but that the witch was in one of the dryers.
"Actually," he explained "in one of the washers too. Well, actually, there are two witches, each in a washer and a dryer. Lisabeth and Joanne."
"So four machines are involved all tolled?" Mary sought clarification.
"And was it witchcraft that put my Tony in there?" Mary asked, but before Norman could reply Lisabeth, who had been listening attentively, spoke up.
"No Mary, it wasn't, believe me, neither Joanne nor myself would ever hurt anyone - especially a child!" she insisted.
"But you did nothing to stop him from climbing in, nor did you warn me - he might have drowned!" Mary said, a bit indignantly.
"Mary, he was right in here with me - I assure you he was in no danger of drowning. Why, I was letting out water almost as fast as it came in: the machine would never have filled, it would never have started. But to be honest with you, Mary, I was about to say something when you found him."
Tony, who had been struggling all this time to get down, now that he was no longer frightened, began whining "Down! Tony get down! Tony down!"
"Is he saying 'Tony down' or 'Tony Dow'?" Sam asked. "You know," he added as explanation, "Tony Dow used to be on Leave It To Beaver. By the way, Mary," he noted "did you know I used to manage a team of singing monks? We called ourselves the Dominicats. We patterned ourselves after the Vienna Boy's Choir."
"How did you do?" Mary asked, not at all sure whom she was addressing.
"Not so well on the high notes," Sam admitted. "If it's all the same to you, Mary, let's just let the subject rest."
Norman shook his head wearily. "Please pardon him," he apologized, "that's...that's Sam."
"Who's Sam?" Mary asked.
"He's...well...he's a kind of a...daemon...so to speak."
"Did you call me a daemon or a demon?" Sam asked.
"A daemon," Norman replied.
"Hmm, pretty classy, Norm, pretty classy of you!" Sam complimented his sometime nemesis.
"He's also a spider," Norman explained. "And also a pack of matches."
"A spider?" Mary asked. "You mean like Charlotte's Web?"
"Yuk!" cried Sam. "I knew it - I just knew someone was going to bring that up - I just knew it - it was just a matter of time! I just knew it! Well let me tell you, Mary, and you, Norman, and you, Yvonne, and Lisabeth and Joanne and anyone else I ever meet: I don't want to ever be compared with Charlotte - end of discussion, period, amen, Ita Missa Est, whatever it takes! Is that clear? Because I don't especially care for that dizzy broad no matter how classy she was. Besides, why did E. B. White have to go and kill her off? Except for Arachne the only good press we ever got, so what happens? what do they do? They go and kill her while a dip-shit pig in a poke that can't expend two good farts in his own behalf goes on living when he should have become a mess of chitlings long ago! Pardon my language Mary, but that's the way I feel about it. So don't mention Charlotte again, please!"
"He's touchy about some things, honey!" Yvonne, who had been vaguely listening to Sam's tirade, told Mary. "He about tore my head off the first time I mentioned 'The Spider and the Fly!' Right Sam?"
"Don't start me on that!" Sam warned.
Norman called to Yvonne. "I'd like you to meet someone," he said.
"Just a minute," Yvonne said, folding her map. She then came over and was introduced.
"Pleased to meet you honey," she said, then asked Mary if she knew anything about Highway 70 leading to Tampico.
"Oh I'm as good as illiterate where maps are concerned!" Mary confessed.
"I'm not so hot myself honey," Yvonne admitted, "but I've got to map a course from Guadeloupe to Tampico."
"Guadeloupe? I know of that place," Mary said. "I have a shrine there."
"Are you a nun or something?" Yvonne asked, a bit confused. Norman took this opportunity to point out who, in fact, Mary was: she was the Mary, mother of Christ.
Yvonne seemed absolutely delighted. "Well honey," she exclaimed, "who would have thought it! Us on our way to wash your clothes - and what happens? You bring them to us! Elizabeth: isn't this some coincidence?"
"Yes," Lisabeth agreed. She did not wish to say too much though, having started off on a somewhat bad foot with Mary.
"What's this about doing my washing?" Mary asked.
"Well," Norman tried to explain, "it's like this: and we don't actually mean your everyday wash. Lisabeth here: a spell was put on her and can only be broken if she washes and dries...well...your cloak - or no, not your cloak, but the peasant's cloak, the one in Guadeloupe which has your image on it. She has to wash it."
"Relax," said Mary, "it's under glass: it doesn't need washing."
"But you see, whether it needs it or not, that's what Lisabeth has to do to be released from the spell," Norman said.
"Is that right Lisabeth?"
"I'm afraid so, Mary."
"In fact," Yvonne added, "we're on our way there tomorrow. See, I've got to go to Tampico for the weekend anyway to visit my daughter, so I thought I'd take Elizabeth along and she can wash the peasant's clothes till her heart's content - Mary, they have so many peasants down there it'll be an all day job, for sure! And I don't have to tell you - with a growing boy to care for - how monotonous doing laundry can be! In fact, honey, we could always use an extra hand once we get there. So if you'd care to join us - now you'd have to pay your own way, unless maybe I could get Mr Fish to charge it -"
"Oh no, Yvonne," Mary protested, "I wouldn't think of asking someone else to pay my way! Besides I've got a little money saved up. I took tourist class over here: you miss out on a few extras, but all in all it's not bad. Much cheaper too. The truth is, Yvonne, you've just about tempted me. Yes you have. Oh heavens, I haven't seen Guadeloupe in - what: it's been at least a hundred years! I hear they've completely re-done it. I hear also the people don't come there much anymore. Who knows, maybe a personal visit might just draw them back again. It's a very pretty spot, Yvonne. And Lisabeth: you'll like it too - and, tell you what, just to show there's no hard feelings for your almost drowning my little Tony, I'll see to it you get that cloak to wash and dry or my name's not Mary!"
"Alright!" cried Sam.
Just then a woman came into the Laundromat. She was rather tall, somewhat matronly, yet casual, and quite attractively dressed in gold lamé slacks with contrasting black velour top. She held a long silver cigarette holder, taking an occasional puff. Her glasses were tinted pink, the frame sequined. Her hair was a bleached blonde. From a distance she appeared to be in her middle forties; as she drew closer, carrying a fox fur cape she had come here to dry clean, her age seemed progressively to ascend, until, standing right next to Yvonne, whom she took for the attendant, and Mary, she was revealed to be at least seventy. Something made Mary stare at her, some special gleam in her rich green eyes reminiscent of the old days back at Lourdes. Mary smiled, the woman smiled back, and in her smile too were myriad memories of the lovely lost grotto. It took Mary a moment more to realize what it was about this woman which invited the past to recommence: she knew her. Mary knew her.
"Julianne!" Mary cried. "Grandma Julianne!" The woman looked surprised, but made no move to contradict the name ascribed to her. "It's me: Mary!"
"Mary?" the woman repeated. "Mary...from Lourdes? The Mary? The mother of Christ? We'd sit together of an afternoon knitting? That Mary?"
"Well, I barely recognize you!" the woman said. "Your hair: it's styled differently or something? You've aged in this New York air a bit, haven't you?"
"Somewhat, I think," Mary admitted. "And you look...different...too...in some ways, Grandma."
"Please Mary: I'd prefer you didn't call me that name," said Julianne. "You see, since my cure - by the way, you son is a very nice boy, and he's got your eyes, Mary, and perhaps a little bit your nose, but most certainly your eyes - since he cured me -"
"Oh," Mary interrupted, "I see."
"Yes - oh but please don't be offended. It's just that since then I've had to try and adapt to...to being able to walk. I'd forgotten how people behave when they can get around on their own. My children say I've overdone a bit - maybe they're right; but, I've lost my wheelchair - it's gone forever. I can't be the same person any longer. I was content; we had some wonderful times, Mary. But now I must change. I must learn to be content in a different way. I'm feeling my way as I go - playing it by ear. One thing I do know: I do not wish to be referred to as Grandma Julianne. Just...Julianne. Alright?"
"Of course," said Mary. "It'll take some getting used to. But I'll do as you ask - for old times sake!"
"Thank you Mary. And take it from a street walker, Mary: high heels are going to be the death of womankind yet!"
The two old friends shared a good laugh over that: Mary too had tried high heels and had nearly stumbled crossing the street; from then on - her first day in New York - she went strictly casual. She bought a pair of hush puppies. The two ladies gravitated away from the others toward the seats against the wall, where they held a tete-a-tete, not so much about old times as about their experiences since arriving in America.
"Most hectic place on earth!" Mary decided.
"Well Mary, I don't know," Julianne expressed her reservations. "Take it from someone who's part Hispanic: there's no place on this earth quite like Mexico City! I'm from there, you know, lived most of my early life there, till I got sick and couldn't get around. That's of course when I came to Lourdes - by the way, Mary, how is the old place?"
"Julianne, you wouldn't recognize it," said Mary in a sad voice. Everyone's gone."
"Oh good heavens!" Mary exclaimed. "I'd completely forgotten him! Oh dear: a caretaker with nothing left to care for. How sad. You see, Julianne, it's all turned to salt now. Oh dear heavens: maybe Spry along with it!"
"Don't worry Mary: he's probably happier that way! We always said he might just as well have been changed to a pillar of salt as to have lost his 'powers,' as he called it!"
"Oh Julianne!" said Mary, almost blushing. "Tony!" she called suddenly. "Pardon me Julianne, I've got to keep after that boy every minute. Tony!" she called again. "You pull your pants back up like a good boy!"
"Gotta pee-pee!" the boy cried.
"Oh dear, is there a restroom I wonder?" Mary asked.
"Don't worry," said Norman, who had overheard, "there's one in back. I'll take him."
"Thank you," said Mary, turning back to Julianne. "These grandchildren: they'll be the death of us yet!"
"Of themselves too Mary if we're not careful!" Julianne exclaimed in a sudden passion. "Mary, take it from a lady who's been scared out of ten years' growth: there is peril everywhere for the little ones! On every street corner. Just the other day Mary - oh my God I was scared half out of my wits! That's when I took up smoking, to calm my nerves. I was walking my ten year old grandson - you remember Petrie, you met him? - well, we were out walking in uptown Manhattan. We came to an intersection. Well Mary, you know how the little boxes on every street corner say 'Walk' and 'Don't walk.' This one was out of sync, I suppose that's what it was. The light was green for the traffic in front of us, but he saw that 'Walk' sign lit up and cried out 'Last one across is a rotten tortilla!' He pulled free of my hand and took right off! Well, Mary, I thought my poor heart would stop. Right there, headed right for him, was this big truck, some kind of delivery van I think, a big green and pink truck. I can't even recall what it was carrying, all I know is it came barreling down on my little Petrie, I knew - I just knew, Mary - it was going to squash him flat as a taco shell! Mary, I couldn't even cry out. All I could manage was some little squeaking 'Help! Help!' which I'm sure not even the woman behind me heard - what could she have done anyway? Mary, we just do not use our heads when we panic, that's all there is to it! Well, Mary, what happened next you are simply not going to believe. If it were anyone else I'd think they were making it up, but as God is my witness, Mary, that truck ran right over him but somehow missed him! I saw it hit him, Mary. I saw it keep right on going. I saw him standing there in back of it - untouched! Mary, he was not hurt, not one hair on that boy's head was harmed in the least! I do not know, I have no idea, Mary, how on this God's green earth he escaped, not only being killed but any sort of injury whatsoever! Mary, it could only have been one thing - just between you and me, and I think you of all people know what I'm referring to: it was a miracle, Mary, that's all it could have been. A miracle. And listen Mary, listen to this: when I got my senses back and I ran out in the street and grabbed the boy and and dragged him back to the curb, Mary - he was not shaken: he was not scared, he was not shaken in the least! When I finally could get myself to speaking again and asked him what happened, he looked up at me - oh Mary, he had such a look on his little face, you wouldn't believe! - he said to me 'Grandma, Jesus took me by the hand and whispered not to be scared. And I wasn't. I was one brave little Chicano!' Isn't that something, Mary? Your son saved my grandson. He cured me, then he saved my little Petrie. The oddest thing though Mary, and I just this minute thought of it: his cap was gone. It must have fallen off. Isn't that strange?"
There was a moment's silence. Sam, who, though still across the room inside Yvonne's pocket, had heard and been greatly moved by Julianne's story, cried out "Jesus Saves!"
Mary, ignoring the somewhat tasteless remark, took her old friend's hand and patted it. "Julianne," she said softly, "my son has not forgotten all the pleasant moments your company gave me. He's a good boy."
"Indeed he is, Mary," Julianne agreed. "The first thing I do when I arrive in Mexico City - I leave tomorrow, if I can get my things ready in time, I'm still shaking over this thing, miracle or not, it's all I can do to fold a slip my hands tremble so - the first thing I do, Mary, when I arrive is go to the great cathedral and light a candle in his honor!"
"Oh that's so sweet of you, Julianne," said Mary. Then an idea came to her. "Julianne," she suggested, "this works out so well, your going to Mexico City: I'm on my way to Guadeloupe - and I leave tomorrow too! I'm accompanying two lovely ladies - that is, I assume Lisabeth is lovely, I've never actually seen her. Anyway, they're headed for Tampico to deliver laundry to Yvonne's daughter or some such thing, I've already forgotten just what it is they're going there for. Well, to make a long story short, Julianne: how about let's get a flight together? We could get off at Mexico City, then take a bus to Guadeloupe, then they could get the train to Tampico - I assume they have train service nowadays. What do you say? Wouldn't it be fun? And maybe we could visit some of the Aztec ruins while we're there."
"Are you allowed to visit pagan ruins?" Julianne asked.
"I came to New York, didn't I?" quipped Mary.
"Oh Mary!" Julianne laughed.
Yvonne had decided on a proper course to Tampico. She put her map away. "Look out below!" she warned Sam and the scarab as the map dropped into her pocket.
"Hmm," Sam mused, "what have we got here? Some reading material?"
Yvonne made for the back room, where the owner had his office. She asked if she could borrow his newspaper. "Just the section with the daily horoscope in it," she said. "I want to see what tomorrow brings."
"Ah," said the owner, "then it's the weather report you're after!"
"Honey, I don't care what the weather is," Yvonne said, "I want to see what the stars have in store for me."
"These predictions: they are of no consequence," the owner pointed out. "Your system in the West is all misaligned besides. Our Hindus better understand the stars as but the haze of the dream."
"There's where we differ," Yvonne explained. "In our Christian Astrology we have telescopes. The stars are clear as floodlights under a Christmas tree."
"So too are they who walk with feet upright," the Hindu remarked.
"Honey," said Yvonne, "you must be talking about Aries! They're the acrobats of the Zodiac. You go to bed with an Aries, honey, and before the night's out you'll be snoring at the foot of the bed with your toes resting on your pillow! Now of course you might end up that way with a Sagittarius too - only with him it'll more likely be a prank he's playing on you, turning you upside down after you've already gone to sleep, than simply twisting and turning making love! Not that Sagittarius can't execute some pretty damn good moves when he feels like it! But he does like his pranks! But then so does Capricorn - when he's not being dead serious that is! He's the kind who'll play like he's having a heart attack just at the crucial moment. Fools you every time! Got a real dry sense of humor, Capricorn does. I take it your Hindu Astrology's pretty much the same in the essentials as our Christian Astrology - right?"
"The interstices differ very greatly," the Hindu pointed out. He was not entirely pleased with Yvonne's implication that her Astrology was in some way superior to his. "When all the planets align in Capricorn, the world will end and a new world age will begin."
"Now there's another point we differ on," Yvonne told him. "In our interstice it'll be Aquarius, not Capricorn, that ushers in a whole new age." Yvonne had abstracted the word 'interstice' from the context she presumed it to have been used in, and simply placed it within a similar context, not realizing that the Hindu had joined two distinct ideas into one line of speech. It did not bother him, however, that she used the term incorrectly; in fact, he liked her placement of it - he almost considered it an improvement over the original.
As they conversed, he had been perusing the newspaper for the daily horoscope. Finding it, he handed Yvonne the section it was in. She thanked him and read. "Ah!" she exclaimed. "Just as I thought. Listen to this: 'A good day for conducting business. Something forgotten may reappear. A short journey is indicated.' If that doesn't describe my predicament to a tee, I don't know what does!"
"Ah," remarked the Hindu, "but that is for today - and is it not tomorrow you leave for Mexico?"
"They take that into account when they write these," Yvonne explained.
"But tell me," the Hindu persisted, "are you not going for pleasure, not business? And is your daughter truly forgotten? And is Tampico but a short journey from here?"
"You're looking at it too literally," Yvonne cautioned the Hindu. "The fact that I'm taking a washer and dryer with me, considering I work in a Laundromat, makes what would otherwise be a vacation a business trip. And my daughter was forgotten - that's how she got to Mexico in the first place: I forgot I left her at Taco Bell. And as to distance, well, honey, when you consider how many light years Carl Sagan on 'Cosmos' says it is to the big bang, I certainly don't consider Tampico very far away! I'm like Einstein, honey: the impossible just takes a little longer to reach, that's all. Well, thanks for the paper, honey. I'd better go back out in case those Snowmen come back. After what they did to Joan and Elizabeth, honey, not to mention Miss Elsie's clothes, I don't want those guys sneaking about out there without me knowing it!"
"I do not want them dripping on the floor if they come in," the Hindu advised. "They may do their dry cleaning, but they must leave when they're finished."
There they were again: outside, looking in the window, as before. Yvonne could not help seeing them, coming from in back. She waved at them. Perhaps, she thought afterward, it was careless of her; but then she had seen them standing outside earlier, so it was really no more than just greeting old customers. She could only hope they would take it that way.
"Why did she do that?" Joanne asked Norman, who happened to be standing there watching while Tony played with some toy automobiles which he called "Wheelies."
"God only knows!" sad Norman in exasperation. "Why does she do half the things she does?"
"They'll know now that we recognize them," Joanne complained.
"Maybe that's to our advantage," Norman suggested. "Who knows: maybe they'd be more responsible if they thought their actions were being monitored. By the way, Joanne: where are they from?"
"Can't you tell?"
"Well, no. I mean...I'd say, if I were pressed to fix a local, they were from, maybe the North or South Pole. Are they?" Norman asked.
"The North," Joanne informed him.
"Who sent them?"
"Ha! Try asking them sometime!"
"What do you mean?" Norman asked.
"I happened to overhear them - alright? Someone asked them point blank 'Who sent you guys?' You know what they said? They said 'Santa Claus!'"
"What?" cried Norman and Tony simultaneously, only where Norman's eyes were narrowed with skepticism, Tony's were wide in wonder. The boy jumped up from his playing and ran to his grandmother.
"Oh Grandma, Grandma!" he exclaimed, pointing to the window. "Look! There's Santa Claus!" The presence of six Snowmen had not escaped his attention; in fact, he was planning to go speak to them as soon as he got bored with his Wheelies. In the back of his mind also was the wish to appear contented with the toys he had so that when he asked the Snowmen for some more - everyone, as far as he was concerned, was a potential toy supplier - he would not be accused of not playing with the toys he had; he knew adults well enough to know they would never give new toys if they thought the old ones were not being used. Now that he had learned who the Snowmen actually were, however, he wished he had not wasted precious time on his Wheelies when Santa Claus was one person - if perhaps the only one - who could care less if you played with what you had: he couldn't refuse you, no matter what, not face to face, except at Christmas time - and only then if you were bad.
"Santa Claus?" asked Mary.
"Yes," Tony insisted, "Santa Claus - the lady's voice said it was Santa Claus!"
"Lady's voice?" asked Julianne.
"The lady's voice in the dryer!" said Tony.
"Is this place bugged?" Julianne asked Mary.
"No, off course not," Mary assured her friend. "I'll explain it all to you on the plane."
The Snowmen, embarrassingly aware of having become the object of the little boy's attention, debated among themselves whether to leave or to simply stop awhile and put everyone under a spell. Not wanting to jeopardize their mission, however, and reasonably certain that neither of the witches knew they were here, they decided against any drastic action. "The witches will lead us to the Christ," they reasoned, departing now from their original plan, which was to find Jesus on their own. Actually, it was not so much the witches as it was the man accompanying them - Norman R Zellor - whom they expected to lead them to Jesus. In point of fact, one or two among them had begun to entertain suspicions that this man might even be Jesus; the rest reserved judgment on this.
"The boy seems to think we're Santa Claus," one Snowman said.
"Where would he get such an idea?" asked another. Here, had it not been for their reluctance to admit their blunder in telling everyone Santa Claus had sent them, they might well have put two and two together and realized that only through the witches could Tony have learned who they represented. Since they did not wish to seem in their own eyes to be poor agents, however, they feigned puzzlement, to a Snowman, over the boy's association of them with Santa Claus.
"Here he comes!"
"What'll we do?"
Tony, without first asking permission, had run to the door and was outside before Mary could so much as call to him.
"Santa Claus!" he cried. "It's me: Tony! That's my new Grandma inside there! And that's her friend Julianne, a street walker! And that's -" Tony was about to name the "lady's voice in the dryer" when his real purpose could no longer wait out the amenities. In mid-sentence he came out with "Do you have toys for me?"
The Snowmen looked at one another; they were puzzled. In each one's mind was the question "Why would we have toys?" Never mind that they had practically insisted to everyone they met along the way that they were toy whole sellers: at the moment they could not begin to imagine why anybody should think they had toys in their possession.
"Toys?" they began asking aloud. "We: have toys? No," they feigned innocence, "we have no toys. Perhaps...others...do...not we though. We are -" they thought a moment. "Lingerie salesmen," the most quick-witted among them came up with. "Yes," they then all joined in, "Lingerie salesmen. We sell -" they each took turns listing something they sold.
"And ladies' things."
"And name brands."
"And - and - and necklaces!" the most slow-witted of them came up with. The others looked sidewise at him.
"I don't wear necklaces," said a dejected Tony.
"Sorry," they said.
"That lady said you were Santa Claus," Tony muttered.
Thinking the boy meant Julianne, they informed him that "Anyone dressed like that is hardly to be believed!"
"Wow!" said Tony. "You guys can see her? To me she's invisible."
"We always did have rather keen senses," the Snowmen readily congratulated themselves rather than taking the boy's remark as a clue to the actual sequence of events leading to this confrontation. The boy went back inside, the Snowmen none the wiser.
"Well?" asked Mary.
"They don't have toys, only necklaces," Tony informed her.
"Hmm," mused Julianne, "I could go with a nice necklace." Looking in her bag, however, she found only enough money to cover her trip to Mexico City. "Wonder if they give credit?"
"It wouldn't hurt to ask," Mary suggested.
"I think I will. " Julianne got up and went out. "Do you gentlemen give credit?" she inquired.
After a puzzled moment the Snowmen replied "Where it is due."
"Are you suggesting I owe you money?" asked an indignant Julianne.
"We're not paid to suggest," they advised their potential customer.
"Only to kidnap!" the slow-witted one blurted out. Again he received a very pointed sidewise glance.
This reference to kidnapping alarmed Julianne, who was concerned that these Snowmen might take her for visiting royalty and demand ransom for her release: this, because on her way here someone had called to her "Hey princess, what's up?" It was apparent to her from this casual remark that she could easily pass for royalty. Her apprehension grew as the Snowmen began looking her over.
"Why would she be invisible to the boy?" they all wondered.
Assuming a different motivation for their staring at her, however, Julianne hurried back inside. "Dreadful rogues," she informed Mary, "perfectly dreadful. Take it from a beauty, Mary, you can be glad you're as plain as you are!" Mary thanked her for her concern.
"Young man," she resumed scolding Tony, "you are not to run outside again - is that clear?" Tony nodded. "Now go play with your Wheelies."
Returning to his toy automobiles, Tony looked up at dryer 13 and stuck out his tongue. "They're not Santa Claus," he then informed the mysterious lady's voice.
"They must know we're on to them by now," Norman despaired.
"No," Joanne disagreed, "I don't think so. Otherwise they would have already cast a spell over all of you."
"Just how strong are their powers?" Norman asked.
"Are they...evil?" Norman asked. The question rather embarrassed him: he could see it as a prelude to an even more absurd inquiry, one he genuinely hoped he would resist making - but one he knew he was just half a word from.
"Not really," replied Joanne.
"Good." But the reply did not entirely satisfy him. He felt he had to come right out and ask. "Being they're here to kidnap Jesus, are they working for, were they sent by, the...well, you know...the devil?" He thought of the book he had been reading, "Seven Serpents and Seven Moons," and he muttered "The One We Know."
"Oh Norman," Joanne chided, "you've been reading too many religious tracts! They're not the devil's men -"
"Snowmen," Norman corrected.
"Snowmen," Joanne corrected herself. "They're just..." She let her voice trail off.
"But if you don't know where they're from or who sent them, how do you know they're not from the devil?"
"I told you, Norman: they're from the North Pole."
"From Santa Claus - right?"
"That's what they say."
"Come on Joanne: why would Santa Claus want to kidnap Jesus?"
"I don't know. They both have the same birthday. Maybe he wants to pool resources." This was all speculation, and both Joanne and Norman knew it.
"Okay," he finally said, "you don't want to level with me. That's your prerogative. I'm not going to let it interfere with what we have to do, I just want you to know that. I'm mad, but I'll still take you with me to see Jesus, and then on to Turin. A promise is a promise, no matter what. I care about Jesus, and I know he wouldn't want me to break a promise. Just the same I'm pissed, Joanne! I don't see why you can't tell me."
"Perhaps in time," was all Joanne would say.
"Yeah, sure. That's what Brunette said too."
"The girl I was dating. I kept asking her if she thought she could ever learn to love me. 'Perhaps in Time,' she said. She didn't sound too convincing; she didn't even try to. I guess it's just not in the cards for me."
"Well," Joanne suggested, hoping to take Norman's mind off these gloomy thoughts, "you could maybe get Yvonne to do a Tarot reading for you - I'm sure she knows how. If not, I could teach her. That's if she even has any Tarot cards!"
"She does!" came Sam's voice from deep inside Yvonne's pocket.
"Does what?" asked Yvonne.
"Have Tarot cards," Sam replied.
"Who wants them?"
"Norman wants to do a reading about his long lost love."
"That right Norman?" Yvonne asked.
"I guess," he said.
Presently the cards were being shuffled. Yvonne had gotten them out of her handbag, where she also kept a Table of Aspects and a pocket calculator for working out Numerological matters. "We'll do the Tree of Life," she decided. "You think of your question and leave the rest to me. I'm going to use the King of Cups to represent you, because you're so romantically inclined. Okay, I'm going to lay the cards out now. First one - and I use the Eden Gray distribution of cards, not the Arthur Edward Waite: the third, fourth and fifth cards seem to work better for me that way. First card: this covers you!" Yvonne explained as she slipped it on top of Norman's significator, the King of Cups. "Ah," she said, "The Hermit - upright! This is the atmosphere around you. Possibly a journey. Or a guide. Divine inspiration."
"Well," asked Norman, "what does that have to do with my love life?"
"Probably more than seems apparent at the moment," said Yvonne. "Let's go to the next one - it represents the forces opposing you. This crosses you!" she exclaimed as she set it down crosswise on top of the two previous cards. "Eight of Swords, upright. Hmm, some kind of bondage. You don't know which way you're going. Could tie in with the journey."
"But we're not asking about a journey," Norman pointed out. "Besides, I know which way I'm going: to Italy."
"Well, that's true," Yvonne had to agree. "Let's see what's next." She drew the third card from the top of the deck and threw it down. "This is beneath you!" she said. "It's the foundation of the whole matter. Ace of Cups, upright. Well, there you are, Norman: it all begins to fall into place. The Ace of Cups means love, joy, fertility. It also means nourishment from spiritual sources - which doesn't really apply here. Love does though! So let's keep this going while we're on a roll!"
Yvonne quickly drew the fourth card and slapped it down to the left of the little pile where the first two cards were stacked onto the King of Cups. "This is behind you!" "It's an influence passing away. The Knight of Pentacles, upside down. Hmm, let's see, what does that men. Some I forget a little; I usually give my readings at home, where I have all my Eden Gray books for reference. I have a lot of the meanings committed somewhere to memory. Let's see; give me a minute, it'll come to me - unless you want to go on to the next card, then we can come back to this. Oh wait: the Knight of Pentacles reversed has to do with inertia, careless habits. Hmm, could be I didn't shuffle these good enough. Or maybe I didn't cut them with my left hand - did you notice which hand I used?"
"I run into the same problem!" Sam quipped.
"You used your left hand to cut the deck," Joanne advised.
"I'm pretty sure you did," Norman agreed.
"Tony," Sam asked, "what about you?"
Tony looked up from his playing. "I use my pee pee!" he said with a rich laugh.
"A little Scorpio!" Yvonne could not resist speculating. "Honey," she went on to explain, mostly to Norman, "I've heard of them using their...you know what...to open beer bottles! So I imagine they could cut quite a few cards with them too!"
"Yvonne," Joanne endeavored to return to the Tarot reading, "how does that last card fit into your reading?"
"Well, we mustn't forget the love stains on Norman's trousers - they're what precipitated this whole adventure. He wanted to get Jesus to recommend a good stain remover - which is precisely why we're all here! The fact that the stains show up behind Norman instead of on the crotch of his experience, so to speak, indicates he won't find his stain remover but he might find something even better. Let's look at the next card. This crowns you!" she said as she placed the fifth card above the stack of three. "This represents something which may happen. You've got the Two of Swords, upright. Well, this is after all, only something that might happen. Clearly it won't, since it doesn't apply. It suggests a stalemate or a truce in family quarrels or -" Yvonne cleared her throat and slurred the next word - "impotence. Nothing to worry about. The fifth card is usually just for show anyway - it's the sixth card that the whole reading kind of pivots around. This is before you!" she exclaimed as she drew the card and set it down in front of the pile. "Hot damn!" she cried. "The Lovers! And upright. What did I tell you? Huh? Does the Tarot know or does it know? Attraction, beauty, harmony, responsibility of choice: you name it! Alright now, we're hot honey, let's keep it moving!"
The next four cards Yvonne set one beside the other on a vertical incline to the right of the previously drawn cards, but face down. "I'll turn them over as I go," she explained. "The first represents your fears!" She turned it over. "Uh-oh!" she said. "Death - Big Number 13! And upside down to boot! Talk about your inertia! Stagnation. Et cetera. Again, it doesn't really apply where your love life's concerned, so let's just kind of ignore it and go on to the next card. It represents your family and friends and what they think about it!" She turned over the eighth card. "Ah!" she exclaimed, "the Star! Wonderful card when it's upright."
"It is upright," Norman reminded Yvonne.
"I was coming to that, honey," Yvonne pointed out. "It is upright, certainly it is. Hey Sam: remember that reading I gave Miss Elsie last month, and the Star came up reversed, and I asked what she was so pessimistic and had so much doubt about?"
"Yeah," said Sam, "and do you remember what she told you?"
"Never mind," said Yvonne, "let's just drop it and get on with Norman's reading. Norman, the Star here - upright - means unselfish aid from your family and friends. And hope and even inspiration. It also says spiritual love, but that's a little irrelevant in this reading. Now number nine, your own hopes and ideals!" She turned over the next to the last card. "Ugh! The Devil! Well, at least it's reversed, you've got that in your favor. I don't see though where it applies in its reversed form. I mean, upright, it's sensuality and sex and all those cosmic forces. Even black magic."
Here Sam made some eerie noises, rather like the haunting "Oooooo" a person sometimes makes when trying to sound scary.
"You shut up now!" said Yvonne. "This is no parlor game like your Yatzee or your Oija Board! We're trying to understand what Norman's love life's going to amount to. No, Norman, I just don't see what the Devil's doing here, turned all upside down. It points to spiritual understanding, and you don't hop in bed with a hot number to find that! But then, they are your hopes and ideals we're talking about, so I guess only you can tell how they apply if they do. Let's just, for now, go on to the tenth card." Yvonne turned over the last card. "The Fool."
"Upright," Norman noted.
"So it is."
"What does it mean?" Norman asked.
"Well, honey, it means you face a choice - a very big choice in life. I guess that would apply here - sure it would! Of course it would! Most certainly it does! Looks to me like two girls are going to want you to marry them. Now if I could do a chart on you, possibly I could pinpoint which signs they are. That's unless you have Gemini in the seventh house; if you do, you could maybe marry both of them. Or you could marry one and keep the other on the side as your mistress - it's just up to you! The stars are flexible, they allow room for individual tastes. So do the cards. Why do you think they've stayed so popular?"
Mary and Julianne had been reminiscing about old times while Norman's future was being read for him. The seats in the Clean-Your-Rama were wicker; they were quite elegant and, as the ladies discovered, quite comfortable. There were only three however; there were eight at one time, but, since the place was opened two months ago, the remainder had been loaned out to customers. "We're borrowing these," they would say on their way out. Whenever the Hindu expressed concern, he was told it was the custom here in Manhattan for businesses to loan out various furnishings and equipment to customers. He had managed, however, to evade giving out the last three seats by invoking something he referred to as "The Transmigration of Souls." When asked if it referred to reincarnation, he said no, it referred to the fact that without seats to sit on his customers would do their laundry elsewhere - a fact which no one had yet satisfactorily countered.
"I'm thinking of having nothing but wicker in my home," Julianne was saying.
"In the bedroom?" Mary asked.
"Oh heavens, Mary, I've gone so long in my wheelchair, sitting up is the only way I can get to sleep now! Just get me into a good sturdy arm chair and I'm out like a light. By the way, Mary, I don't wish to pry but where did little Tony come from? He can't be Jesus's boy. Whose is he?"
Mary shrugged. "I've no idea who he is or where he comes from," she admitted. "I just...there he was one day. I just found him...outside my room in the hotel. He looked up and said 'I'm Tony. You're my new Grandma. Hi!' You know, the little beggar wasn't wearing a stitch of clothes; I had no choice but to take him in. When I asked him where he came from, he grinned and started giving me the most bizarre story about a man going to look for an egg but he can't see it, it's too dark, so he gets a flashlight, only he still can't see it so he starts moaning and shaking and finally this woman he's met shows him nine months later where she had hidden it, and he says 'Oh, no wonder I couldn't see it! I didn't look far enough!' and she says 'Don't blame your eyes for the fault of your flashlight!' What in the world is all that Julianne, and what, pray tell, does it have to do with where my grandson come from?"
"Kids!" Julianne mused. "Who knows what they'll come up with next!"
"Of course," Mary admitted, "I'm fairly certain where Tony came from - or at least who got him for me. But I can't imagine why. I mean, I like the boy, but my heavens, Julianne, I need a grandson like I need another bead on my rosary! For each bead I have to say one full Hail Mary and one Holy Mary - I wonder sometimes if I'll ever get finished praying. And damn the luck Julianne, every time I get going real good, I either lose my place or else forget where I began or else get interrupted and have to go back and start all over again! Why do they have to make those damned things round?"
"Well, Mary," Julianne explained, "you can tell where you began by where the part with the crucifix on it joins!"
"Crucifix?" Mary exclaimed. "Oh Julianne, I ripped that off years ago! A mother does not like to be reminded of something like that! Whoever put that crucifix on it in the first place must have a mean streak in him, that's all there is to it!"
"Then you don't know whose boy Tony is?" Julianne asked, ignoring Mary's comments regarding the genesis of the rosary: to her way of thinking, this was strictly a church matter; and, while Mary was an old friend and the mother of Christ, it was not really her place to question the church's judgment. Mary's place was to look pretty - well, perhaps not pretty, Julianne reminded herself, but matronly anyway.
"No," Mary said, "I've no idea whose he is. I can only assume he's a waif -"
"Oh," said Julianne, assuming the word was being used metaphorically here. Etymology not being her strongest point, she took "waif" to be the root of the term "wafer," therefore indicative of something which serves as the core of a crunchy cookie. The concept was a bit grotesque in the context of a boy - but who was Julianne to question the mother of Jesus? It was unthinkable that Mary would have even the slightest predilection toward cannibalism.
"And you don't know where he came from?" Julianne asked.
"Oh," replied Mary, "I half suspect my son got him for me."
"Evidently he took it into his mind that I needed a grandson - though I don't know why. But he's like that: always getting me things I don't need, which I'm then stuck with until somehow I can get rid of them. Not that I want to get rid of little Tony, but it is a bit of a nuisance at my age taking care of a child. Oh, Julianne: the things Jesus has gotten me through the years, you wouldn't believe! Even the rosary was his idea: he felt that since it was used to pray to me, I'd be pleased to have one. He got me a marmoset - by mistake."
"He was worried for my safety," Mary explained. "You know how all the statues of me have me trampling on a snake? Well, he took one look at that and went immediately to get a mongoose. But you know Jesus: all creatures are the same to him. So here he comes carrying this tiny monkey - a marmoset. I asked him what in God's name it was. He said it was a mongoose. Well Julianne, I could see it was a monkey. I told him this was no mongoose. So off he goes, with the marmoset - first he asked me if I wanted to keep it anyway, but I told him I didn't have high enough ceilings for it to swing from: it was the first thing I could think of to say! A week later he comes back, this time with a mongoose. Julianne: I thought that thing would drive me out of my mind! It was everywhere, and it never seemed to stop. And there were no snakes - not even a garter snake!"
"Ooh!" Julianne shuddered. "I hate garter snakes most of all! We had them in Mexico City. They'd sneak in at dusk and climb into your dresser and when you went to get your stockings next morning, there they'd be, all curled up around your nylons. Ooh, horrible, Mary, just awful! One bit me. I'm convinced that's what caused my paralysis: that, plus a little polo. I fell off my mule playing polo. I've always felt it was the garter snake though that did the worse damage. So anyway, where is your mongoose now?"
"Fortunately," Mary said, "It mistook the garden hose for a snake one day and attacked it and got choked on a piece of rubber."
"My cousin almost got choked on a rubber once to," Julianne observed. "Small world isn't it?"
"It certainly is," Mary agreed. "Sometimes I think it's too small. I seem to have run out of holy places. You know, I haven't had any sort of luck at all since Fatima - and very little luck there. It wasn't any time at all till everybody started doubting those poor peasants. Why, the church itself has all but decided I didn't really appear! I've assured them I did; but it's all politics. All politics. Nobody cares about poor little Portugal any longer. That was why I appeared there: I wanted to get it back on the map. Create a tourist attraction. Bring in some revenue. And, let's be realistic: Portugal isn't all that far from France; and though I think I love Lourdes better than anyplace else on earth, except maybe the Holy Land, I wouldn't put it past the government of France to spread stories about Fatima so as to cast doubt on its suitability as a place to go for a cure. Oh Julianne, I'm afraid greed is still very much a part of the human psyche. You know where I think I'll go next, now that my son has given this place a shot in the arm? I think I'll go to the Philippines! They have some aborigines there - I was reading about them in Le Monde. I might appear before them. Oh but would you listen to me? Here I go again! I thought once I grew old, and really settled down, I'd no longer need these little episodes - these little adventures - to ease the boredom. Some things never change, I guess. Through the ages I've periodically assumed my divine form, appeared before some or another peasant, gotten a shrine built, settled in, then moved on. It's an old story. I like my human form - don't misunderstand me; it's just that after awhile it starts to wear thin: the pettiness, the bickering, the peevishness, the nastiness, the dissatisfaction with everyday things, and most of all the boredom with it all. When I get like that, I know it's time to pick up and move on. Another peasant, another grotto. My life is lived out of a suitcase Julianne. If it weren't for good friends like you I think I'd just give up, and stay human, and die, and then I'd leave the earth for good. But every time I get depressed, someone comes along, and cheers me up, my spirits pick up, and I'm inspired to have another go at it. A funny world we live in, Julianne. Thank God we don't have to live in it alone. I suppose that's why it puzzles God so much that we kill one another. He knows that without other people we couldn't stand living - that's why He invented all the things that bind people together; yet we periodically go on a rampage and slaughter practically everyone in sight. As much as I appreciate all God's done for us, Julianne, there are things He can't know because He's too far removed from the conditions we live in. He can't quite grasp that people could come to resent the very things they're dependent upon for their existence - and resent those things precisely because they are dependent on them. You see, needing nothing, God cannot comprehend the negative emotions dependence sometimes engenders. Oh well: can't fight City Hall, can we Julianne?"
"Let's ask these Snowmen!" one plainclothes detective suggested to the other. They worked as partners: Smith and Smithers, Limited, of Littletown. On a job they never worked alone: "Too dangerous!" Smith, the boss, insisted. Smithers, characteristically a hair more reckless about fate, had no choice but to go along.
"We could get double the business if we worked separately," Smithers often hinted.
Yes indeed-y - and get both our silly heads blown off too!" Smith always countered.
"Then what do we get hazardous pay for?" Smithers sulked.
"Just for living!" Smith reminded his junior partner.
The police, acting on a tip from Miss Elsie Cromwellerton, tracked Norman, Yvonne and the machines as far as the state line. They could go no farther. If indeed the washers and dryers, as Miss Elsie insisted, were stolen, this now made the case federal: transporting stolen goods across state lines. The police issued an all-points bulletin, requesting discretion, however, since they were not entirely certain a crime had in fact been committed. The federal authorities decided to allow the local authorities to handle it - "You guys know your turf better than we do!" read the official communiqué. The local authorities, also reluctant to get too deeply involved in what might prove either too complicated or too innocuous to be worth their effort, in turn delegated responsibility to a private firm they occasionally did business with: Smith and Smithers.
"Hey, get the Smothers Brothers!" the police chief said.
"That's not Smothers, it's Smathers!" one of his lieutenants corrected him. "The Smothers Brothers are on TV!"
"Well," the lieutenant was in turn corrected, "the Smathers Brothers are in a novel: "Atlas Shrugged! The ones we want are the Smither Brothers!"
"The Smithers? Hey, don't they break cough drops?" someone asked.
"You're thinking of the Smithereens!" retorted someone else.
"Just get them!" the chief ordered.
"Smith and Smithers Limited of Littletown," the receptionist, a Mrs Smithe, answered the precinct call.
"We've got a job for you!" she was told. The detectives were briefed on this case, given a return, then sent to scout around. From the descriptions they were given, the detectives had composite drawings made: one of Norman, one of Yvonne and, just for good measure, one of both together. Out walking the streets of Mid-Town Manhattan in their gray wool tweed overcoats, the detectives happened upon the Kleen-Your-Rama. The scent of curried rice protruded a little ways onto the sidewalk, as if the big turban on the red-white-and-blue striped pole out front were an upturned crock pot. At one time the store was a barber shop. Had they not stopped to savor the aroma, they might have walked on past without noticing the six Snowmen peering in the window.
"Pardon us, gentlemen," said Smith, "but we're looking for international thieves." The Snowmen started.
"Not international," Smithers corrected his partner. "Interstate."
"Don't they mean the same thing?"
"No indeed they do not!"
"We'll let these gentlemen settle it," Smith resolved. "Do they or do they not mean the same thing in essence?"
"Essence?" inquired one of the Snowmen, the most philosophical minded of the set. "As opposed to what? Existence? I should rather say they did not."
"See?" said Smithers.
"Hold it: he said 'did not.' I think he means to suggest they perhaps didn't at one time but do now."
"Fine," agreed Smithers. "You're the boss. Let's just get on with it. Show them the composites."
Taking out the three drawings, Smith showed them to the Snowmen. "Have you gentlemen seen any of these two?"
"Either," Smithers corrected his boss.
Smith made a face. "Have you gentlemen either seen any of these two?" he corrected himself.
"On this planet, you mean?" the slow-witted Snowman asked. The others gave him a pointed look.
"Oh brother!" bemoaned Smithers. "At this rate we'll have ourselves interplanetary thieves by the end of the day!"
The Snowmen looked nervous. "We've never seen them," the Snowmen said.
"That's right," the slow-witted one added, "neither Norman nor Yvonne!" Another look in his direction followed.
"How'd you know their names?" Smithers asked. Smith and the quick-witted Snowman replied simultaneously.
"He's psychic!" said the Snowman.
"Probably a lucky guess!" said Smith.
"Psychic, eh?" Mused Smithers, ignoring his partner's comment. "Then what's our names? The six Snowmen looked nervous.
"Smith and Smithers of course!" said the slow-witted Snowman.
"He's right!" exclaimed the detectives. The other five Snowmen bestowed looks of approbation on their comrade, who simply shrugged, as if to say "Big Deal!"
"Well," said Smith, "we thank you gentlemen for your trouble, and we caution you not to get tangled up with these two thugs should you encounter them. Just keep an eye peeled, and the other eye sharp, and give us a call should you run into them. I take it," he addressed the psychic, "you know our number?"
"488-2882," the psychic Snowman spoke right out as if he were reciting from memory.
"Okay," said Smith, "we'll be listening for your call. And if a woman answers, don't hang up: that's our receptionist, Mrs Smithe."
When the detectives were well out of sight, the Snowmen tore up the likenesses of Norman and Yvonne. "We'll have to make sure they're not recognized," one said.
"You mean change their appearance?" asked another.
"No," said the first, "just cast a spell so that whoever sees them thinks they're not who they appear to be."
The Snowmen, getting tired of standing outside the Kleen-Your-Rama, decided to take a room across the street and watch from there. A brownstone with red shutters offered convenient lodging. Before leaving their vantage point, they planted various bugging devices which they were assured would pick up every sound within the Laundromat and transmit it to them.
"A room with six beds and a front view please," the spokesman informed the desk clerk who, at first, misperceived their request. A look of horror came over his face.
"Six heads?" he asked in a stuttering voice.
"Six heads are better than one!" quipped the bellboy, an elderly man still to be a "boy," a very skinny, sickly looking man of about seventy, wearing a faded red uniform draped over his bones like a flag, the gold tassels and epaulettes appearing to be the national symbols.
When the semantics were ironed out, the Snowmen were given, not one but three rooms, two beds in each room. The bellboy showed them to their rooms. He winked on the way out and said he would procure a little something for them for the night if they wished.
"If you could get Jesus for us, we'd be much obliged," they told him. The bellboy said nothing further. The Snowmen settled in for a good night's rest.
The call went out at ten A.M. the following morning. The Checkered Taxi Cab Company was asked to send a cab to the Kleen-Your-Rama Laundromat.
"We have a washer and a dryer to be moved," the Hindu stated. "We're going to need the taxiest to help load them in his trunk. It may take half an hour."
Driver Jizmo Knetler, of cab number zero-two, was given the assignment. "Yes sir!" he said in a sprightly voice. "I'll get right on it. And thank you!" Every Checkered driver who heard over his radio the assignment being given zero-two could not help but feel a slight pang of envy somewhere in his heart: here was a chance to help someone transport something, to help load and unload, not just drive around all day long from fare to fare. Jizmo's prestige had never been higher."
"The Jiz gets the jazz!" Knetler announced to his peers over the short wave.
"And we get the raz!" his fellow cabbies all sighed to themselves.
Ten fifteen the Checkered cab pulled up; Jizmo got out. Norman had already come to the door of the Laundromat; he held it open for the cabbie. "I hate like everything asking you to take time for this," he apologized; "I know you guys are busy."
"Listen stud," Jizmo assured him, "I've got time coming out the Kazoo! Don't worry about it, it's my pleasure! I know what a pain moving furniture can be, my wife and I just moved to a new apartment. So just show me the way, and stand clear!"
"Well," said Norman, pointing to washer and dryer 11, which he had already moved as near to the door as he could, "it's these. Do you think we can get them in?"
"If we can't, we make two trips - at no additional cost!"
"Oh no, I couldn't ask you to do that," Norman protested.
"Hey Mack," said Jizmo, "my boss'd kick my tail from here to Colorado and back if he ever heard of me double billing anybody! So don't worry about it: Jiz is gonna get you there no matter how many trips it takes him!"
"Alright!" came Sam's voice from Yvonne's pocket.
"Hey, that's pretty good the way you throw your voice," Jizmo complimented Norman. "I do a little ventriloquism myself on the side. Part of my act. Watch this: see if you notice my lips moving. 'Hello, how are you? 'y na'e is Jiz'o the 'agnificent.' Huh? Pretty good eh? I also tell jokes. Some I can't tell in front of the ladies here. My act's patterned after Rodney Dangerfield - except where everything goes wrong with him, it goes right with me: breaks 'em up every time. Okay: this guy goes into a bar - right? Slaps his money down. Says 'Drinks are on me!' So everyone comes up and begins frisking him to find the drinks. They're searching him head to toe. They've got his clothes off and they still haven't found anything. He turns, looks at all the ladies - this is ladies' night, see - and says 'Darn it, they must be in my other suit, and of all the dumb luck I left it in my car.' So they all follow him to his car - still no suit! 'Ah gee,' he says-"
"Is there a punch line to this?" Yvonne, who had been listening with growing interest, inquired as she drew near. "It seems like a long time to wait for the punch line."
"Hey lady," said Jizmo, a bit disconcerted at having his story interrupted, "I don't tell that kind of joke. Mine don't have punch lines - that's what separates me from every other comedian! I'm an original. I just have to find my niche, that's all."
"Where do you play?" Yvonne asked.
"Mostly church socials," Jizmo explained. "Your fancy-ass clubs don't appreciate my kind of humor, but those deacons and elders - they go bananas! Where was I? Oh shit, now I've lost my train of thought. See I don't write these down, I kind of make them up as I go - that way no one can steal my jokes until I've told them at least once. After that they're welcome to any or all. The way I see it, a good joke belongs to everybody and nobody."
Sam started singing. "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen," then broke into husky laughter, which in turn prompted a coughing spell.
Jizmo turned to Norman. "Jesus, how do you do it?" he inquired. "God bless me even Edgar Bergan'd shit if he could see you!"
Up in their room across the street from the Laundromat, the Snowmen happened to catch the conversation, their interest piqued by Jizmo's joke. They all started upon hearing Jizmo refer to Norman as Jesus. Where they came from, language was lovely and formal, and syntax forbade beginning a statement with a proper name unless it was the name of the Snowman one was addressing. "Did you hear that?" they all said. "This Rodney fellow called Norman Jesus!"
"I've heard of Rodney Dangerfield," one of the Snowmen noted.
"That's beside the point," he was told.
"I wouldn't mind having his autograph," the Snowman persisted.
"Should we tell him?" Norman turned to Yvonne to ask.
"Oh why not," Yvonne agreed, bringing forth the pack of matches.
"See this?" Norman asked. "Well, watch."
"Say please," Sam insisted.
"Please," said Norman.
"Pretty please with newt's ears."
"Eyes - not ears: eyes!" came a voice from the washer. It was Lisabeth.
"Jesus you're something!" Jizmo again complimented Norman.
"There!" exclaimed one of the Snowmen, "he's done it again!"
"Thank goodness for these bugs we planted," said another, "they really work!"
Slowly Sam transformed himself into a daddy long legs. "How's that for a metamorphosis?" he asked.
Jizmo looked from Sam to Norman. "How did you do that?" he asked Norman.
"What do you mean how did he do it?" asked Sam. "I don't need any help transposing myself. Set me down, Yvonne." She set him on washer 11. "There," he said. "Now watch this." Immediately he began climbing down the side of the washer; it was slippery - so slippery that, although he got down he could not get back up. Yvonne had to give him a boost. "I'm a bit out of shape," Sam apologized. "You wouldn't know it now, Jiz, but I used to manage a team of mountain climbers. We patterned ourselves after the Tibetian Sherpas. We were called Sam's Scalers."
"Did you climb every mountain?" asked Jizmo.
"I lot my three best climbers - one to booze, one to women, one stepped off a curb and broke an ankle. The other two tried it alone."
"And they made it just as far as the lodge. They were never heard from again. Do you mind if we go on to something else?"
"Speaking of going on," Joanne called from dryer 13, "hadn't you better be leaving for the airport?"
Jizmo shook his head; he was awestruck. He had his eyes peeled for the slightest hint of lip movement but there was none - absolutely none. "Jesus you're good!" he complimented Norman a third time. And a third time the bugs transmitted his words to the Snowmen, who were by now all but convinced that Norman R Zellor was in fact Jesus H Christ.
"Yes sir," cried Jizmo, "I could sure use a man like you in my act! Jesus, could I ever! How about it?"
"I don't think so," said Norman. "You see, it isn't really my voice you're hearing."
"Of course not," said one of the Snowmen to his comrades, "it's the Holy Ghost's!"
"No, it's those two witches!" he was corrected by another Snowman.
"Oh, I forgot them."
"Just the same," Jizmo insisted, "you give it some thought. I'll get back with you. In the meantime, let's get these machines moving!" Together, they picked up the dryer and loaded it into the trunk of the taxi. As they were doing this, the ladies were saying their farewells.
"Now take care," Joanne said.
"Oh we will," replied Lisabeth.
"Don't you worry one bit, Joan: my Julie and I'll see to it that Elizabeth minds her P's and Q's!" said Yvonne. "Isn't that right, honey?"
"Yes, Yvonne," said Lisabeth, "just as right as rain!"
"Speaking of rain, ladies," Yvonne turned to Mary and Julianne, "I hope you brought your hair spray. I hear it's like a steam bath in Tampico this time of year!"
"I wouldn't go anywhere without it," said Julianne. "What about you Mary?"
"Oh please," Mary said, giving Tony a rather severe look, "don't mention hair spray to me just now!" Tony sulked a moment, then said he would buy Mary some more.
"And a new canary too," he promised, "only this time I won't paint him!"
"I brought him all the way from Lourdes too," Mary explained. "You remember him Julianne, don't you?"
"Little Paroquet?" Julianne asked. Mary nodded. "What happened?"
"Dead? Paroquet? Part parakeet, part canary: dead?" asked Julianne in disbelief.
"Dead," Mary confirmed her friend's fear. "Tony here took it into his head to paint him with my hair spray. The poor thing choked. Went just like that. With his dying breath he screamed out 'Il mort. Au revoir, le monde cruel! Au revoir! J'expire! Ohh la la!' Then he keeled over, stiff as a statue."
"Mary, take it from a bi-linguist, you should have taught that creepy little son of a bitch Spanish or some language people could understand! Oh how I hated that bird! Well Mary, you saw the way he eyed me, and he'd wink at me, and me so fast in my wheelchair I couldn't do anything but suffer his insidious innuendoes. 'Tel jambes - mon Dieu quelles jambes! Pour moi, je suis un beaucoup homme des jambes!' he had the affront to say. And me in a wheelchair! And then the day he talked Sister Blanket into letting him out of his cage! The little bastard flew right up my skirt, Mary! The gall of that creature! Why I shudder to this day whenever I think of it! "Qui eteind la luminere?' he cried. And me half scared to death what that little turd would do to me - not to mention my reputation! Well, you know, Mary, nothing alive copulates any faster than a bird does! Heaven only knows what hideous manner of offspring a lecherous young bird and a chaste old grandmother might produce! And when that vile beast started panting like that - why Mary, I thought I would simply die with shame! "Le meilleur pondeusse dans Lourdes!' - can you believe anyone saying anything so monstrous: even a bird? I tell you Mary, if a bid ever needed gelding, Paroquet was it! And then Sister Blanket, so innocent like, coming up and asking if the wind had ruffled my skirt hem and could she straighten it for me! Well, Mary, if I hadn't been paralyzed, so help me God I'd have kicked her right in the crotch, may the Father, Son and Holy Ghost forgive me! So if little Tony murdered that wretched bird, then I say 'Here, let me give him a shiny new Susan B Anthony dollar!"
Julianne handed Tony the coin. The boy looked it over carefully. "This is only a quarter," he said, holding out his hand for the other seventy-five cents. Tony had learned at a very early age how to count money.
"Oh no," both Julianne and Mary assured him, "this is a dollar, not a quarter! You see the lady on the front? It was minted in her honor, and in honor of the Women of America!"
The boy considered this explanation, then studied the coin again. Finally he put it in his pocked, concluding that "A woman's dollar don't buy as much as a real dollar I guess."
The washer had just been loaded. It too managed to fit into the trunk of the cab, along with dryer 11. Lisabeth rested comfortably on the Checkered carpeting. Norman and Jizmo came back inside to escort the ladies to the taxi.
"Well, we're off!" said Yvonne eagerly. "Could I ask a favor of you?" she said to Norman.
"Of course," he readily agreed.
"It's about Sam. He, well," she explained, "he gets a bit short winded now and again."
"Oh brother!" moaned Sam.
"Now Sam, you know it's true: you do. And I was wondering, Norman, if maybe you'd look after him till Monday when I get back. I don't think the humidity would do his asthma the least good - do you?"
"Well, I -" Norman started to say but was interrupted by Sam.
"What does he care?" Sam asked. "I could be squashed flat as a pancake and all he'd say would be 'What's this mess doing here?' Why don't you just drop me off the World Trade Center or something and be done with it?"
"Sam," said Norman, "if you'd quit your bellyaching for two seconds and give me a chance to say something, you'd know that not only would I be delighted to have you for a traveling companion - I'd be honored! Just plain honored!"
"You would?" asked Sam.
"Yes, I would."
"Yes, really would - really would with newt's balls on it!"
"Alright!" cried Sam in exhilaration. "That's the spirit stud! Let's get this show on the road!"
"Now I could give you my smock," Yvonne explained to Norman, "but I don't hardly think it's your style. And I'm not sure Sam'd be too comfortable in your pants pockets. So what I was thinking, maybe he could build a web inside the dryer - that's if Joan doesn't mind vermin -"
"What a bitch!" Sam moaned.
"- then he could hang from his web on the way to Italy. What do you think?"
"We'll work something out," said Norman, adding, "won't we Sam?"
"You betcha we will!"
"Then," said Yvonne, "I guess we're off. Sam: you take care: you hear?"
"You too Yvonne. And say hi to Oven for me - okay?"
Something still inside Yvonne's pocket began whimpering. "Oh good heavens," cried Yvonne, "I almost forgot the scarab! Do you want to take it Norman or should I?"
"I'll leave it up to Sam," said Norman.
"Bring him along, stud - the more the merrier!" Sam resolved. Immediately the whimpering ceased and a laugh of joy came from Yvonne's pocket. The coin was transferred to Norman. Tony saw the coin changing hands.
"Is that Susan B Anthony squealing like my little sister?" he asked.
"No" he was assured, "it's someone else."
"Oh," he said. "Are we going now? Because if not I'm going to pull out my pee pee and have some fun!"
"We're going, little Scorpio, don't worry, we're going!" Yvonne assured Mary's grandson.
The good-byes had all been said. Lisabeth's was perhaps the most forlorn: she and Joanne had traveler so far together, been through so much, seen so many new things, and she was by nature so gregarious, clinging, intensely loyal to her friends as well as almost totally dependent on them, that she could barely stand leaving her traveling companion and fellow witch, even for so short a time.
"Oh, Lisabeth, just think: when we meet again, we'll be free of these god-awful machines," Joanne told her.
"She's right honey," added Yvonne, "once we wash Mary's clothes for her - and maybe throw in some of Julianne's so they don't wrinkle so bad drying - you'll be on your own again!"
"Oh dear," sighed Lisabeth. "What if my hair comes out all curled up like an American middle income housewife's? God knows I don't want people seeing me looking like that!" And a thousand other possible minor catastrophes crossed her mind. But she managed to assuage the worst of her fears - the loneliness of being separated from Joanne; the thought of half her clothes coming out many sizes too big from being so long in the washer, the other half too small from the dryer; the apprehension of flying down to Mexico on a jumbo jet; the discomfort of being confined inside the trunk of a New York City taxi cab. Lisabeth managed her fears. The journey began. Jizmo Knetler's Checkered cab, number zero-two, pulled away, Mary, Julianne and Tony in the rear seat, Yvonne in the front seat.
"Oh," said Yvonne, noticing Jizmo's meter, "it's not working is it?"
"Sure it is," replied Jizmo. "But I always hold off starting it. The first quarter mile's always on me."
"Grandma," Tony asked, "can we visit the nice doctors?"
Mary, unable to place the boy's request, simply said no, there would not be time.
"Oh," said Tony.
Half an hour had passed when Jizmo's taxi pulled up in front of the Airline terminal. He was told he could leave his taxi anyplace convenient for him. Parking meters had already been pre-set for the maximum time: every once in a while the City of New York liked to do this for its people. The mayor and city council charged it against their wages. "They give us our keep, it's the least we can do for them!" was the attitude at City Hall.
Jizmo opened his trunk. The porter came to his assistance but was stopped from helping him by a tall, distinguished looking gentleman with silver hair and a charcoal gray business suit.
"You just go about your business," the porter was told, "I'll help with these."
"Thank you sir," said the porter.
"And you're welcome sir," said the gentleman, who then, turning to help Jizmo, introduced himself as Mango Airline, the President of Airline Airways and International Flights.
"I hope you don't damage your suit," Jizmo cautioned.
"If I do, I do," said Mr Airline. "I get the profits, I should do the work. If my suit gets soiled or torn, I can afford a new one. Now you direct me, tell me when you're ready, just say 'Heave!' and I'll give a lift."
"Alright," said Jizmo, taking hold of one side while his helper grabbed the other, "ready, set, heave!"
There went the washer, from the trunk to the sidewalk. Next they took hold of the dryer. "Heave!" and it too was deposited onto the sidewalk. Then Mr Airline, excusing himself, went and got a hand truck, onto which he and Jizmo lifted first the washer then the dryer.
"Let me just run these in and I'll be right back!"
In the meantime, Jizmo helped the ladies out of the taxi. Tony needed no help, he was all energy. "What is this place?" he asked. "Who was that man? Where did he take the washer and dryer? Are we in Mexico yet? I want to go to Lourdes and get another parakeet!" This last comment made Julianne shudder.
"Horrible birds!" she muttered. "Mary," she said, "take it from a seductress, you can thank God they decided to let woman wear pants! One more parakeet flying under my skirt would have just about finished me!"
Momentarily, Mr Airline returned, carrying a claim check for the washer and dryer. He was asked by Tony why he "stole the machines."
"I'll explain all that to you over a soda - would you like a coke? And you ladies? Could I get you a drink in the lounge while we wait? I'd be honored? You too," he said to Jizmo, if you've the time."
"Oh I've got the time alright," said Jizmo. "In fact I was just about to make the same offer myself. So let me treat."
"Oh no, I couldn't," insisted Mr Airline.
"Yes you can," Jizmo insisted. "It's my treat. And I won't take 'no' for an answer!"
"You're a stubborn man," the president of Airline noted. "But have it your way, sir! The treat's on you!"
They went inside. "I'll have a Dr Pepper," said Mary.
"And I'll have a Nurse Salt!" quipped Tony. "You have to frown when you drink that," he explained between chuckles.
Outside, another cab pulled up. The fare was paid and out stepped three Snowmen. They had been dispatched to follow Jizmo's taxi. Three remained behind to continue their surveillance of the Kleen-Your-Rama. "Oh let me go please!" begged the Snowman who expressed a fondness for Rodney Dangerfield. In the back of his mind was the resolve to get the comedian's autograph. He was allowed to go. "Oh boy, oh boy!" he cried. "Maybe he'll tell some jokes. Like the one where he says his wife wanted to have sex in the back seat of his car - and asked him to drive!" This drew puzzled looks from the other five Snowmen. How could he drive and have sex in the back seat at the same time? they wondered. It seemed a bit reckless. Ah! these Americans! they concluded: they'll try anything once! Finally they laughed at the joke.
"Pardon me," one of the Snowmen asked a passing porter. "What time does the flight to Mexico City leave?"
"The flight leaves at noon," the porter replied. "The plane leaves at twelve-thirty! Then he walked on.
"I bet you Rodney told him that one!" said the Snowman who was a fan of the comedian.
"This Rodney: he has no sense of timing?" asked the other Snowmen, puzzled by the quip. "Well," he responded, "whatever time it leaves, we must stop it."
"We could jam the engine," one Snowman suggested.
"But that might cause it to explode - someone might get hurt!" countered another.
"True. This poses a problem."
"We could cast a spell making the workers go on strike!"
"Hmm," the other two Snowmen reflected on their comrade's suggestion. "The trouble with that," they pointed out, "is there a spell powerful enough to make American workers go on strike?"
"Well, we could tell them Rodney Dangerfield is giving a free concert in the lounge."
"Would he, do you think?"
"Let's go ask. And while we're asking, I'll just casually ask him for his autograph."
"Ah, I see!" said the third Snowman. "And we can cast a spell over the autograph to make him agree to the concert! Good idea. Very good idea."
"Don't look now," said Jizmo Knetler to his dining companions, "but three Snowmen just walked in and they're headed this way!"
"Humpf!" said Tony. "Don't waste your time asking them for toys either!"
"May we join you," asked the Snowmen, pulling up three seats. Before anyone could answer, they had seated themselves opposite the others at the big round black table.
"What'll you have?" asked Mr Airline.
The one looked over at Jizmo and, with a wink, said "Three Frosty's!" Just looking at Jizmo made him almost laugh, so keen was his anticipation of one liners. "You don't get much respect, do you?" he asked, trying to keep a straight face.
Jizmo Knetler was shocked at the implication, as were the others at the impertinence of the question. "Are you kidding?" Jizmo said defensively. "I get plenty of respect - plenty of respect!" He saw a chance here for a quip. The Snowman was already laughing.
"He cracks me up!" he told his comrades. "You never know what he's going to say!"
"Are you kidding. No respect. Ha! I get so much respect - ask me how much respect I get - go ahead, ask me!"
"How much respect do you get?" the Snowman controlled his laughter long enough to ask.
"I get so much respect I'm like the man who went into a bar, slapped his money down, says to the bartender 'A little respect please!' Bartender looks at him. Everyone looks at him. Bartender says to him 'Your money's no good here! It's on the house!' Yeah, man I'm like him!"
"He kills me!" said the Snowman through his laughter.
"So he climbs up the roof," Jizmo continued his story, "looks around, and sure enough -"
"We get the idea honey," Yvonne interrupted. "But don't you think it's time we were going? Plane leaves in fifteen minutes."
"Oh no it doesn't!" announced the pilot who, on his way to confront his boss, Mr Airline, chanced to overhear Yvonne's comment. Accompanying the pilot was his entire crew - co-pilot, stewardesses and all - plus the maintenance staff. They had all walked off the job; they were here to make their demands.
"We're on strike," the pilot said. "And we won't go back to work until we've seen Rodney Dangerfield perform - here, in this very lounge. We don't care what it costs - money's no object; we want to see him. It hit us all, just out of the blue, just like that!" The pilot snapped his fingers. "Now do we get our show or do your planes stay grounded?"
Mr Airline looked into his employees' faces, clean well-scrubbed eager faces. He liked the looks of these faces. It pleased him to see his employees so excited about something. True, he'd lose money - but what was that compared to his employees' well being? If Rodney Dangerfield in concert, live, at the Grounded Lounge of the Airline Terminal they wanted - by God Rodney Dangerfield they would get!
"It's as good as done," Mr Airline assured them. "Meanwhile, have a seat, relax, drinks are on me."
Jizmo Knetler looked to see what the strikers would do next - would they commence inspecting their boss for evidence of said drinks? It seemed they did not take him literally; they simply took seats and placed their orders.
"Thank you for your help," said Yvonne upon abruptly rising, a touch of sarcasm in her voice.
"You leaving?" Mr Airline asked.
"I've got to get to Tampico to see my daughter," she replied. "If you can't take me, honey, I'll have to find an airline that can. Maybe Pan-Am."
"Who said I can't take you?" Mr Airline asked. "I promised I'd get you to Mexico City - by God I'll get you there! Don't worry about that. It's unfortunate my people chose this particular time to strike, but that's their business, not mine. For my part, I've got a private plane. A Lear Jet. We don't use it for commercial flights. But, take it from an old flying Ace, it runs like it's got ambrosia between its wings! Now let me just think where I left my keys and we'll be off. Let's see. Let's see now. I had them this morning when I left for work. My secretary took the plane up for a little spin this morning; we were out of cheese Danish, they had some over at the TWA terminal, she went and got some; when her coffee break was over she set the keys - where did she set them? Let's see now. In my left hand, I think." Mr Airline held up his left hand and, sure enough, there they were, the keys to his Lear Jet "Yes, indeed," he exclaimed, "right where she left them: in my left hand! See - there they are!"
Everyone at the table commended Mr Airline on his splendid display of logic. Even the three Snowmen, their plan to detain Yvonne's flight thwarted, had to concede on that point.
"By the way," he addressed the Snowmen, "would you gentlemen care to accompany us? Now it's warm in Mexico City this time of the year, but you're more than welcome to join us if you like. And you too, if you can possibly spare the time," he said to Jizmo.
"Time?" asked Jizmo. "I've got nothing but time! And I'd love to join you - I'd love nothing better! Why, I'm a little like the man who walked into a bar, slapped his watch down, says to the bartender 'Time is money! Scotch all around! Make it doubles!' Bartender looks down at his watch, shakes his head, says 'Just my luck: your watch stopped at seven-fifteen! I got to give you Happy Hour prices!' Man says to the bartender -"
"Perhaps you could finish your story on the plane," Yvonne suggested.
"Well," Jizmo had to admit, "this is one of my impromptu jokes: it could go on forever. Maybe I'd better just let it end here and now."
"Good idea," Yvonne said.
"Well gentlemen?" asked Mr Airline. "What'll it be? Mexico City? Will you join us?"
"We'll have to consult with our business associates first," the Snowmen replied.
"Fine. While you're doing that, I'd better go gas up old Betsy!"
"What about your plane?" the Snowmen asked, fooled again by a name.
Mr Airline laughed. "That's a good one, guys!"
"And don't forget Elizabeth!" Yvonne reminded.
"My washer and dryer."
"Oh," said Mr Airline. "Glad you reminded me. Elizabeth, eh? Good name for a washer and dryer. Well, I'm off to service my Lear Jet."
"Just a minute!" Mr Airline's workers, who had overheard him, called to him. "Let us take care of that - it's our job!"
"But you're on strike - I can't ask you to cross your own picket line."
"We'll go the long way around," they said. "Besides, we can't let a little thing like a strike keep us from lending a hand in a pinch. You'll never get that damned Lear Jet serviced all by yourself - it was all your secretary could do to get it done, and she's a part-time mechanic! So you just leave it to us: we'll have her ready to go in half an hour. That'll give us plenty of time to make the matinee!"
They were off and running. In twenty-seven minutes flat the Lear Jet was ready to take off. The washer and dryer had been loaded, the passengers had all boarded, the maintenance crew had toasted their boss and wished he and his guests a "bon voyage." Only the Snowmen were unaccounted for. Everyone assumed they had decided to decline the invitation. In truth, however, they were aboard: stowaways. They had been advised by their comrades to accompany the others but not to let their presence be known. When no one was watching they sneaked aboard and hid themselves behind the washer and dryer.
One-forty-one P.M. the Lear Jet taxied down the runway. By one-forty-five it was airborne. Inside, all was anticipation. Tony was asking who they were on their way to drop bombs on; he could not be convinced that this was a peaceful mission. Yvonne was busy casting a horoscope for the flight so that its probability of success might be gauged: a horary chart cast for an event, she explained to Jizmo Knetler, as opposed to a natal chard for the birth of a child. Mary and Julianne were engaged in reminiscing about the past.
"Hmm," observed Yvonne, "we could be in for some trouble."
"How so?" asked Jizmo.
"We've got Uranus retrograde in Sagittarius square Mars in Pisces. Could be a problem, honey. Once we're on the way, I think I'll have Mr Alpine telephone ahead and say we're likely to need a search party somewhere over the Caribbean."
"Honey, if this were a trine I wouldn't concern myself with it. And with Uranus retrograde like this, I just don't know."
"Retrograde?" asked Jizmo.
"Backwards - it's going backwards," explained Yvonne.
Jizmo looked out the window. "My God!" he cried. "We are going backwards!" He ran to tell the pilot. Yvonne accompanied him.
"I think we're going backwards," Jizmo advised.
"Just an illusion," explained Mr Airline. "It's because we're going so fast. You know, it's like the spokes of a wheel: they start going fast and all of a sudden they look like they're spinning the wrong way. Nothing to worry about."
"All the same," Yvonne suggested, "I think you'd better phone ahead and tell them we're experiencing some difficulty. I don't like where Mars is just now."
"Where is it?" asked Mr Airline, somewhat concerned since he had mistaken her reference to the planet Mars to be to a rival airline, Mars of Massachusetts, whose planes were regularly hijacked.
"It's in water - not a good place for Mars!" Yvonne foreboded.
"Good God in heaven!" Mr Airline exclaimed. In a flash he was on his radio sending out an all points SOS. "Airplane in trouble!" he cried into the receiver in as many languages as he could think of off hand.
Two hours out of Mexico City, a squadron of bombers joined the Lear Jet for an escort back to the airport. "See!" cried Tony. "We are bombing! We are! Oh boy! Bomb the hell out of these gringos!"
When the plane had safely landed, the pilot and his passengers disembarked and were accosted by a mob of photographers and reporters. The whole terminal was in an uproar over the near tragedy. Every few steps Mr Airline, Jizmo, Yvonne, Mary, Julianne and Tony were stopped for pictures and interviews. Yvonne explained how she owed it all to accurate forecasting: the planets don't lie. Tony said how it felt to be a mad bomber. Jizmo admitted to having felt a little like the man who went into a bar, slapped his money down, says to the bartender "I'm high as a kite!" and has the bartender look up at him and, etc, etc, etc. Mr Airline insisted that the strike of his employees had gotten blown all out of proportion and he felt obliged to fault the press for sensational reporting, for which they thanked him, to a man. Mary and Julianne were still fast in the midst of their conversation.
"I'm thinking of getting a facelift, Mary," Julianne informed her friend between smiles and poses. "Why don't we both go get one together?" she asked. "Take it from a fashion model, Mary, it never hurts to look your best! You never know when they're going to want a photo session!"
Mary said she would give it some thought. When everything had calmed down, the Snowmen descended. Thinking the hullabaloo concerned themselves, they wondered who could have alerted the authorities that they had stowed away. The sun was just beginning to set. The lights of Mexico City arose like a new dawn born from the pavement, ascended the tall structures, and hung their corona from the low lying rain clouds. Three solitary Snowmen strolled along, pinkish and shadowed beneath the man-made sun. Everywhere there were people in this the most populous city on earth: tiny rising spots registering momentarily against the created halo before disappearing into the sluggish gray pavement below the horizon. Mexico City. Ciudad Mexico. Where there were things to be found.
"Jesus was sighted again," the anchorperson for the nightly news announced. "Once more, tragedy followed in his wake - a regular occurrence which has prompted at least one religious leader to speculate that this may be indeed, instead of Christ, the anti-Christ. We have two reports. First, reporter Amos Andee at the scene of the sighting. Then, lovely Juvenalia with a report from Sacred Vale, Virginia.
The anchorperson faded. He looked worried, as if perhaps his image might be lost somewhere among all the news clips and never recovered. God only knew what that would do to his ratings! In the meantime, the Brooklyn Bridge rose up where the anchor had last been seen. Amos Andee's voice over, like a spirit emanating from the bridge itself, gave out the details.
"This is where it happened," Andee reported. "The Brooklyn Bridge. Jesus Christ was seen walking the East River below. Cars were stopping, people were pointing, some getting out. Though broad daylight, Jesus was illuminated as if a phosphorescent glow enveloped him. Suddenly an old derelict appeared; h had evidently been walking unnoticed across the bridge. He approached the spot where, from below, Jesus stood looking upward. This old man he climbed onto the railing; held his arms outstretched a moment, as if thinking them wings; then leaped from the bridge into the water. To his death. Before the derelict even left the railing, Jesus had vanished into the air. An hour later the body was recovered, an old, shriveled, lice-infected street bum. We have with us three eyewitnesses to the tragedy."
The camera zoomed in for a close up of reporter Andee. He was smartly attired, clean shaven to where his face looked like a satinette wallpapering with all its air bubbles and imperfections smoothed out. In his hand was the station T-O-K-E-N microphone, its call letters an electric blue embedded into the brushed chromium base. Across the street from him some kids were waving and making faces; the cameraman kept trying to angle in on him so as to exclude the exhibitionists. One boy dropped his pants; the scene had to be edited out of the report - and was edited out, carefully edited, with great precision, great scrutiny. Yet it appeared on the news anyway. Neither the camera nor the microphone could pick up the boy's remark as he undid his pants. "This is for you Jesus!" he cried. It was done for Jesus; and because it was, it could not be removed from the broadcast, try as they might. An entire nation was mooned on the nightly news, in the name of Jesus.
Lined up alongside the reporter were the three eyewitnesses: one middle-aged man, an elderly woman, and a teenaged boy. Their interviews followed in rapid succession.
"I seen him old and skinny a wrinkled dodger. I call all old timers dodgers since we lost the best team the league ever had and that includes your bright and mine-ty Yankees too. He stood up and balanced himself like a acrobat and looked to me like he said shit or something worse and his clothes dancing around his skeleton bones on his shints and knees till he was Charlestoned right out of his ever-lovin' over the complete and final railing of his life so to speak and I almost was quick enough to seen to land nose first onto the River and drown from the waist up till his waist down had to hold out no more hope of recovery and it was then I remembered what me and Max Bianchi was arguing about last night over bowling balls trying to recall during the World Series of '54 when old what's-his-name hit the winning run and I seen it all there ain't nothing I mean nothing I ain't seen but I never yet seen anything like this till just up to now and even to this day I don't believe it I still half way think it was Candid Camera gotten stuck on a bad reel of film or something but I guess it takes all kinds to make a world if that's what you say this place here is. I wouldn't know."
He walked away shaking his head back and forth. Not once had reporter Andee been able to interrupt him - and Andee was an excellent reporter, he knew what a good interview consisted of, and when it was time to move on to something else. This witness seemed absolutely oblivious to his role; it was almost as if he saw himself and the reporter as merely two human beings conversing about an event of national interest rather than two showmen, one professional, the other amateur, whose performance would be carefully recorded and property edited to create a stunning vision of everyday existence. What made it worse, his tirade coincided perfectly with the street kid's exhibition in the background, so that neither untoward performance could be edited out.
Undaunted by the encounter, confident of his new director's ability to make even the most non-descript item appear interesting, reporter Andee moved right along to the next witness, a woman perhaps in her late seventies.
"You were right there when it happened?" Amos Andee came at her with his microphone as if to warn her not to try anything funny. She started.
"I didn't push him!" the frightened woman pleaded. She calmed down in an instant though and resumed in a more rational tone. "I can only ask God to forgive whoever said I did. Because let me tell you, young man: he jumped. That old man jumped."
"And you saw him?"
"I saw him."
"You saw it all?"
"I saw it all."
"What, in your own words, did you see?" Andee asked, his fingers crossed that the lady did not take him too literally.
"I saw - good gracious - I saw those bib overalls first of all. I thought to myself: 'Oh my lord, there but for fortune goes my late husband!' Except he never wore overalls - does anyone wear overalls? And old man certainly has no place in them. He ought to know better. The kids wear overalls. And they take drugs. I suppose he was high on QED or something - what is it they call it? Angel dirt? Well, I'm proud to say not once in all his years did my late husband take dirt or any other drug!"
"And the man you saw on the ledge?"
"I never saw him before in my life!" the lady insisted. "He could easily have been my husband though. Except he was so skinny and Skinny - my late husband - was a rather heavey set gentleman. That's maybe why the rafter gave way under the floorboard and he fell three stories to his death. Always well groomed, my Skinny. Not like this old man. He never tried to fly either. Though he often talked of it. He was a sensible man."
"What was your feelings as you stood looking over the railing down into that dark pool of mortality below?" asked Andee.
"There but for fortune goes my Skinny," the lady reported her feelings. "Except he'd never have gone feet first like that. He was always a bit top-heavy, my Skinny was."
"Well thank you," said Andee as the lady was directed out of camera range. Next the teenager was summoned to give his account of the tragedy.
"He done a belly flop," the boy revealed. "That's my favorite too. Like when I go to the Y, and I go swimming; I jump in landing on my belly. I swim in the nude. It's really a trip. Jumping in belly first all naked and all. Really a trip. Hey, once you know what I did down at the bottom of the pool when no one was watching? Huh? And it floated to the surface. Like there was fish spawning -"
The boy was immediately cut off. "So you're saying he landed on his belly?" Andee inquired.
"Yeah, I guess he did. Why wouldn't he? It gives you the most sensations. I feels like -"
Again, the boy had to be interrupted. "Were you able to get a good look at the man's face?"
"Oh sure," the boy replied. "He had a Band-Aid on his chin - you know, like he cut himself shaving? He looked real intense - like I looked in a mirror once when I was doing it -"
"Thank you," Andee hastily motioned the boy away. The camera drew a close angle on the reporter, who held his microphone up to his chin and finished his report.
"A man - an old man, a derelict, one of New York's street people - lies tonight in a morgue in Brooklyn. Why? Because he drowned on the Brooklyn side of the East River, drawn from his high perch atop the Brooklyn Bridge by some unknown irresistible force. Was it the sight of Jesus?"
A thought dawned on reporter Andee, a terrible thought which drew his face into a momentary grimace: he had forgotten to inquire of the three eyewitnesses whether they too had seen Jesus walking the East River. He felt sick at his stomach. He felt as if he were going to throw up. He abruptly ended his report.
"This is Amos Andee reporting from the Brooklyn Bridge." The television camera back at the nightly news cut to a peaceful back yard where Rover was about to receive a surprising treat: a brand new canned dog food more flavorful than anything he had ever eaten. As his tail was wagging on TV, Amos Andee was still on the Brooklyn Bridge, throwing up for the sixth time, afraid to return to his studio with so unprofessional a report.
"Ah Jesus," he moaned, "what made me forget to ask if they saw you?"
A voice answered, "A lack of professionalism." The voice was that of Jesus.
"I'm no good as a reporter, am I?" Andee asked without looking up.
"We shall see," Jesus replied. He knew what it was to be misunderstood, to be judged by standards which had never been designed to allow for the exception, to be held accountable to those whose only concern was maintaining their own positions in their society. Jesus' heart went out to this reporter who, for all his expertise, had been unable to distort a human event into something newsworthy, something appropriate to the small screens of nightly television. Jesus knew alright, because even as he was comforting this reporting, he was being maligned on national TV.
"Here in Sacred Vale, Virginia," lovely Juvenalia was reporting for the nightly news in this, the second of two reports on the sighting of Jesus, "the most Reverend Gideon G Tueshoos has broken what he himself has called his self-imposed silence. He feels, he has said, that as God's vicar here on earth, he can no longer keep his peace."
The camera broadened its angle now to include a burly looking man with a big chin, a big grin and slicked down hair; he was seated next to lovely Juvenalia in the study of his modest mansion out back of his church, the Hallowed Ground Temple of Sacred Vale, Virginia. His Brooks Brothers suit was tastefully dark, highlighted with contrasting pinstripes.
"Reverend Tueshoos," Juvenalia said, "you need no introduction. The people of America know you, respect you, listen to you as the voice of morality."
The Reverend looked as if he would say "Aw shucks Ma'am." He didn't though; he merely nodded in modest acquiescence of the praise. "I try and do what's right," he admitted.
"Reverend," Juvenalia asked, "is it true that you have begun to question the identity of the Jesus we have been seeing in the news recently?"
"Yes, it is," he replied. "I have withheld judgment until I felt it was the right moment to speak my mind. I realize that as a man of God my word carries great weight. I do not carelessly accuse. We who speak for the Almighty must never be less than one hundred percent certain of what we say. Morality, however, is as you know made of very stern stuff and will abide no malingerers for very long. This Jesus - this, yes, this entity calling itself Jesus: it is an imposter. Not Jesus. For the moment I reserve judgment as to whether it is the Anti-Christ, though I am inclined to believe it is."
"The Anti-Christ?" interjected Juvenalia.
"I have not said it yet."
"But you admit the possibility?"
Reverend Tueshoos nodded. "The signs are there."
"What are these signs?"
"For one, his being in the lobby of the Broadcast Building after a stint at the met - his photograph, that is, a magical picture which, I'm told, answers people's questions with a nod of its head. I have not seen it. But I would most certainly question the authenticity of any religious devise occurring outside the legitimate church. Specifically, as leader of the Most Christian Church of All, I cannot conceive Christ not coming to my temple to meet his followers, but going instead to a mere television station or a picture museum. Secondly, there have been reports of foul language coming from the mouth of this photograph. A deacon of one of our congregations swears he heard this Jesus use a bad word in addressing an old lady in a wheelchair - or rather, talking to himself after she had left. And this was after allowing that very same woman to make the most obscene suggestions to him. The Jesus I know and love would have struck her dead on the spot. Finally, not one of my communications has been answered."
"Yes. I have written letters to this Jesus, I have even taken out advertisements in every respectable journal and newspaper in the country. Not one has been answered. It is inconceivable that the real Jesus could have failed to respond. As I said, I hesitate to call this imposter the Anti-Christ; but I shall hold a synod shortly, at which time I shall make it known whether this Jesus is indeed the Anti-Christ or not, or simply a wizard of some witches' coven."
"Thank you Reverend Tueshoos. This is Juvenalia reporting from Sacred Vale Virginia."
At last the anchorman of the nightly news was retrieved from the cathode tubes and put back onto the screen. Signs of relief and deliverance were visible everywhere on his face.
"Hello, I'd like a taxi sent to the Kleen-Your-Rama Laundromat," Norman R Zellor requested over the telephone. "And there'll be a parcel to move also. Two that is."
"Mack: either one's correct!" Norman was advised by the taxi cab dispatcher for the Checkered Cab Company.
"Beg pardon?" said Norman.
"I got my MA in grammar," the dispatcher explained. "So take it from me: you can say 'also' or you can say 'too!' As to the taxi - and here you've got to say 'to!' - I can't help you. Sorry Mack, but we have no taxis available. Neither does anyone else for that matter. They're all out of commission - every taxi in New York."
"On strike?" asked Norman.
"Grow up Mack! The only 'strike' cabbies do is on match covers! There's no strike. They're out looking for a missing cabbie. One of their peers has disappeared. He ain't - oh make that hasn't - been see since yesterday noon. And there ain't no way the taxis of this fair city are going back to business as usual till he's found! There ain't no one better try and give the Jizmo the jazz or there'll be some sore tootsies in the old town tonight from everyone hot foottin' it where he's headed!"
"The Jizz?" asked Norman. "Hey, I know him! He picked up a fare right here, just about 10:30 A.M. yesterday and took them to the airport!"
"And that's right where his car sits Bud - I mean Mack: Bud I've got holding on the other line - you're Mack!"
"What happened to him?"
"That's what the cabbies of this city are out right now trying to find out! Look, I gotta go, Bud's gettin' impatient! See you round - like a donut Mack!"
Norman went over to dryer 11. "We've got a problem," he told Joanne.
"What is it?" Joanne asked.
"We can't get a cab, they're all out looking for - remember the driver who took Yvonne to the airport?"
"Jizmo?" Joanne asked.
"Right. Well, he's disappeared," said Norman.
"Oh no!" exclaimed Sam. "The Jiz done gone and got the jazz! What a piece of news to frost your - oops: sorry Joanne!"
"God only knows how we'll get to the Met to see Jesus!" said Norman.
"Hey, I got it!" Sam offered. "Ask the Hindu to borrow his oxcart! You can load up Joanne right in there and wheel her right on over to the Met - it's only a few blocks from here! What do you say, Stud?"
"Not a bad idea, Sam! Thank you!" Norman congratulated.
"Anytime stud," said Sam, "anytime."
With a little assistance from the Hindu, who was only to happy to loan out his ox cart, the washer and dryer were loaded. "You're sure it won't be too heavy?" asked Norman.
The Hindu shook his head. "I have taken many oxen for a Sunday drive in old Shiva here," he assured Norman, "and not once have I been faulted for the quality of the ride. Go my son, be at peace, carry your Karma wherever you must. Vishnu opens his eye but once in a millennium. No one knows when. Do not let him catch you idle when the work he has set before you still awaits."
"By the way Mr Kleen-Your-Rama," Sam saw an opportunity to converse a bit before they left, "did I ever tell you I used to mange a team of Yogis? We called ourselves The Unkindest Calcuts. We used to lie on a bed of nails and meditate. We never reached Nirvana though."
What happened my son?"
"Ace Hardware ran out of nails and we had to use molly bolts. Do you mind if we just let the matter rest here for now?"
The cart loaded, Norman picked up the handles - just as if he were taking hold of a wheel barrow - and began his journey to the Met to see and hopefully to talk with Jesus. The wooden wheels of the oxcart sounded upon the pavements of Manhattan like oil drums knocked over and rolling down a steep grade. But it relaxed both Norman and Joanne. Sam and the scarab were fast asleep the entire distance.
Half an hour later they arrived at the Met. Norman went in and inquired after Jesus. "Sorry," he was told, "our Jesus show was last month. Giotto, Titian, Raphael, Fra Angelico: all last month. You'll have to come back."
"Oh Jesus," Norman asked, "what am I going to do now?"
"Try the Broadcast Building," a voice said. Norman looked around but saw no one. Nearby was a stray dog, wagging its tail, but that was all. Had the dog spoken? Norman half wondered.
"Come here boy!" he called. The mongrel came to him and let itself be petted. A tan and brown dog, as perfectly nondescript as a mongrel can be, yet something about it gave Norman a good feeling, a sense of being in the presence of something almost divine. Yet of course, he knew, dogs have no souls.
"How do I get to the Broadcast Building from here?" Norman questioned abstractly.
"Turn right, go six blocks, hang a left, and you're there!" came the voice of Jesus again. Then the dog took off running in the opposite direction. Norman smiled, shook his head, muttered "You're the boss," and started off again with his little oxcart full of machinery. The oil drums were off and rolling once more.
A hundred taxis sped past; half of them stopped. The drivers called out to Norman if he had seen Checkered Cab number zero two. To save time, and since he had already given what information he could to the central dispatcher, he answered no, he had not seen the cab, to all inquiries. It was a busy day for New York's cabbies - their busiest ever. Not one fare, though, was collected. By mid-afternoon it had reached crisis proportions, this strange disappearance. The evening news carried the story.
The police commissioner was personally summoned: who better knew the city? He was escorted to the precinct headquarters and shown the map of Manhattan.
"Map?" he smirked. "The day I need a map to get around my city is the day I resign!" He, in turn, called in the mayor, who swore then and there he had never known a finer man than Jizmo, whom he mistakenly called Gizmo. The mayor pledged his full support and even intimated the possibility of calling in the National Guard.
"We're going to turn this city upside down!" he promised. "A few linguistic purists took him literally and never again set foot inside the subway, abandoning one of life's great delights for the sake of language. Mr Dimwiddie Cretatious Zellor, of Long Island, was among them. He had come to Manhattan for the day, to do some shopping for old texts; now he was stranded in Rockefeller Center, neither the subway nor the taxis available - the latter through chance, the former on principle. And the Metrobus he refused entirely to ever set foot in; he had seen a passenger thrown from her seat when the bus rounded a corner and sail right out the door once. The passenger had been his wife, and though she recovered from the accident she was left a partial amnesiac from then on; she could not remember her own name. Ergo, Mr Zellor reasoned, a Metrobus carries within it the seeds of an identity crisis. He had worked very hard and had petitioned every known agency of government - federal, state and local - trying to get warnings posted over the entrance to every bus in America. The notices would read "Warning: This vehicle could be harmful to your psyche." But he failed to convince enough officials.
"Dad," his son Norman had tried to argue, "there are enough warning signs already! Leave the busses be, why can't you?"
"Oh yes," said Mr Zellor in a sarcastic tone, "he who governs least governs best! Well let me tell you, sonny, there's danger afoot out there! People have to be warned!"
"Do they ever listen?" Norman asked.
"Of course not," admitted Mr Zellor, "that's why you need a sign! They've heard the same old words day in and day out till there's no longer any conceivable way of stringing them together to get people's attention! They're sick of words - sick of language - sick of being given so much information they have to build computers to put it all in! So what do they do? They go and build too many cell banks into their design and they need to scare up all that much more information to store in them! It never ends! Pretty soon they'll start inventing whole new languages just so they'll have something to translate - because all that's left is saying words we already have in new ways! And what I propose is this, son - and I've never revealed this to a living soul - is to design a new language of my own, one with no two words alike. No repeats! No word used twice, even in identical situations! Each time a word is used it will be a brand new word which, once used, will never be used again. What I propose, son, is nothing short of Disposable Language! Let them try and put that into their computer banks!"
"But dad, what'd happen to communication? It would all break down!"
"Communication? You think people communicate with words? What a novel idea! How quaint!"
This argument had been merely the final in a series of disputes between Norman and his father, so that while it led directly to their split, it was only the last fray in their social tie, a very minor altercation. They parted with a handshake but without an exchange of words, something which pleased the father as much as it disconcerted the son.
Now they were both out walking the streets of Manhattan, both headed in the direction of the Broadcast Building, Norman pushing a little oxcart filled with a washer and dryer, Mr Zellor busily renaming everything he saw, discarding each new name as quickly as it came to him.
Word on the street was that the President of the United States had been contacted about the disappearance of Jizmo Knetler and had appointed a commission to study the problem; a press conference was tentatively scheduled for eight o'clock that evening.
"Jizmo was last seen," reported the anchorman on the nightly news, "at a Rodney Dangerfield concert in the Airline Lounge where the comedian is reportedly appearing nightly before striking workers. We hope to have film highlights at eleven. According to eyewitnesses, Jizmo was implicated or in some other way involved in an attempted hijacking of a Mars of Massachusetts Jumbo Jet; as yet these reports are unconfirmed. Later this evening, on News-Snooze, we'll have an hour long presentation: 'The Life and Times of William A Jizmo Knetler, Renaissance Man for All Seasons, Big and Small, Near and Far.' And in New York's St Elmo's Cathedral, an all night vigil and prayer service is scheduled to begin at one thirty A.M. And that's the news, news-style. Good night."
Norman arrived without incident at the Broadcast Building. On the ground floor was a cafeteria, to the left; a drug store to the right; and, in the very center of the main foyer, the photograph of Jesus on display. You could only get to it through a series of intersecting velvet ropes; you had to enter where it said "Enter," then you had to make a sharp right, go forward, make a sharp left, go forward again, make what amounted to a U-turn, then another right, then one final right, and you were there. Norman was able to get the oxcart into the foyer using the wheelchair ramp; otherwise he would have had to leave it outside. An attendant directed him to a designated place then gave him a claim check.
"Take a number," he was told.
"A number?" he asked. "You mean like 'one to ten'?"
"Oh mercy no," he was told, "we're many times past that. Just grab one of these tickets, wait over there until your number is called, then you may go stand in line until it's your turn."
"You do have a question, don't you?" Norman was asked.
"I don't know. I suppose I do," he replied. "Do all these people?"
"Why yes," was the reply. "That's why they're here. 'Questions for Christ.' Didn't you read or hear about our service?"
"Not really," Norman admitted. He was directed over to a sign showcased across the foyer from the photograph. It was a huge sign; he wandered how he could have missed seeing it when he came in.
"Questions for Christ," it read in big yellow letters. Underneath was the text, which read almost like the numbered rules of a parlor game. "1. Take a Number. 2. Await your turn. 3. Ask Jesus one - and only one - question. It must be such as to be answered in either the affirmative or the negative. 4. One nod of Christ's head signifies 'Yes.' Two nods signify 'No.' 5. When your question has been answered, please exit as indicated by the signs. And thank you for not smoking in the lobby of a public building."
"I tell you," Sam was busy observing, "that Jesus sure as shit knows how to put on a show - don't he now?"
Before long Norman's number was called and he went to stand in line. By the time he was halfway up to the photograph, he could overhear the questions which were being asked. An old woman was asking about her grandson.
"Will my Antonio ever wake up?" she asked, half afraid to look up into the photograph. Norman felt as though it was wrong to observe the reply, but he could not refrain from watching. He was dumbfounded by what he saw. The Christ nodded neither yes nor no; instead, he shrugged. And he seemed to be embarrassed. The old woman walked off, mumbling to herself "It's always the same, always the same. My poor little baby in a coma in a hospital, my poor little Tony. And his little sister squealing for him. Always the same, Jesus. Always the same."
The next supplicant was a very well dressed businessman. He spoke in a very brisk voice. "Will my next merger be profitable?" he asked. Jesus nodded once. "Good," the man said as he left. "I'll have the papers drawn up first thing tomorrow."
Several other questions were asked before it came Norman's turn. At last he stood before the Christ - the photograph of the Christ. He looked up into that gentle face, into those bright but sad eyes. He noticed a bruise right beneath the left eye, and all around the nostrils it was red as if Jesus had been sneezing.
"One question," Norman reminded himself. "So much to say, so much to ask. But only one question. I wonder if that's your rule Jesus or theirs. Oh Jesus, I wish I could ask you all the things that are in my heart: who am I? why am I here? what will become of me? does God consider me worth much?; or what about the world: will it survive? or will it destroy itself? will there ever be peace? All these things, Jesus, I can't ask, because there's something - I won't say more important - but more urgent. This cabdriver Jesus - tell me, Jesus, if you will: is he alright? Is Jizmo alright?"
Jesus smiled and nodded once. Norman thanked him and turned to go.
"Norman," a voice called to him, "my time is your time. But you must prove yourself worthy of it. Ask me one question - and remember, I can see into your heart, so I know what it is you wish most of all to know right now. So ask it. And make sure it truly is what you wish to ask - because if it isn't, I'll know."
"Why did you answer that businessman, who merely wanted to know if he could turn a profit, but not that woman whose only concern was her grandson?"
Jesus thanked Norman for his honesty. "His money, Norman, was every bit as important to him as her grandson was to her," Jesus explained. "I'm here to help my people. Would you have me turn away the poorest among them? You know I've always preached to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to clothe the naked, to comfort the afflicted. I of all people must practice what I preach. Therefore, when a man whose only goods are his assets asks for my help, I cannot both keep faith with the word and refuse him. Have you more questions?"
"Yes Jesus," Norman replied.
The regular questioning went on interrupted while Norman spoke to Jesus. The photograph maintained its own with the supplicants while the voice of Jesus conversed with Norman, except for once or twice when Jesus broke off his tete-a-tete to give a personal reply. One man, a chef at Sardi's, forgot to word his question in the prescribed manner.
"Tell me Jesus," he asked, "why is it that when you slice a good piece of pie for a customer and he starts eating it, it begins to wobble on his plate and sometimes, when he's near the end, it falls over backwards?" Then he remembered. "Oh dear," he said, "you can't answer yes or no to that, can you?" The man started to leave.
"That's alright," Jesus told him. "This is important enough to bend the rules a little for. The truth is, it's unavoidable in a pie, this tendency to lean on its axis - particularly your cream pies."
"That's right!" the chef exclaimed. "Oh thank you, Jesus - and anytime you want the best chocolate meringue pie in town, step in to Sardi's - as my personal guest!"
"I'll keep you in mind," said Jesus. "Actually I hate chocolate," he murmured.
"Beg pardon?" Norman asked.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Jesus apologized, "my mind was elsewhere. You were saying?"
"There's so much to ask," Norman explained. "But, first things first. My friend, Joanne - she's a witch. Some very bad men - actually Snowmen -"
"Go easy on passing judgment," Jesus cautioned.
"Alright. Let's just say 'some Snowmen' put her in a washer and dryer - her friend too, Lisabeth. Anyway, to make a long story short, Joanne needs to wash and dry your shroud in order to be released."
"Your shroud. You know: The Shroud of Turin."
"Oh, that one," mused Jesus.
"So, if you would be so kind, it would mean a great deal if you could give your permission. Will you Jesus?"
"Norman, I wish I could, but I can't. I'm sorry, but it isn't mine, this shroud. It belongs to the Church."
"But they maintain it in your name!" Norman protested.
"It's still their property. Finders keepers. Look it up. Possession is 9/10 of the Law."
"You seem very casual about it," Norman observed. "Is it because the Shroud is a fake, like some people say - is that what you're trying to get me to understand?"
"I don't know if it's a fake or not, I leave all these things - relics, bones of saints, tail feathers alleged to belong to the Holy Ghost - I leave them to the Church. I have more important things to do. And as to your laundering it, that's entirely an administrative matter. You'll have to ask one of the domestics at the Vatican. I'm sorry, it's the best I can do for you."
"But that means I'll have to go to Turin - and take Joanne along!" Norman exclaimed.
"Then I suggest Air France - they were wonderful to my mother. She went tourist yet they gave her caviar - caviar in tourist, mind you! Let's us call it a night, how about it? And if you go call the Air France terminal right now you just have time to reserve a seat for yourself and storage space for Joanna. And may God go with you!"
Jesus was nodding his head as Norman walked away. A supplicant was asking a question. "The rhythm method don't seem to work like it's supposed to," a man was explaining. "My wife's always pregnant. Always. So I got this idea. For a new rhythm see. I take both our biorhythms. I add up the numerology in our names. I subtract the natal positions of the planets from the present positions. I divide the number of Popes by the number of Presidents of the United States. I throw all the sub-totals into an IBM 260, take an average, then translate it into a day, month, year and hour. That's when we have sex, my wife and I. What do you think, Jesus? Will it work?"
Jesus nodded once. But in his heart of hearts he had his doubts.
Outside, with his oxcart, Norman retreated from the Broadcast Building. He was as silent as his cart was noisy. He felt as if he were being rushed along by some necessity only vaguely connected to himself; as if something which fate had decreed to happen to somebody else had caught hold of his sleeve long enough to sway him from his course; as if his own fate had willingly ceased affecting him until this random thing had run its course. He felt cheated. I'm supposed to be doing something too, going somewhere, moving in a certain path, he mused; but it's on hold, whatever it is. Even my destiny isn't absolute any more! It's like a cliff-hanger, where you're suddenly suspended in mid-air till next week; and while you're awaiting your fate other people are going about their lives - buying, selling, stealing, giving away, living, dying - right in the middle of it all, as if they didn't see you hanging there by your thumbnails. Suspended animation. You have to step outside your own life to become part of theirs till the film starts rolling again. You alternate between your life and theirs - active one minute, passively doubling for them the next, and so on. Here's Norman, about to live his life - but first, a word from everybody else.
"Hey man, don't squash me when I say this," came a voice from Norman's pocket.
"What? Don't what?" asked Norman.
"Don't squash me," Sam repeated himself.
"Look, we've been through this," said Norman, a little irritated. "I'm not going to squash you. I like you. We're friends."
"Sure. In fact, you're one of the best friends I've ever had."
"Gee," said Sam. "Hmm," he mused, "that doesn't say much for you, though, does it, if a spider's one of your best friends ever?"
"I don't make friends easily. Anyway, what was it you were going to say?"
"Promise you won't hit me?"
"I won't hit you," Norman promised.
"Okay, then, here goes - and I'm going to duck just the same when I tell you! It's like this, Stud: I...well...I don't quite...that is, I don't exactly...trust this Jesus."
"What!" exclaimed Norman. "Not trust Jesus?"
"Hey you promised!"
"I'm not gong to hurt you," said Norman. "I just don't understand: how could you not trust Jesus?"
"I don't know, I just have a feeling - a sixth sense - about him. I don't trust him. he's not telling you everything. I mean, he was holding back. There's more there than meets the eye. He's got something up his sleeve. I don't know what, but mark my words: he's not telling you the whole story."
Suddenly Norman said "Oh Jesus!"
"Are you praying?" Sam asked.
Before Norman could answer, he was interrupted by the voice of a man approaching from across the street. The man was talking in what seemed to be absolute gibberish. Some of his words had the ring of real words, some were even recognizable; but most were utterly meaningless words.
"Snow White kleemn klock ushna sbkaneev violets are blue blinkum par snorzle snee snoop Sunday School," and so on, an assortment of words spoken completely at random, no single word ever repeated. This man, with his strange unholy language, was Mr Zellor, Norman's father, the ruined professor of philology who for the past twenty years had worked a pneumatic drill as his sole occupation. He had invented his new language. Or, more precisely, he was inventing it as he went: it was an ongoing process, one word at a time, spoken then discarded never to be heard again. Disposable Language. Spoken, not as a monotone, but with feeling, intonation, syllabification: spoken as if it had been phonetically derived through thousands of years of usage. Mr Zellor was not merely spewing out words; he was using each word in its precise contextual meaning relative to the others, as well as accurately observing its definite significance. Each word, for all its obtuseness, had a particular referent; and his inflection made that aspect of it apparent.
Had he said "There's my son walking down the street pushing an oxcart full of machines," he would not have made his meaning any better understood. His language, despite its inherent inventiveness, was a living language, a felt language; and therefore an understood language.
"I borrowed this from a Hindu," Norman explained.
"Jowash neece ippitatti Christmas Carol lolly olly plum pudding?"
"No dad, I didn't graduate from college. I dropped out."
"Zup woosh peanut butter skachle3 meese tumptilump fishfry bapora?"
"Yes, dad, I know you and mom miss me."
Whether it was because Norman knew instinctively everything his father would say to him and the exact sequence it would be said in, or whether he genuinely understood what was being said, he responded perfectly to each statement, just as if an interpreter had been beside him translating his father's words.
Mr Zellor made it clear to his son that he wished to gain acceptance for his new language; and, furthermore, that he thought it proper to begin at home. He gave Norman to understand that being the son of its inventor he should be first to accept it. Norman could not oblige him.
"I have too many commitments just now," Norman explained. "I'm going to have enough trouble with Italian.
"Italian?" cried Mr Zellor before he realized what he was doing. This was his first relapse into conventional language. He mumbled out a string of bizarre sounds to balance his error.
"I've reserved a seat on tomorrow's flight to Rome," Norman explained. "And," he added, indicating the oxcart, "a place in the hold."
Mr Zellor just shook his head. He hated the thought that perhaps his son was a paid assassin, and on his way to shoot some dignitaries at the Vatican. Why this particular thought should have come to him, he had no idea, other than that he sensed some duplicity on his son's part. How else account for his refusal to learn a new language - a perfect language at that, one which could be tailored to a person's individual needs? No, he thought, though not in such old fashioned terminology, there's something wrong here: it doesn't make sense to continue speaking a dead language when you have a new one dropped right into your lap.
Mr Zellor invited his son to accompany him to Long Island for an overnight visit, but Norman felt obliged to refuse, explaining that since there were no taxicabs on call he had no assurance of reaching the airport on time unless he simply headed there now, even though that might mean an overnight stay in the terminal.
"And I refuse to take a bus!" he insisted, snapping the fingers of one hand for emphasis. This lighted his father's face up, as Norman knew it would.
"Ok krunk!" Mr Zellor commended his son on his wisdom. "Slaz movse!" he repeated his commendation, patting his son on the back and smiling gloriously. He in fact was so pleased that he decided to accompany Norman to the airport before returning to Long Island. We'll have a nice man to man talk! he resolved. And maybe I can talk him out of this assassination business, he thought to himself in a strange attempt to disguise his thought lest his son read his mind.
They each took a handle and, together, they lifted the little oxcart and began pushing it, in the direction of the airport, two figures beneath the artificially lighted sky over New York forming, with their burden, a miniature of sorts, as if a caravan moving gracefully against a backdrop of night spotted with green and yellow light which taken together gave the appearance of moldy Russian bread upon which a child had left a toy sitting.
The airport - and it was a busy airport, it housed Air Italia and many others - was half an hour's drive from mid-town Manhattan; a good two hour's walk; three hours by oxcart. The sun had set, unnoticed; it left no trail of luminous clouds, no scratches of fading red, nothing to mark its dispatch. It was an easy setting, there was no struggle within the spectrum; and, for it, no one paid any attention, even if they could have for the buildings. Norman and his father were like prospectors traversing a deep narrow gorge which, once behind, promised a wealth of hidden treasure. Mr Zellor kept up his end of the conversation, an intermittent one at best; but Norman said almost nothing: he was troubled by what Sam had said earlier, about not trusting Jesus.
"Not trust Jesus?" he thought over and over. "Jesus would never be untrustworthy. Not even his human side. I don't think."
The airport terminal was something like a triangle stretched to accommodate a trapezoid. If its shape gave any indication of its function, one would expect to embark here for outer space, not for Italy, or Portugal, or Egypt. It was very bright inside, and with so much glass one might well get the impression of looking into a giant light bulb, irregularly shaped. Everything was order and functionality, whereas from outside it had appeared to be chaos. It occurred to Norman that, like so many other opposites - hate and love, anarchy and tyranny, night and day, and so on - these two extremes were at their farthest points almost indistinguishable. This made his entry a little less awkward: because he really was entering chaos as fully as he was order, and while pushing an oxcart full of machines alongside a man who babbled in seemingly incomprehensible syllables was out of place in the one element, crossing that subtle line to the other element made him suddenly right at home.
He got his tickets: one for himself, one for his baggage - and one for his father, who expressed a desire to see the Pope after all. They went to the lounge to await their flight, and to have a bite to eat. The television was on; everybody in the lounge was watching. The President of the United States was holding a press conference.
"I believe," he was saying, "that he who governs least governs best." This statement elicited a few choice words from Mr Zellor.
"I want to build a memorial - a monument - to Jizmo Knetler. Here was a man who captured the mind of this nation as none other has succeeded in doing so far during my term of office. A national hero. His exploits are the very stuff of legend. And when the smoke clears, I'm certain he'll be exonerated of all charges of espionage.
"Then you don't believe he was an enemy agent?" a reporter asked.
"Not for one minute I don't. We have no enemies," the President explained. An aide motioned for him to come closer; something was whispered into his ear. He nodded. "We have no enemies that we can talk about - national security," the President corrected his earlier statement.
"How much will this monument cost?" another reporter asked. "And should the taxpayers be forced to pay to erect a monument to a soldier of fortune who's quite possibly an international terrorist?"
"No," replied the President, "the taxpayers should not have to pay for it. That is why I plan to have a yard sale tomorrow on the South Lawn of the White House. I intend to try and raise the necessary funds. And the First Lady, my lovely wife - can you see her from here? She's the one smiling. Hi honey! What's for supper? - she will sell lemonade.
"The First Lady will sell lemonade down by the South lawn?" a reporter wanted to get this story straight.
"That is correct," said the President. "Right honey?" he again called to his wife, who smiled and nodded yes. The First Lady kept smiling long after the camera turned from her and her image receded from public view. Some commentators insisted that hers was the biggest smile of any First Lady in recent memory; but others said no, it was just the camera angle which showed off her best side.
"So I'm inviting all of you to stop by, anytime between ten A.M. and four P.M. tomorrow and browse to your heart's content," the President concluded his press conference. "And remember," he added, "there'll be refreshments! So till then, good night and have a safe and happy country." Fadeout. The faces of the anchorman of the nightly news and his top reporters came on. They were there to discuss the President's news conference, to look for any possible hidden significance, and to just in general chew the fat till time for the commercial break.
"How do you see this in terms of international diplomacy? Will there be ramifications?"
"Unquestionably there will. Any major policy shift is bound to have repercussions."
"That's right. I was speaking to the Ambassador of the Philippines earlier this evening, and he said if this was a success his country might very well have a yard sale itself."
"But I understand the people of Mexico are taking this in an entirely different sense - is this true?"
"Yes it is. All our reports seem to indicate that they read a negative connotation into this. Are they once more being regarded as 'America's backyard?' they are asking. And as yet, we have no answer."
"The Back Yard Policy?"
"Well we have to leave it at that. We'll just have to wait and see whether the borders at Nogales are sealed off or not. Until then, good night. And stay tuned for News Snooze immediately following the movie of the week, 'Jigglers and Danglers: Marriage Dropping on the Rocks.'" Fadeout to commercial for a low calorie beer which "really delivers."
"You know," Norman said to his father, "if you've decided to come to Italy with me, you'd better call mom and tell her. Or better yet, how about if I call her?"
"Applesauce," replied Mr Zellor. Once, and just this once, applesauce meant yes; then it would never be used again, not as anything - least of all as itself. True applesauce could become perhaps mlisb one day, zeep the next, and on to infinity; but it was never to be its old name again, any more than yes would be yes any longer. When you take up Disposable Language, you damn well better know what you're talking about, because you only get one chance to say it.
Norman dialed his mother and gave her the news. "Hi mom," he said. "Dad and I are going to Italy tomorrow. We should be back by Monday. Can we bring you anything?"
"A lock of the Pope's hair," Mrs Zellor suggested.
"Mom, the Pope is bald," Norman pointed out.
"It doesn't have to be from his head," Mrs Zellor explained. "Just so it's his. Oh, and while you're at it, I could use some grated parmesan. And maybe, if you think of it, some rigatoni. Oh, and if you have time, bring me a nun's habit if you happen upon a nun skinny dipping. Tell her I'll send her the money for it. I'm thinking of joining a convent, but of course I'll need a habit first. They don't let you in in street clothes. Maybe the Sisters of Bon Secours. Or no, I think they're run by a very strict mother superior. I'll try the Jesuits instead. Now don't forget: did you write it down?"
"Yes mom," said Norman, "it's all written down."
"Liar liar pants on fire!" cried Sam with a husky laugh.
"Oh my God!" cried Mrs Zellor. "There's a fire? Someone's cookware is burning? Ah, you'd better hurry right up dear and save yourself! And your father - don't forget him! Good bye!"
Mrs Zellor hung up; so did Norman. Sam could hardly stop laughing; then, momentarily, he began coughing. Finally he was quiet again.
"Almost croaked that time!" he said. The scarab heaved a great sigh. Norman asked if Sam was alright. "Yeah," Sam told him, "I'm still in there kicking!"
Several people complimented Norman on his ventriloquism. They compared him favorably to that renowned ventriloquist Jizmo Knetler, whom they praised as the best in the business. Then they shook their heads sadly, wondering out loud what could make a great entertainer "go wrong like that, to become a terrorist and a revolutionary who blew up airplanes in mid-air and abducted little old ladies and small children." They shuddered to think of it. "Jekyll and Hyde," they concluded.
Norman and his father left the lounge to go sit in the terminal, perhaps to get some sleep in the big roomy arm chairs the airport provided its customers. They had a long journey ahead of them. They no sooner sat down than they were both sound asleep. Mr Zellor tended to talk in his sleep. He would have been disconcerted by what he said had he been able to hear himself.
While they slept, they were being watched, from two separate vantage points. On the far side of the terminal were the three Snowmen who had remained in New York. They had followed Norman from the Hindu's Laundromat, first to the Met then to the Broadcast Building then here, to the airport, convinced that he was none other than Jesus himself. They had had their doubts until, unnoticed, they had slipped into the lobby of the Broadcast Building and watched as Norman stood before the photograph of Jesus. There was no question about it: the face in the photograph and Norman's were identical. They were somewhat puzzled; this was not exactly what they had expected Jesus to look like. But when they added up all the evidence, there was simply no escaping the truth: Norman and Jesus were one and the same. And when, right after Norman left, they saw him perform a miracle, that clinched it. Only Jesus could have brought back to life that stray dog they saw a car run over. And all Norman did was snap his fingers. Just like that. A miracle. This was Jesus alright: no doubt about it.
On the near side of the terminal, two men stood watching Norman and Mr Zellor, feigning to read newspapers. There were holes punched in the newsprint to enable them to watch. They were detectives, in hot pursuit of their quarry. The firm of Smith and Smithers had been retained by the Reverend Gideon G Tueshoos to track, and to watch, and to report on the activities of the Anti-Christ. The same set of circumstances which had convinced the Snowmen had likewise convinced the detectives that Norman A Zellor and the man in the photograph were one and the same person. But unlike the Snowmen, Smith and Smithers believed this person to be, not Jesus Christ, but the Anti-Christ. In the back of their minds somewhere was still the composite drawing of the interstate bandit given them by Miss Elsie. Perhaps they could get two birds with the same stone this time out. And even if Norman turned out not to be the bandit who plundered Fish's Laundry and ruined all of Miss Elsie's fine washables, just his being the Anti-Christ would very likely be enough to enhance their reputation - if they caught him, that is.
They reported to Reverend Tueshoos that Norman, in the company of an older man who spoke the most peculiar language, had purchased Airline Tickets to Rome, Italy.
"Ah-ha!" exclaimed Tueshoos. "It's all beginning to fit together now. The Anti-Christ, as revelation makes clear, will rule from the Papacy at Rome. The ten-headed beast!"
"We only saw one," Smith, who was doing the talking, said.
"Ten nations," Tueshoos explained. "Not literal heads. You mustn't take the Bible literally, except where it spells out the Do's and Don't's. As to this strange being accompanying him, that would be his familiar."
"They do favor each other," Smith agreed.
"And you say they are aided and abetted by a Hindu Yogi?"
"They're using his oxcart."
"Paganism," Tueshoos pointed out. "They worship oxen in Hindustan, or whatever that place is called, the name escapes me just now. Well, follow them to Rome, do what you can to keep him from taking control; but it may already be to late. Give me a call when you arrive."
"Collect?" Smith asked.
"Well, uhm, it might be better if you didn't," Tueshoos suggested. "Uhm. So they can't trace you - yes, that's it: so they can't trace you!" he added as an afterthought.
Ten o'clock the next morning, Norman and his father boarded Air Italia flight 703 to Rome, Italy. The little oxcart and its contents were loaded aboard. The three Snowmen managed to stow away. Smith and Smithers were also aboard, disguised as a traveling priest and nun running off to be married in St Peter's Cathedral: they felt that as clerics they would attract less attention. The flight was uneventful until the passengers disembarked.
At the exact moment flight 703 was departing the airport in New York, in Washington DC, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the President's yard sale was beginning. Lovely Juvenalia was dispatched to cover the event. The assignments editor had meant to send two reporters, but Amos Andee could not be found, so Juvenalia went alone - as it turned out, a most fortuitous occurrence for her.
Reporter Andee, not meaning to trail anyone, had, after his disastrous report from the Brooklyn Bridge, gone himself to the Broadcast Building to visit with Jesus. Everyday, he passed the place where the photograph hung as he traversed the main lobby on his way to his office; but he had never taken the time to really look closely at Jesus. That evening he did. He saw Norman. He noticed the Snowmen: his reporter's instinct told him there was a story here, but he was too heartsick to pursue it. He noticed the detectives, Smith and Smithers, loitering in the corner as if awaiting an opportunity to mug someone, but this too he ignored. His eyes were fixed on Jesus. The face in the photograph was a good face, but that was not what had riveted his attention. Finally it dawned on him what it was: the marks, the strange markings, the gash below the left eye and the bluish bruise about the nostrils. "Where have I seen these exact marks before?" he asked himself. "Recently too." He thought and thought. Finally it came to him.
"Oh my God!" he muttered in absolute astonishment. "Oh my God!" He hurried from the building. He practically raced to the Bronx morgue, then from there to the morgue in Brooklyn, crying "Oh my God!" over and over to himself almost every step of the way. This was unlike anything he had ever encountered in all his years of reporting. This was - this could well be - the biggest story of...of...of the year?...of the decade?...of the century?..."Hell!" he cried, "Of all time!"
He was busy pursuing leads. He had no time to cover the President's Yard Sale to help raise money for the Jizmo Knetler Memorial Fund which would be used to erect a monument to this cabbie who had captured the imagination of the whole country - indeed, of the whole world, for in every nation on earth donations were being taken up to help in this worthy project. It would be as a great tower reaching to the sky, this monument; built by all mankind; resting just beyond the Tidal Basin in Washington DC, in plain view of those other great monuments to those other beloved Americans.
But Andee was not there. Juvenalia covered the story alone, on a placid day, a Friday, in mid-summer, beneath "an Emily Blue sky filled with wisps of Grandma Moses clouds irradiated through with Midasian rays." Juvenalia had not written that part of her report, the son-in-law of the news director, an aspiring poet, had added that touch of elegance for her, having first checked with the station's weather man - Ward, the Weather Wizard - to be certain the heavens would be exactly as he envisioned them.
"We're here on the South Lawn of the White House," Juvenalia went on to report. "The Prime Ministers of our allies have just entered and are beginning to browse. The British seem most interested in the President's collection of model ships in bottles. It looks as if the Prime Minister is preparing to purchase one. The Germans are busy studying the President's video cassettes. The Canadians seem intent on buying up all the Americana collection of memorabilia. The Italians are surveying the President's Wild West artifacts. The gates are now being opened to the general public. There's quite a crowd waiting to get inside. And - ah yes! - I see the President himself standing behind the cash register. And here comes the First Lady with her lemonade stand. As the day wears on, we'll keep you posted of the events here at the White House, where all the excitement or a carnival plus all the majesty of the stock exchange have combined with the enthusiasm of a national holiday to produce one heck of a good time. Reporting live from Washington, this is Juvenalia."
Among the myriad visitors, but unnoticed, indistinguishable from the crowd, his presence unreported, was Jesus Christ. He wore a brown corduroy jacket, tan corduroy Levi pants, Dock Siders in oxblood, and had on dark glasses - Foster Grants. He was here to browse, and to perform a miracle. Being blessed with divine insight, he suspected that hawking lemonade to shoppers was not the First Lady's forte; so he kept a close eye on her concession. Meanwhile, he looked over the wares.
"Fine potholders we've got here," said the Secretary of State, who knew what it was like getting one's fingers burned and was therefore only too eager to man the notions stand. But Jesus said no, he didn't cook.
Coming next upon the dinnerware stand, he was asked by the Secretary of Defense, who was stationed there, what he thought of the new line of steak knives.
"Better than Ginsu, huh?" the Secretary hinted. Jesus told him, however, that he ate no meat.
"You can use these knives for almost anything," Jesus was informed. But he said no thanks and moved on to the next booth, the handicrafts stand, presided over by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who was not entirely at home here.
"I hate like the devil charging you for anything," he confessed. "Oh, what the hell: if you see something you like, take it, it's yours, I can't bring myself to take your money!" Jesus politely refused his offer though, explained that if he were broke he would gladly accept the Secretary's generosity, but having money in his pocket, he would feel compelled to pay his own way.
By eleven A.M. the stage was set for the miracle Jesus had come here to perform. The day had grown quite hot. Emily's Blue sky had bled white and the Midasian sun had irradiated the Grandma Moses clouds into turgid pockets of steam. The people grew thirstier and thirstier as the day degree by degree exceeded Ward the Weather Wizard's predictions. They all flocked to the First Lady's lemonade stand.
"Gimme a brew!" demanded an exhausted browser.
"Oh, I have no brewade," the First Lady explained, "only nice ice cold lemonade from Florida, California and Arizona."
"Well, gimme that!"
"Oh dear!" moaned the First Lady as she took up a ladle and began dipping water from one of the huge wooden caskets positioned beside her. There were several casks in all.
"What's wrong lady?" the customer asked in an impatient voice.
"I seem to have run a little temporarily short of lemons," the First Lady replied.
"What, no lemonade?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Hey yous!" the customer called. "This dame here's afraid she ain't got no lemonade!"
"What?" everyone standing in line at the lemonade booth cried. "We got no lemonade?"
"Yes," the First Lady replied meekly, "we have no lemonade, I'm afraid. I don't know what could have gone wrong or where the lemons went to but they just seem to have disappeared - and I had three of them!"
"Only three lemons - for this many people?"
"They were big lemons," the First Lady pointed out. "Sunkist lemons. I had one flown in from Florida, one from Arizona, one from California especially for this yard sale. Three of my husband's most trusted aides booked chartered flights to go get them for me. They even took their wives and children along to be sure they didn't forget. They're so thoughtful that way. The ad hoc committee my husband consulted all agreed you could get enough lemonade to quench the American public's thirst out of that many lemons - and they're the best consultants in the business! Oh dear, what shall I do? What shall I do?"
The cry of "Fraud!" went through the entire crowd as the word spread that the lemonade was watered down. This charge cut the First Lady to the quick, for it had never been her intent to bilk the public. She simply was not very good in the kitchen.
"I should have asked Julia Child, I suppose," she mused behind her deserted stand, "but it was so important, I didn't think I should trust it to a mere cook - not something of this magnitude! Oh Jesus, she sighed, her head bowed low over he spent lemon rinds, what am I to do? Please help me Jesus. Please help me."
"Take the rinds," came a voice from the crowd, "and cast them into the casks. Then summon back the crowd."
Without a thought the First Lady complied with the request, first tossing the rinds into the casks then, before even testing the water, calling to the people that the lemonade was on.
"Ah!" the people all exclaimed in the delicate voices of gourmets, "she saved the best for last!"
"Better than any brew I ever tasted!" remarked the first customer who had been turned away, the first to be served the new made beverage.
Word of the First Lady's lemonade spread throughout the crowd. As it so happened, an off duty deputy with the Justice Department was present at the yard sale, in the company of a bureaucrat from the General Accounting Office, who was taking compensatory time off to do some early Christmas shopping. They got wind of the mysterious beverage. They decided to investigate.
"All these casks of lemonade - from three lemons?" they wondered. "Sounds fishy. Could be someone's padding the budget - what do you think?"
"Let's have a look," they both agreed.
While on their way to the First Lady's lemonade stand, they were diverted by an altercation at the cash register. A customer, a small boy, was accusing the cashier of cheating him.
"I gave you a quarter!" the boy insisted. "And this balloon only cost 24 cents! Where's my change? I want my penny! You cheated me! You robbed me!"
"What seems to be the problem here?" the off duty deputy asked.
"He's a robber!" the boy cried.
"Did he give you a quarter?" the deputy asked.
"Yes, he did."
"And did you give him a penny change?"
"No, I didn't."
"See! See! I told you!" cried the boy.
"And why didn't you?" asked the deputy.
"The sales tax."
"There's no Federal sales tax - and we're on Federal property here!" the bureaucrat from GAO declared.
The President of the United States of America turned a deep red. "No sales tax at the White House?" he asked incredulously.
"No sales tax at the White House," the bureaucrat apprised him. "I think," the bureaucrat went on to say, turning to the deputy, "we'd better subpoena the books when this sale is over. And the register tape."
"Register tape?" asked the President.
The man from GAO inspected the cash register and found no tape. "Hmm," he mused, "so you've no record of your sales."
"I pretty much remember what I sold," the President assured.
"Have you invoices for these goods?" the deputy asked.
The bureaucrat once again turned to the deputy. "I think this calls for a full scale investigation," he observed.
"But this is just junk: trinkets, souvenirs, novelties - just junk!" the President insisted. "This, for instance," he said, taking up a miniature Washington Monument: it's just junk!"
"Just hold on there," cautioned the bureaucrat. "This is the same kind of stuff the vendors outside your gate sell, day in and day out. I'd go easy criticizing their wares."
The President looked nervous. He could not remember, try as he might, if this were an election year or not. He had to assume the worst, just to be on the safe side. He looked around to see if anyone had overheard him. Satisfied that no one was nearby, he returned to his duties as cashier. But the White House has a thousand eyes and ears. Washington DC, some say, is but one big ear. The President's words, inevitably, unavoidably, but unfortunately, were overheard. Within an hour the charges he had carelessly leveled against the Washington vendors made front page.
"President vows crackdown on local merchants!" the headline read. Within two hours, the White House was being picketed by vendors and other businessmen who rely on the tourist trade for their living. They carried signs accusing the President of promoting socialism and even communism by suppressing free trade. He was painted as a pawn of the "one world conspiracy." He was charged with trying to bankrupt the nation. And he was portrayed as being out to monopolize the souvenir industry - a "home industry," as much a part of America as TV's and automobiles.
"It's unpatriotic," many declared, "to call souvenirs junk! What's next? Calling Sherman tanks tin cans?" The debate heated to a frenzied pitch before dying down just in time for the protesters to see themselves on the nightly news.
"Brought to you this evening by Mars of Massachusetts." The commercial break was first.
"We've lost planes in the Bermuda Triangle," a dour faced man said. "And we've lost planes in the Great Lakes. We've had more planes hijacked than any other major carrier in the Western world. In spite of all this, our fares compare favorably with the rest. And our safety record is a model for the industry. We can't guarantee we'll get you there. But if you do arrive, it'll be safely. And cheaply. Mars of Massachusetts: We Fly in the Face of Reality."
The cameraman had caught the First Lady serving lemonade; interspliced with shots of angry protesters was her dainty hostessing. The customers she was serving at the time, as it happened, were the gentlemen who had just accosted the President. The man from GAO, grown hoarse from the harangue, decided upon some refreshment to soothe his parched throat. The deputy intimated that he too could use some nice lemonade.
"So how's business?" the bureaucrat asked.
"Just wonderful," the First Lady replied.
"Delicious lemonade," complimented the deputy.
"Why thank you," said the First Lady. "For a while there I was afraid three wouldn't be enough."
"Three casks, you mean?"
"No, three lemons. But I managed to stretch them. Well, they were Sunkist, of course!"
"Three lemons?" asked the deputy. The First Lady nodded.
"You mean to say," inquired the bureaucrat skeptically, "you only used three lemons? You got all these casks' worth of lemonade with only three lemons?"
"They were big lemons - Sunkist. I don't know if I said that or not."
"Thank you very much," said the bureaucrat, vowing in his mind to look a little deeper into this concession.
"Oh you're quite welcome!" replied the First Lady.
Flight 703 arrived without incident in Rome Italy. On the way, Mr Zellor struck up a conversation with a professor of Dead Languages.
"I'm to reconstruct ancient Urian," the gentleman explained.
"Flum," replied Mr Zellor.
"From Ur," the professor replied, thinking Mr Zellor's statement a question. Having had no previous training in Disposal Language, he of course took his cue from his own experience. "Ancient Ur that is, the Ur of the Chaldees. We think the Chaldees. Modern Ur: forget it!"
"Toothbrush amagenon wollypop!" exclaimed Mr Zellor, a bit incensed with so casual a dismissal of what might very well be somebody's hometown.
"Now that last word you said," the professor pointed out, "it sounds rather like a derivative of the Hittite 'Wolly pup,' or 'Wallu pip,' depending upon the tense. Referring naturally to what appears from Anatolia to be the precession of equiturnal dialysistics, or simply PED to the square invert. We get our modern name for invertase sugar from it, don't you see. Sucrose - welbenstang! my dear sir! - sucrose derives from the Sanskrit 'Steka Ween Ker' - from which the British term 'Sticky Wicket' of course also derives."
"Ashoo zipper bhrama bull!" declared Mr Zellor, who did not accept for a moment a common antecedent for both sucrose and Sticky Wicket. He had had some slight training in the field of semantics himself, after all.
"You may consider me as unconventional in my thinking as you wish, sir, it does not alter for a moment my opinion!" the professor insisted in a haughty tone of voice, adding "Not when so many authorities are in perfect agreement with my premises." Then he looked briefly around and motioned Mr Zellor closer. In a whisper he informed his fellow passenger that there were those who had tried to accuse him of pedantry. "But I shall be vindicated when my seminal work is published," he assured. "Volmenhammer, every recognized authority has been consulted. Not a word of my treatise challenges prevailing thought on the subject, sir! Nor a word! Yet they call me a pedant! Mach schniss my dear sir: mach schniss!"
All the way to Rome Mr Zellor was treated to an exegesis of modern philology. When he got off the plane, and the professor had gone his own way, he brought out a term he had been saving for just the right occasion before discarding it.
"Screwball!" he muttered, vaguely uneasy at using the word exactly as it was meant to be used. This, he felt, violated the spirit if not the letter of his new language.
"But never mind," he thought in the appropriate impromptu terms, "we're here, in the eternal city. Let bygones be bygones."
The airport gave way to the city. The city, to its streets, its plazas, its intersections; and these in turn to its people who, once they recognized their identity, did as all do and relinquished it back to their nation. All was submerged - city, soil, flesh - into an abstract principle which no one had ever yet fully comprehended or seen, or even worded: a felt principle, an image which had the power to absorb all else. Their step was carefree, unlike those two pushing their oxcart toward the Vatican; those two, seekers after truth, in both its abstract and its concrete. They passed the ancient ruins, and both thought they heard laughter coming from peepholes time had fixed in place. But they kept going. They wondered if they were on The Apian Way; but didn't that lead away from Rome, not to it? Or did all roads not lead to Rome? They tried to identify the Seven Hills; they mistook steep grades - anything - for those fabulous mounds where both nature and man had created wonders. They were satisfied with their respective hills. And as they crossed the great square to knock on the Vatican door, they felt as though they had come to know Rome. Mr Zellor pronounced it "Pzlit." Norman nodded in agreement: it was good. As good as it was bad - and that said it all.
"Yes?" the doorkeeper asked, trying as many languages as he knew until he hit the right one.
"My name is Norman R Zellor," said Norman, "and this is my father, Mr Dimwiddie C Zellor."
"Kla Teesh," said Mr Zellor, causing the doorkeeper to again run through every language he knew to find a matching salutation. Not finding any, he simply bowed his head in greeting.
"We wish to see the Pope," Norman explained.
"Well," the doorkeeper informed him in a bright voice, "you're in luck! This is usually his night to say confessions but he's come down with a chill and doesn't wish to go among his people just in case it might be catching. There's been some flu going around. So, come on in, I'll introduce you - just keep your distance so you don't catch whatever he's got."
They were shown to the Pope's quarters. The Pontiff was briefed on the appropriate language of his visitors.
"Bon journo!" he said.
"English please!" the doorkeeper corrected him.
"Oh, I understood you to say Finnish. I'm sorry." The Pontiff turned to his guests. "How's it going?" he asked.
"Fine," replied Norman.
"Fine," replied Mr Zellor likewise. He had not used that word yet - it was another he was saving for a special occasion, one of his "dress-up" words, as he had originally referred to them.
"I'm fine and dandy too!" declared the Pope in a warm, vigorous voice. He smiled, and the whole room seemed to have brightened. Then he sneezed.
"Ghuzunticht," said Norman.
"What, we are German now?" the Pope asked. "Sprechen ze Deutsch?" He laughed. "I am plagued right now with - how do you say? - a mal de tete," he explained. "So," he went on to say, "what can I do you for?"
"Well," said Norman, "we're on our way to Turin and we'd very much like to launder the Shroud of Jesus while we're there."
While the Pope reflected, Mr Zellor prompted his son not to forget Mrs Zellor's request.
"He wouldn't have a skinny dipping nun's habit," Norman pointed out. "Oh," he said in response to his father's further prompting, "the hair: you mean the hair! Ah, pardon me," said Norman, "could we trouble you for a lock of your hair?"
"And a Rose and a Baby Ruth too, eh?" asked the Pontiff as he reached into a desk drawer to bring out a little cellophane packet of hair. "There you be," he said. Norman thanked him. "Well gentlemen," he said at length, "I'm on my way north myself, so I'll tell you what I'm going to do: if you guys want to hitch a ride in my Rolls, feel free. I can drop you off and, if you wait, pick you up on the way back. How about it?"
"Then we have your permission?" Norman asked.
"To go to Turin: certainly," said the Pope. "To wash the Shroud, however, I can't say: it isn't up to me. Actually, you see, it's not entirely an administrative but rather a custodial matter. You'll have to ask the director of maintenance engineering at Turin. It's his turf, he's the big cheese in those parts. And I want to tell you boys: if I hadn't gotten this job, my second choice was his job! Maintenance engineering, my sons: that's where it's at. Ask Eric Hoffer if you don't believe me."
The Rolls was brought around; the Pope and his traveling companions got in; the washer and dryer were put in the trunk; the oxcart was left to be retrieved on the trip back; the trip to Turin began. They chatted as the chauffer, Monsignor Margaretti, drove. The Pope pointed out an occasional landmark, or a particularly scenic spot. Just outside Florence, about halfway to their destination, the Pope noticed two automobiles which seemed to be following his.
"Take a detour," he told his chauffer. Sure enough both cars took the same detour. "Hmm," he mused, but said nothing until, a few more turns later, he felt certain the cars were indeed following.
"We're being trailed, gentlemen," he announced to his passengers. They all looked back. "It appears to be three Snowmen in the lead car," he said, "and two detectives in the backup car. Any ideas who they might be - or why they might be trailing us?" No one seemed to know. "I still don't like it," he insisted. Tapping his chauffer on the shoulder, he said "Lose them!" Immediately the Monsignor floored it; the Rolls Royce shot ahead and in no time at all the other two cars were left standing. The Snowmen knew where they were headed anyway so it made no difference; and Smith and Smithers simply gave up following the Pope to trail the Snowmen, on the off-chance they might lead them to the Anti-Christ.
"These Snowmen seem to know what they're about," Smith tried to justify losing the Pope.
"But how do we know they know where the Pope is going?" asked Smithers.
"Look: if you were the Pope, where would you take the Anti-Christ? Try and think like they think."
"Where would you take them?" asked Smithers.
"My guess would be Genoa."
"That's where Christopher Columbus sailed from," said Smith. "If there's one thing the Anti-Christ is, it's anti-American! So what better way to cause mischief than to erase all trace of that sacred voyage?"
When the Snowmen failed to stop at Genoa, Smith was at a loss to account for their behavior, but vowed to continue trailing them, insisting that it was too late to turn back.
"But not too late to stop!" Smithers pointed out, but to no avail. Smith was pursuing a "hunch" and refused to be dissuaded.
"Did we lose them?" came Sam's voice from inside Norman's pocket.
The Pope looked all around. "Did you say something?" he asked both Norman and his father.
"No," said Norman, "it was...well...you see...in my pocket there's..."
"There's someone in your pocket?" asked the Pope.
"Well, yes, in a way," Norman replied.
"Who? Tom Thumb?"
"Yeah," came Sam's voice again, "that's me alright: all thumbs!" And he burst out laughing, finally bringing on a cough.
"You okay?" Norman asked.
"Just a touch of asthma," Sam explained, "I forgot my inhaler - left it in New York!" The scarab sighed. "By the way," Sam added, "his holiness might be interested to hear I once managed a team of traveling confessors. We took out ads in the Catholic Digest. The sinners came by the truckload to receive absolution."
"Very nice," said the Pope. "And are they still coming by the carfull?"
"Oh? Why not?"
"It seems they had an extortion ring going on the side," Sam was forced to explain. "They were arrested one Sunday morning at Mass. They were right in the middle of the Deus Ex Machina. Do you mind if we drop it?"
"The most solemn part of the Mass too!" mused the Pope. "Imagine."
The rest of the trip was uneventful. "Well," announced the Pope as his limousine pulled up in front of the great cathedral of Turin, "here we are. Just knock on the door, ask for Fra Guilarmo Sandicci. He's chief of maintenance. And I'll see you boy's tomorrow noon. Till then: chow!"
"Arrivederci, baby!" cried Sam. Norman and his Father got out, got the washer and dryer out of the trunk, and made for the cathedral door. The Pope looked back and waved good bye to his new friends, who in turn waved at him.
"Fine man," said Norman. Mr Zellor nodded in agreement, wanting very much to say "Amen" but, aware of having already used that term, three days ago in reference to a stray dog he had seen crossing the street, barely dodging the speeding cars, was unable to do so without violating the most fundamental principles of his new language; so he said nothing: even disposable words have their limitations. No other word would substitute for "Amen."
Norman knocked. The door opened. An old man in a drab three piece priest's suit peeked first out into the street, then, turning toward the visitors, asked in a harsh voice what they wanted.
"We've com to see," here Norman faltered momentarily, not quite able to recall the name of the person the Pope had referred him to. Finally he said "Father Guido Sarducci" - knowing this was not the correct name; but it was as close as he could come to it.
"Ah!" the old priest sneered. "The apostate! He appears on TV in America and accuses the holy fathers of wallowing in pizza sauce. 'Find the Pope in the Pizza' he says! Ah! Blasphemy! Blasphemy! He should be defrocked. Holy Mother the Church should cut his frock right down the front; open it right up; pour salt on it; then seal it shut. Ah! The apostate!"
Suddenly, just as the priest was about to slam the door in Norman's face, the name came to him. "Fra Guilarmo Sandicci!" he cried. "That's who I meant to ask for, that's who I came here to see!"
"Well, why didn't you say so?" the old priest asked. "I'll go get him." Taking only a few steps, he called. "Fra Sandicci! Fra Sandicci! There are some friends of Father Guido Sarducci here to see you! They claim they've won that contest on TV, that 'Find the Pope in the Pizza' thing! I can't bear to hear one more word of their blasphemous raving! They're like madmen! One of them has his pockets full of God knows what! The other one looks like a madman! And he just sits and stares all day long and won't say beans about nothing! I'm going to communion now, I need some spiritual R and R or I'll start swearing and taking the name of...of...of...who's name? who's name is that?...whoever's name it is, I'll take it in vain if I'm exposed to these defrocked priests much longer! And cardinals too, no less!"
The old priest disappeared into the shadows of the cathedral while, out of those same shadows, appeared a very small man wearing overalls and work boots and carrying in his hands a plumber's wrench.
"Forgive me," he apologized, "I can't shake hands just now. You're here to fix the leaky faucet? I'll show you where it is. Every time I brush my teeth it drips water down into the confessional right onto Father Mangione's head - you already met him I think? So if you'll follow me.
"Actually," Norman hastily explained, "we're not plumber's helpers. We're here to -"
"Not plumber's helpers? Then why the washing machine"
"Well, that's part of why we're here. You see, we'd like your permission to wash and dry Jesus' Shroud."
"Sorry," said Fra Sandicci, "no can do. The Shroud's on public display just now. A team of scientists from all over the world are here studying it, to see if it's authentic. You launder it, you're bound to wash out some of the carbon 14 - even if you only use Dreft or Ivory Snow! So I'm sorry you came all the way from America - I take it you're American, still wearing flared trousers and football jerseys." Norman's father was the one with the jersey: a Baltimore Colt's jersey, blue and white, with number 19 on it: quarterback Johnny Unitas's old number. Norman had the flared trousers.
"Could we just see it?" Norman asked. He was not thinking about Joanne or about washing the Shroud; he simply wanted to see, perhaps to touch it, on a sudden impulse.
"I'm sorry," Fra Sandicci insisted, "but they'll be here any minute now, the scientists, and I've got to go clean up a bit. I'm sorry. Good day to you." With this the door was shut.
Norman began to wonder what he would do now, but his thoughts were quickly interrupted by an approaching throng of people. Some were quiet, but some were extremely noisy; some carried satchels, some pushed little hand carts full of boxes, some had only a brown paper bag, a few had nothing, and one person carried a Mason jar, inside which were blades of grass which occasionally moved. All of a sudden, as the jar passed nearest to Norman and Mr Zellor, Sam began sniffing; he even crept to the edge of Norman's pocket.
"Fee fie fo fum," he cried, "I smell tobaccy juice!" Just then, from amidst the blades of grass inside the jar, two antennae sprung up, followed by a tiny insectiferous head. The jar moved on; the head looked back, then snuggled down into the soft grass again.
"Hey!" exclaimed Norman. "I've got it! That's what I'll do: I'll pose as a scientist! I'll get in that way!"
Sam was less optimistic. "The man just saw you not five minutes ago," he reminded Norman. "He'll remember you!"
"What have I got to lose? Come on - you too dad! We're scientists now, from the...uhm...let's see...okay, I've got it: we're from the Washerman Labs. Yeah, that's it: Washermen. In Washington DC. We test the authenticity of sacred relics by putting them through a series of sophisticated laundering steps!"
He patted the dryer. "Won't be long now Joanne!" he said.
"I hope you're right," Joanne replied. She had deliberately kept silent so as not to jeopardize Norman's mission with accusations of witchcraft: she knew how superstitious these Catholics could be when they were in the right mind; and a talking machine would as likely as not be branded a witch, or at best a heretic. Mr Zellor was quite taken back when he heard talking emanating from the dryer. For a moment he didn't know what to make of it, then a thought came to him which immediately convinced him he had been right in adopting a new language.
"So machines too have taken up talking," he mused. "But of course: our language is as dead as a doornail, why shouldn't it be taken over by the non-living?" He was at last fully vindicated, his work justified, for when your language becomes so routinized, so mechanical, so predictable in its rhythm that even machines can learn and mimic it, then indeed is it time to start over. He smiled and patted Norman's dryer.
One by one the scientists were knocking and being admitted to the great cathedral at Turin, each taking time to state his specialty, to show his scientific instrumentation and to briefly explain what it was he intended to test for. There was a metallurgist, come to test for traces of trace elements; and a hipologist, to see if Jesus had ridden a horse during his lifetime - there would be microscopic particles of horse hair if he had; and an orthodontist, to determine whether Jesus had had either cavities or bridgework or chewed tobacco. There was an astronomer, interested to learn if Jesus had been an ancient astronaut; an aviatrix, intent upon discovering the remains of Amelia Earhart, who some say was buried either at Gethsemane or in Grant's Tomb; and a geneticist, fresh with a hypothesis concerning Jesus' ethnic background. There was a scientist who had a Geiger Counter; one who carried a loadstone in a backpack; one who brought vials of quicksilver with him; one whose wristwatch was a miniaturized computer capable of speaking, giving out either the time of day or an analysis of cotton fabric, depending which button one pressed. There was a scientist from a University, one from a foundation, one from a government bureau, one from a consortium of businesses, one from each of several religious organizations, and one independent. The latter was generally shunned by the others and taken to be a quack. One by one they managed to get in.
"Hi there!" said the man carrying the mason jar, "I'm from the Iowa 4-H." He then indicated his jar, referring Fra Sandicci to the stirrings amidst the grasses. "I've got with me in here the Davenport Cicada."
Fra Sandicci drew back a little. Terror was in his eyes. "Don't be afraid," he was told, "he won't harm you." The chief of maintenance was reluctant to admit a creature of such notoriety to the house of God; but he was a scientist as well as a handyman, he could hardly refuse admittance to the one - and perhaps the only - creature alive who might be able once and for all to determine if this Shroud was or was not that of Christ. It would be worth the risk to have this matter at long last settled, so he motioned the man from the Iowa 4-H in. Every eye in the place was on that mason jar. Next to it all the sophisticated gadgetry thousands of years of knowledge had produced seemed petty, even mean, and almost useless. For a split-second the scientists felt ashamed of their meager instruments; luckily the feeling passed. "Hell," they succeeded in assuaging their sense of failure, "it's only a grasshopper! What's a grasshopper compared to a Geiger Counter, or a computer that sits on a man's wrist, or a chronometer, or even just a simple pair of scissors! Grasshopper indeed! Pooh!"
The Davenport Cicada was world renowned. So great was his fame that he had even been nicknamed: Davvy. Davvy the Davenport Cicada. It was understood that he would turn up here in Turin sooner or later. It had to be. Excommunicated, condemned as a heretic, branded a demon, rumored to be possessed, tiny Davvy had captured the imagination of the entire Christian community. Every church in the world feared his entry. No priest, preacher, deacon, or elder existed anywhere but, upon looking up from his sermon to see a little green creature hop-skip-and-jump toward him, went pale and speechless. If there were no statues or crucifixes or pictures of Christ, everything was fine: Davvy would skirt the premises then gingerly be on his merry way. But if Jesus were in any way represented, there was bound to be a scene. For some unknown reason - and this was what prompted the drastic steps all the organized churches had taken - Davvy went wild whenever he happened upon an image of Jesus. He would immediately go up to it in a way and with a gravity no other grasshopper was ever seen to effect; he would first stand still, staring at it, then begin to swing; and finally he would lean back and, in a split-second of blinding fury, spit "tobacco" on it. Grasshopper tobacco. All over the image. It would drip down Jesus' chin and onto his robes or his bare chest. Then, as quietly as he had appeared, Davvy would be gone, leaving behind him a host of terrified Christians fearful for their salvation. Their idol had been desecrated; God would very likely hold them to blame. They would fall silent afterward, and pray as they had never prayed before, because now - for once - they were praying in earnest for their immortal souls. They really believed they stood a good chance of eternal damnation; they were not simply going through the motions of a prescribed Sunday morning ritual. Davvy the Davenport Cicada had, through his wanton desecration, revealed God to them; and they trembled under the revelation, and reached out to God as though their very lives depended on it.
Davvy was taken inside the great cathedral. He began immediately tensing up, and he tossed his soft Iowa farm grasses hither and yon until, sticking to the sides of his jar, they made him all but invisible from without.
"Next!" called Fra Guilermo Sandicci. It was Norman's turn now to offer his scientific credentials to God's vicar's janitor here on earth. He grew nervous. "It'll never work: he'll recognize me," Norman thought to himself. Sam, deep inside Norman's pocket, had very much the same apprehension.
"H-Hello," said Norman, "I'm from the W-Washerman Institute in W-Washington DC-C. I've come here to -"
"But of course Professor W-Washerman!" exclaimed Fra Sandicci as though greeting a long awaited guest of honor, "please come right in! No need to explain a thing to me, your reputation has preceded you here by many a mile! And bring your equipment too. Here, I'll give your assistant a hand myself!"
Norman's "assistant," Mr Zellor, grumbled a word or two - he spoke fast so it was impossible to say where one word left off and the next began; but he assisted Fra Sandicci in getting the washer and dryer into the cathedral, just as he had helped his son get it this far.
"Psst!" Sam called to Norman. "Move as close as you can to the dude with the mason jar!"
"But why?" asked Norman in a soft voice.
"Don't argue, just do it!" Sam ordered.
"I'd like to be over there," Norman informed Fra Sandicci, acceding to Sam's request.
"Wherever you're most at home," the Fra readily agreed. As they traversed the great cathedral, every eye in the place was on Norman and his equipment: eyes of envy.
"The very latest!" everyone whispered to his neighbor, pointing at Norman's washer and dryer. How meager their own equipment seemed in comparison!
Norman was stationed beside the man from the Iowa 4-H. A discreet distance from Fra Sandicci, he felt at ease speaking to Sam now. "What's this all about, Sam?" he asked.
"Look," said Sam, "if we can convince the padre this Shroud's a fake, he might let us have it. "And if I can convince Davvy not to spit on it, everyone'll think it is a fake!"
"But we don't need that!" Norman pointed out. "He already accepts me and my equipment both as legitimate - we've got it made!"
"It doesn't hurt to have a backup plan!" Sam said in a huffy voice.
Momentarily, at a signal from Fra Sandicci, a golden vault was open and from it two priests extracted what looked rather like a sheet, only very worn, very dirty, very sacred. It was lying on a kind of stretcher: each priest worked the stretcher until he had gotten hold of one end, then they proceeded down the central aisle with it. All the scientists readied their experiments. The man from Iowa unscrewed the lid of his mason jar, then removed it. Davvy hopped his way up the side until he managed to pull himself to the rim, where he sat hunched. The priests with the Shroud had not yet gotten to the place where Davvy was; the scientists secretly cringed with each step the Shroud was drawn nearer: "What if he doesn't wait his turn at it?" they all wondered, "what if he spits on it as it goes by? surely a grasshopper can't know a procession from an experiment!"
Suddenly an unexpected thing happened, something no one could have ever foreseen - something which at least momentarily pushed the Shroud out of everyone's minds.
Davvy, on the rim of his mason jar, stood straight up and, before anyone had time even to shudder at his movement, spat as hard as he could. Not at the Shroud - but at Norman. Right in his face, the spittle striking the bridge of his nose - right between the eyes. Everyone gasped. Norman turned pale as a ghost. Davvy, on a sudden impulse, leaped from his perch into Norman's pocket, landing right beside Sam and the scarab.
"What the hell did you do that for?" Sam asked.
"It's him!" was all Davvy could say.
"Him, the Christ. Jesus. It's him." Davvy was almost in a daze.
"Bull!" said Sam, "he's no more Jesus than I am! What the hell's the matter with you?"
"Not him?" Davvy asked. "Not Jesus?"
"Hell no man! His name is Norman R Zellor. Forget that for now though, I've got something important to discuss. Look man, do me a favor and don't - repeat: don't - spit on that Shroud - okay?"
"No can do."
"Hey," said Sam, "you owe me one! Remember that praying mantis? Had you as fast as a clutch! If I hadn't helped you, he'd have made mincemeat out of you!"
"We were just wrestling," Davvy tried to say.
"Wrestling my ass: those dudes don't know when to quit! Will you help me?"
"I don't know man: I go ape-shit whenever I see an image of Christ - not to mention Christ himself! I don't know. I gotta do what I gotta do, you know?"
"Hey why do you have it in for Christ anyway? He's not so bad. He's pulling a fast one on my friend Norman here alright. But he's a pretty good guy, all things considered. He's saved at least two lives already - can't everyone boast that! What do you say? Is it a deal?"
"Shit man, that's my shtick - just like yours is managing all those teams of losers! I don't know if I can just -"
"Hey! Hey! Hey!" cried Sam. "Watch who you're calling losers! And watch what you're calling a shtick or I'll give you a swipe around your antenna'll make you think you just got a lobotomy! Come on man, do it for me: please! And for this here scarab. Shit, he'd tell you the same thing if he could speak any decent language!"
The scarab began whimpering. "Hey," said Sam in a soothing voice, "I didn't mean that! You know me - I always speak first and think afterward. Hell, Arabic's a fine language - a great language! Isn't it Davvy?"
"Of course it is," Davvy agreed.
"See?" said Sam. Turning to Davvy, he added "He's very sensitive."
"Hey man," said Davvy, "why do you keep calling Fatima 'he'?"
"Hell of a name for a guy!" said Sam.
"Fatima ain't no guy!" said Davvy.
"What is he?"
"He's a she."
"A what? A she? No way!"
"Didn't you ever look at her groin?"
"Hey! I ain't queer!"
"A she - not a he!" insisted Davvy.
"She - not he?"
"She - not he!"
"Oh boy," said Sam. "It's getting warm in here isn't it? She - not he? They must be lighting incense or something. Oh boy. Or candles. He a she. Oh boy. What do you say Davvy? Huh? Will you do it for me? Don't spit when you see that shroud? Huh? For me? For...she and me. We're a team. Oh boy they keep these cathedrals warm, don't they? I'd hate to see their electric bill! Oh boy."
"I'll think about it man. I can't promise anything. I'll do what I can. I'll try. That's all I can do man."
"Yeah, that's all," said Sam. "Bite your tongue or something, whatever it takes. Just don't spit, man, or Norman's come all this way for nothing."
While this conversation took place in Norman's pocket, the stunned crowd watched in silence as he took a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped Davvy's "tobacco" from his nose. Not everyone, however, was surprised or mystified by the dark implication of Davvy's action. Five among the rest were if anything almost expecting it; certainly they were prepared for it. They, too, were here as scientists; they, too, as Norman had done, faked their credentials - three posing as scientists from the upper provinces of Canada, two as reporters sent to cover the proceedings.
The Snowmen had arrived first. Even though the Pope's driver had managed to elude his pursuers, they quickly picked up the trail: being endowed with extra-terrestrial powers, they were not long in resuming their tail of the Pope; besides which, they already knew perfectly well where Norman and Joanne were headed: it was their spell which had initiated their journey. The detectives, Smith and Smithers, were simply alert enough to realize that the Snowmen would lead them to their quarry; even back at the laundry they had suspected from their brief encounter that there was more to the Snowmen than met the eye.
"Jones and Jonesy," they had informed Fra Sandicci, "Christian Science Monitor."
"And your press cards?" asked Fra Sandicci.
"Still at the cleaners," said Smith, a little prematurely. Smithers grimaced, fearing exposure. But the explanation seemed to satisfy Turin's Chief of Maintenance: they were admitted. They, as the Snowmen minutes before then had done, spotted Norman right away. They watched as the Davenport Cicada spat in his face then disappeared; they had not seen where Davvy leaped - no one had. They, however, unlike everyone else there, including the Snowmen, chuckled at Davvy's impulsiveness, not to mention his indiscretion; they and they alone knew he was mistaken: Norman R Zellor was not Jesus Christ: he was the Anti-Christ. An understandable mistake for a grasshopper to make.
All was chaos at Turin. The place was in an uproar. No one knew exactly what to do. Some knelt and prayed; some shouted cries of repentance; some timidly approached to ask for autographs - none of them really sure of the correct protocol. Fra Sandicci tried to restore order; but, not wishing to speak directly to Jesus, at least not at first, he chose instead to have a word with the elderly gentlemen accompanying him.
"Ah, excuse me, sir," Fra Sandicci began, "but I couldn't help noticing the famous Cicada's reaction to your friend here. I take it this is the Christ." He hesitated, as if hinting for Mr Zellor to reply.
"Zloo eekapus gingerbread muffin!" Mr Zellor observed, a bit facetiously.
Fra Sandicci caught the tenor if not the literal meaning of his words and was somewhat offended, though he dare not say so for fear of being accused of some sort of blasphemy. Instead, he continued as if nothing untoward had been said.
"It was so nice of Jesus to stop by," he informed Mr Zellor. "He's always welcome - anytime: day or night. A little advance notice wouldn't hurt: Mrs Pistroni, our housekeeper, is off for the day; the place could really use a good dusting; and we could do with a pinch more incense. I know Jesus - and God too for that matter - really, as the Americans say, 'turn on' to incense! Who could blame them? It's irresistible. What I would really like to know, sir, is why his majesty felt the need to pose as the famous Professor W-Washerman."
"Chattanooga cho-cho - uuh-ooh!" Mr Zellor said, and laughed over his pun. For several minutes the two conversed, and by the time Fra Sandicci had gotten up his courage to address Jesus directly, he - along with everyone who had happened to overhear his conversation with Mr Zellor - became convinced that this gentleman, whoever he was, was "talking in tongues."
"He could be the Holy Ghost," somebody whispered.
"Where's his wings?" somebody else pointed out. "And how come we can see him at all if he's a ghost? No, more likely he's one of the prophets."
"He could be Joseph, you know," offered another by-stander.
"Yeah, that's a thought. There is a certain family resemblance."
"Joseph's not his father! Only his step-father!"
"Yes, but you tend to favor people you're around a lot."
"Is Joseph still considered a Jew? Or did he become a Christian like Jesus?"
"Joseph was carried off in the Babylonian Captivity, I thought."
"Yes but he fled with Mary! In the middle of the night! With Herod barreling down on his ass!"
"Well if he's not Joseph who the hell is he?"
"Pardon us sir, who are you?" somebody in the crowd finally worked up enough nerve to ask Norman's father.
"No man!" replied Mr Zellor with great satisfaction. He had wanted to somehow work the word "man" into his conversation and be done with it; never again would that word cross his lips. He felt as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders, almost as if he could take off flying should he choose to do so. He felt as if a brand new world had just been born, and he: he had attended, he had been present, at the beginning, like a mid-wife. Everyone who saw him noticed the sudden radiance which seemed to emanate from him, as if he too, like the prophets, had undergone a transfiguration.
"He must be Elijah," they all agreed. "Or else Joshua. One or the other."
"I would like now," said Norman, "to launder the Shroud of Turin. May I?"
"Oh yes," replied Fra Sandicci. "It's all yours!" Everyone applauded, for in their minds this readiness to turn the Shroud over to Norman was as good as a certified admission that yes, indeed, he was Jesus.
The priests who had been carrying the stretcher were summoned; they brought the Shroud. Very gently, Norman took it up and, opening the door of the washer, put it in. A solemn hush befell the cathedral.
"Psst," Joanne called in a whisper which a few persons caught anyway. They drew a step nearer.
"What is it?" Norman whispered into the dryer, hoping not to be overheard, but the hollow chamber only served to amplify his voice.
"He's throwing his voice," someone suggested.
"No! That's a telephonic microsutural satellite receptor! He's testing for background radiation!"
Not everyone realized that by asking to launder Jesus' Shroud, Norman meant to wash and dry it. Being scientists, they naturally assumed he used the term to identify some exotic new technique in astro-physics.
"You need water and electricity - you need a hook up!" Joanne pointed out.
"Did you hear that?" someone asked. "He's about to apply the latest theory in geo-magnetic sensory fluctuata!"
"What would Jesus know about that?"
"My God man, where's your head? Einstein was a direct descendent of the Nazarine!'
"Oh, I'd forgotten."
Norman told Joanne he'd take care of everything. He asked Fra Sanciddi where there might be an electrical outlet and a spigot.
"Why, in Mrs Pistrani's room there is, I believe," the chief of maintenance replied. The party adjourned to the housekeeper's quarters, where the appropriate connections were made. Everything was ready. Norman took the appropriate coins from his pocket, put them inside the coin slot, and pushed it in.
"Oh, it'll never work!" cried Fra Sandicci. "Only lire's! Only lire's! The Turin Utilitarian and Fireworks Consortium only meters by the lire! Your money's no good here!"
"Oh lord, what'll we do now?" asked Norman.
"Relax!" Fra Sandicci rushed to assure him. "Here!" he said as he handed Norman the appropriate amount of lire's. It's on the house!" But the lire's would not fit, so as a compromise it was decided to circumvent the problem by getting permission from the Consortium to use American money.
"Hello. Utilitarian and Fireworks Consortium, Janice speaking. May I help you?"
"Yes. This is Fra Sandicci. I have Jesus on hold. Just a minute." He handed the phone to Norman, who was stunned at being referred to as Jesus. He assumed it was some manner of local joke, so he decided as an expediency to play along.
"Jesus here," he said.
"Jesus, this is Janice. I read about you in King James' great big book. I think you're doing a wonderful job of running a world-class religion. What can I do for you?"
Norman explained the dilemma. "So," he concluded, "we'd like your permission to use American money instead of lire. What do you say?"
"Let me check with our stockholders - they're just in the next room. For my part I have no objection, but I'm just the receptionist. Hold on please!"
All kinds of noise was heard in the background as the matter was being discussed. Finally Janice came back on the line. "Well Jesus," she announced, "I've got good news and bad news. The good news: you won't have to use lire. But the bad news: you'll have to use German marks. Do you have any?"
"I don't think so - let me look." Norman looked. "Why, yes, I do - that's right, now I remember: the man from Norse American gave me some in change! But, hold on a minute: they won't fit in the slot either! What do I do now?"
Janice went to check this time with the Board of Directors, who were meeting in a vault behind her desk. When she cam back on the line she informed Norman that he could use American money - but only if he promised to come out in favor of a rate hike for gas and electricity. The promise was made, the phone replaced on its receiver, the coins at last pushed into the machine; the washer at long last started its cycle. Half an hour later it stopped. The Shroud was carefully transported to the dryer, from which fifteen minutes later Norman pulled the Shroud of Turin.
He held it upright to show how clean and nice it was: "as good as new," he exclaimed. Miraculously, the image of Jesus was intact. All of a sudden there occurred a stirring behind the upheld Shroud. The people who were gathered around watching gasped. Then, as if on a cue or according to some pre-arranged timing, Norman, with a snap of his wrist, pulled aside the Shroud to reveal Joanne.
The people began applauding, just as if this had been a magic act on a vaudeville stage.
"Bravo!" they cried.
"Fortissimo!" cried Fra Sandicci.
They all gathered around to congratulate Norman on his skillful performance and to declare how they positively detected no props whatsoever. But how, pray, did he do it?" they asked to know.
"It's a miracle!" he quipped. Norman - Norman R Zellor - humorless, guileless, ingenuous Norman: the one and only time in his life he decided to be witty - and it could not conceivably have come at a worse time, for it served to clinch what everyone here already half believed anyway: that he was Jesus Christ. Superstar, Magician par excellence, launderer supreme. That Jesus Christ. So that by the time he boarded Flight 307 to take him back to New York, the entire world knew of his "real" identity. Even the Pope had heard the news. Norman wondered why the pontiff seemed so much more reserved than before; but, being one of the few humans alive who did not know he was Jesus, he had no clue as to what had caused the change.
Neither Smith nor Smithers believed Norman was Jesus - but that was only because they knew who he really was. Their faith, however, was shaken when Joanne appeared from nowhere. They called Sacred Vale Virginia to tell their client what had happened.
"Don't be fooled by imitations," the most right reverend Giddeon G Tueshoos admonished. "The Anti-Christ is full of charisma and can perform any number of clever tricks. And he has his familiars who work with him. But he is not the real Christ. The real Christ would never go to Rome or Constantinople before coming to Sacred Vale Virginia! That's how ye may know him. And don't ever call me collect again!" With this final piece of guidance he hung up.
Norman and Mr Zellor boarded Air Italia Flight 307, accompanied by a tall, regal woman with very dark hair and eyes. Many who saw her compared her to Ava Gardner: all unfavorably.
"Nowhere near as pretty," said one of the stewardesses.
"She does look much better on the screen," admitted one of the co-pilots who, having overheard his stewardesses on the intercom, mistook their comparison for an identification and hurried to the rear of his plane to get a glimpse of his favorite actress. He found her a disappointment, but attributed it to his looking directly at her, at eye level, rather than up at her as he had always seen her in the movies. Nonetheless he endeavored to get an autograph. Norman, already hounded by autograph seekers in the airport lobby, naturally assumed it was his autograph the co-pilot was seeking.
"I'm not Jesus!" he said, a bit testily.
"Nor are these Mary and Joseph, I take it them?" quipped the co-pilot, winking at Joanne as he spoke, then handing her the paper and pencil he carried.
"I'm afraid," Joanne said, "I never learned to write. We were taught no manual dexterities. We didn't need them, you see. I'm sorry." She returned the paper and pencil. The co-pilot returned to his work a troubled man: who would have thought that Ava Garner could not write? could not sign her own name? had to make an "X" just like anybody else who was illiterate? It was a sobering revelation.
"Yep, we're all human alright," he mused.
"Ah," spoke a gentleman who had seated himself beside Mr Zellor, "I see your colleague has acquired an Italian wife! What is her name?"
"Gina Lolabrigida!" exclaimed Mr Zellor.
"No! The Gina Lolabrigida? The authority on resurrected Etruscan texts? Why this is simply splendid - simply splendid, wellbeziton!" Mr Zellor's fellow passenger was the professor of Dead Languages who had been his fellow passenger on flight 703 out of New York: his consultation with the Chair of Sumer at the University of Pisa had abruptly ended when the Cretan Bull they unearthed proved to be black angus instead of Minoan: this necessitated a complete rewrite of pre-Cretan pottery believed to have come from the island of Thera. If the black angus and not the Minoan bull figured so prominently in their pictographs, then clearly they were not a superstitious but a pragmatic people and not half so colorful to lecture about.
"They wouldn't pay a dime to hear about such beings!" the professor insisted. "I'll have to save them for my students!"
"Lunktunet zipper platypus!" despaired Mr Zellor in the students' behalf.
"Ah, my friend!" the professor noted, "you too have studied the ancient Phoenicians I see! The Lunk tin cat, as you know, munsphein, was their solemnest festival, where the priests stripped the bark off the cedar tree and tied it to their shinboots and began kicking about a straw colored ball shaped like the tiny wombat. The ball itself, of course, we derive our modern peanut brittle from. Peg-onit-brint-lars, or simply straw thing you kick about, as we would literally translate it. But then, who translates Phoenician literally? It just is not done, mein liepshin!"
Little more was said regarding Phoenician - or for that matter any other language; right in the middle of a tete-a-tete the professor was interrupted by snoring. Mr Zellor had fallen asleep, every once in a while mumbling some or another strange word which the professor immediately fixed in his mind as to its origin, derivation and connotation. Not a word came from Mr Zellor's mouth which could not be identified as belonging to one or another dead language. He would have been disillusioned had he been conscious of the similarity between his language and every other language which had ever been spoken.
Norman took a brief nap also. Joanne, perceiving the professor about to speak to her, shut her eyes and pretended to be sleeping. It was evening, and an emerald green light streaked across the sky, an hour outside of New York; but no one saw it. Everyone was either asleep, pretending to be, or else looking for someone to talk to, so that when flight 307 landed at Kennedy Airport, no one had any remarkable natural phenomenon to report. They just had their usual luggage.
Inside Norman R Zellor's pocket were separate compartments. Sam had constructed a makeshift partition out of loose - and loosened - strings and strips of fabric: on one side he put himself, on the other side Fatima. He explained that this was to give her more privacy. "The ladies need their privacy," he explained. Fatima merely giggled; nevertheless she went along with his plan of separation. They too had snuggled into a complacent sleep by the time the plane landed.
An army of reporters awaited. Those who Fra Sandicci had not already alerted to the immanent arrival of Jesus Christ were alerted by the co-pilot that Ava Gardner was on board and, furthermore, that she had returned to the United states, from her European hiatus, to enroll in a speed reading course: or rather, a speeded-up reading course, the one given by Evelyn Wood's sister-in-law, he could not recall her name just then.
Joanne and Norman were deluged with questions.
"How does it feel to be illiterate?" Joanne was asked.
"How does it feel to be holy?" Norman was asked.
And a thousand equally significant matters were lightly touched upon as one after another reporter hurled question upon question at them in turn. Finally a hush came over these reporters. Amos Andee, reporter for TV station TOKEN, stepped forward, patiently awaiting his turn.
"The boy who ran in front of a delivery truck in the Bronx, the old man who leaped from the Brooklyn Bridge: they were you, were they not? Manifestations of your own self - were they not?" reporter Andee asked, looking full into Norman's face at the scar beneath his eyes, the blue marks at his nostrils.
Norman was so taken aback by this question that he was unable to respond with his by now monotonous refrain: "I am not Jesus, you've made a mistake." He said absolutely nothing. Yet all who were there heard a clear, distinct "Yes" given in reply. First a gasp then a complete silence overtook the mass of reporters, progressing outward until it touched all perimeters of Air Italia's lovely marble and Mylar terminal lobby.
"So," they all thought, and endeavored to write, those at least who could manage to move their fingers with any kind of coordinated effort, "this is the Christ. Jesus Christ. Finally he admits it. At last it is revealed."
"The boy," Andee continued, the only one present who managed to retain his composure, "he never existed - did he? His body simply vanished from the morgue. So too the old man. Why Jesus did you do it?"
The voice which was not Norman's but seemed to be coming from his lips replied "Ask Julianne. She arrives tomorrow evening from Mexico City. In her company you will find my mother, Mary."
"And her grandson Tony?" Andee asked. This time even Jesus gasped.
Andee seemed now to be speaking, not to Jesus, but to all mankind, to posterity, as though before a camera, as he related the strange tale of a strange malady. He had turned away from Norman.
"Five year old Antonio Rosetti lies in Children's Hospital in a deep sleep: a coma. Daily his grandmother Pilar goes to the Broadcast Building. Daily she takes her number, waits in line, approaches, looks up into Jesus' eyes, and asks her simple grandmother's question" 'Will my Tony ever wake up?' She is never answered. She goes home to pray some more. To await that evanescent day when her Tony awakens. A modern day Sleeping Beauty. What Pilar Rosetti does not know is that her darling Tony...is awake, and moves about, and talks, and plays with his 'wheelies,' and does his little boy's things, some precious, some naughty. Does them for another grandmother; for the boy - the self same Tony who at this very moment lies in a coma - is also, you see, the grandson...of the Virgin Mary - identified positively in photographs and...in fingerprints. Five year old Tony Rosetti had a coke in the lounge of Air Mexico's mosiac and melamine terminal two days ago. Owing to a strike of all employees, the table was never cleared, the boy's prints were still fresh. This reporter sat down where Tony had sat, watched the same hustle and bustle of mass chaos Tony had watched, perhaps even dreamed the same childish dreams Tony had dreamed. Tony Rosetti has been taken from Pilar Rosetti and given to Jesus' mother: his soul, anyway. One must ask of Jesus Christ if the boy will ever be returned to his rightful lineage. Will he Jesus?"
Norman was no longer Jesus in those people's eyes, but simply Norman R Zellor. His face had become itself again, momentarily, and they all looked past him to find Jesus; but, seeing no such a visage, concluded the elusive Christ gone again. They were disappointed. But anyway, there was still Ava Gardner, and she was after all a celebrity in her own right. Besides, the show must go on: a nation awaited the nightly news. But she refused all questions. Stymied, the reporters left, vowing never again to trust religious leaders or beauty queens for an interview.
"Only politicians from now on!" they all swore. Each got into his car and drove immediately to City Hall in hopes of finding a scandal. But they knew it was fruitless: this was New York, there were no scandals to be found here, not in this squeaky cleanest of American cities. So it was off to Washington D.C. Maybe the feds would yield something for tonight's news. And indeed, their timing could not possibly have been better: it was almost as if they had been led here by design.
"I am not a crook!" the President of the United States swore as he was being led away in handcuffs. The First Lady, handcuffed also, tried to cover her face - but what was the use? The moment she saw the cameras focused on her she raised her hands, smiled, and tried to wave, only then remembering what the present circumstances were: we are creatures of habit if the truth be known.
Leading the way was the bureaucrat from the Government Accounting Office, guarding the rear was the FBI man. It looked as if all of Washington D.C. had turned into a lynch mob and that, after breaking down the White House gates they were coming to get the President. Armed rebellion, it looked like, until at the last moment a sea of press passes broke over this horde and a volley of questions rang out.
"No questions!" cried the man from GAO. "The President will answer no questions! Repeat: do not ask the President any questions!" No one paid his remarks any mind.
"Mr President!" a number of reporters asked in tandem, "how will this affect your chances of reelection?"
"Well now" the President assessed the situation as best he could, "even if I'm convicted, I should be out in two years: that should give me plenty of time to still do some campaigning."
"Then you don't think a conviction for tax fraud will harm your chances of being reelected?"
"Well, people don't really care for all these taxes - at least that's how I read it. And if I plead guilty and throw myself on the mercy of the Court, my aides tell me none of this will show on my record. Besides, the Judge is a good friend: heck, I appointed him myself! Of course, none of this would have happened if that darned little fourth grader hadn't made such a fuss. I feel like turning him over my knee!" he quipped with a laugh. "The little devil!"
This last comment was inaccurately reported and by evening had been blown all out of proportion. "President blames fourth grade students for tax woes of nation," reported one newsman. "In a candid interview," reported another, "the President made it clear he would turn all fourth grade classrooms inside out. This, evidently, to restore morality to a sorely troubled school system rife with violence, drugs, sex, rock n' roll and, as hinted, sedition. It has been learned that the Department of Education will hold back all third graders until a commission can be appointed to study the matter. And in a related story, Miss Elsie Cromwellerton, a fifth grade teacher from Vandalia, Illinois, has filed a class action suit to stop all fourth grade students from entering her classroom next fall. The most right reverend Gideon G Tueshoos has issued a statement calling upon the vast network of private schools he rents out to substitute a secondary kindergarten wherever there are fourth grades. He says he cannot believe, however, that his schools, being linked by communication satellite to God's Word, would have ever condoned anything so immoral as the fourth grade. And word is just in that Pope John Paul George R has issued a Papal Bull combining third, fourth and fifth grades into one 'Super Class' which will be known as 'Thifofif.' More as details become available."
The First Lady's charges were far more serious than those of her husband. Whereas his centered around tax fraud, hers hit right at the heart of American enterprise: she was accused of no less a crime than cheating the public; overcharging; delivering shoddy goods, merchandise and/or services; baiting and switching: in a word, where the President only tried to defraud the nation, the First Lady tried to defraud the people. Consumer Fraud: how that specter rose up before her. She had trouble sleeping that night. Every known business journal, manufacturers and retailers association, trade union and civic group denounced, if not the sinner, then certainly the sin.
"Without absolute honesty in our dealings with the public," said Crazy Ernie Peptide of Jersey, head of the Former Used Car Klub of America, an amalgam of one time proprietors of used car lots, "we'd have nothing! I mean we'd be as broke as the man who goes into a car lot, slaps his money down, says 'I'm ready to deal!' The salesman looks at him, takes out his Manual of Honest Dealings, says 'Sorry Charley, I don't have a car that costs that much. Better go somewhere else!' That's just how broke we'd be - and baby: that's broke!"
The House and Home Buyers, Sellers and Builders Association complained that Crazy Ernie did not go far enough in his denunciation. "What we would have said," claimed their spokesman, "is that no one not already a citizen should be allowed an entry visa without affidavits asserting he had never cheated the public! And no citizen without such papers should be allowed to leave the country! That's how strongly we feel!"
The Right Reverend Gideon G Tueshoos issued a policy statement blaming the whole thing on the teaching of sex education in public schools - noting, of course, that this terrible plague within our schools often began in the fourth grade. "The good lord never intended boys and girls to learn how to have sex," the statement asserted, then went on to link that assertion to the nation's woes, showing how, "lemonade traditionally being a virginal drink of much wholesomeness, nothing but chaos could possibly have been expected to result from showing young impressionable children how fruit trees make little saplings." It was clear to Reverend Tueshoos that the lemons the First Lady used were actually "quite tart, and that everyone knows what happens when you mix the tarts with the sweets: you get a barren drink, quite inappropriate to public consumption."
To make matters worse, as the nightly news was forced to report, "the line of Presidential succession was misplaced - or lost!" Various reports speculated who ought really to take over while the President was in jail. Any number of political analysts were called upon to give testimony before the reporters. By very late that evening there had formed no less than seven distinct clusters of authorities representing seven points of view, seven preferences. Some held the Vice-President next in line; but no, said others: the Vice-President is always too much an unknown quality, sometimes not being seen for four years at a time; besides which Vice-Presidents were traditionally arrogant: otherwise why was it they always tended to assume control when the President could not function? A great many went with the Secretary of State, pointing out how, historically, he was usually at the right place at the right time to take charge. Others tended to prefer the Speaker of the House, while one entire school of thought upheld the General of the Army's right to initiate a coup d'etat. Plus there were those who liked the idea of turning over the reins of government to the church; they recommending inviting the Pope to try the White House for size. Another group could see no reason not to create a holding company with the chairman of the Utility Company at its head. The vast majority, however, refused to champion any single candidate; they chose to remain neutral. "Let's wait and see what happens," was their watchword.
"Therefore," concluded the special report on the State of the Union, "the nation is temporarily without a government. Is there an anarchist in the house somewhere? Then come on down, you'll feel right at home in the nation's Capital!"
Lovely Juvenalia was busy reporting on a poll the TV rating people had undertaken for the Society of Sponsors of TV Shows and Other Fine Events to determine who the people wanted as their leader. Overwhelmingly, by a ratio of 62, an all time high, they picked...
"They picked Jesus to be their leader," reported Juvenalia. "They picked Jesus Christ. It only remains to be seen," she concluded her report, "whether or not he will accede to the wishes of his people. Reporting from the White House, this is lovely Juvenalia."
Old Mrs Rosetti, again at Jesus' picture with her question, saw a lovely Mona Lisa half smile flit momentarily across his face, at the exact instant the poll's results were announced, though she had not been attending to the nightly news and had no idea the smile bore no relation to either her or her grandson Tony. She left the Broadcast Building that evening full of hope. Jesus had not meant to deceive her; no sooner had she gone than he realized the importunity of his reaction, and felt a remorse at his behavior, his inattention to the business at hand, his inadvertent pride.
From an alleyway came a voice. It called to Mrs Rosetti. "Your grandchild, Mother Rosetti," it said, "belongs to all mankind now. He will be among the stars and the planets. He will accompany those who are divine through many, many dimensions. Do not despair, dear lady, but let him be. He is well, but he is with others now. His sleep is all that remains behind. You must learn to content yourself with that, dear lady. So be at peace. And ask no more questions. And God be with you."
From the shadows which traversed one whole side of the alley came a dog, a mongrel, the same one Norman and his father had encountered the day before. It paused a moment at Mrs Rosetti's feet; it looked up into her face, with eyes benevolent even for this kind of creature. Then it moved away again into the shadows. Mrs Rosetti crossed herself and continued on. Manhattan was dark; only a tiny bit of the sky offered any hope of renewal as if a corridor existed just above the western horizon, just barely visible through a peephole of vacant skyscrapers, leading out from the world to...whatever was beyond. And just barely visible from Mid-town Manhattan. The kind of peep hole an emerald light flashed through of an evening just before twilight, the green of the spectrum delivered for a split-second from behind its long and its short neighbors. A corridor linking, separating the real from the unreal, a corridor along the way toward the divine. And man, in mid-town Manhattan a kingdom he had built, had left a peep hole between the great buildings. Whether inadvertently or not.
They were there, the FBI, waiting at the Airline Terminal. They had been tipped by their Mexican connection that the infamous international terrorist known only as The Jiz, had commandeered a private airplane and forced it to fly to New York; it was said to belong to an important business executive, and on board was his board of directors, captured pawns in a sinister game of international intrigue. Forty agents had the terminal staked out. It was suspected that The Jiz was on his way here to abduct Rodney Dangerfield, that an international spy ring was giving a dinner party and wished the comedian's services. The TV networks had agreed not to report the item until after The Jiz had been apprehended. Their sponsor, Mars of Massachusetts, had brought suit under the Freedom of Information Act, but the networks steadfastly refused to reveal the details of their agreement with the FBI. Shortly the Supreme Court vowed to rule on the case unless the matter was settled justly and humanely and with all deliberate speed. In a communiqué, the Chief Justice had declared forty hours to be far too long to keep anybody waiting for justice.
Ten fifty-seven P.M. Sunday evening, flight 202 Air Mexico from Mexico City arrived; the pilot informed the authorities that he had spotted a Lear Jet circling Kennedy Airport readying to land, and that he thought he saw silhouetted a man in the cockpit holding a machine gun, but it was dark, he hastened to add, and he might have been mistaken: at ten thousand feet, he explained, sometimes the light played tricks on one's eyes.
"Do you think you'd recognize him if you saw him again?" the man from the FBI asked.
"In profile perhaps," the pilot replied.
"Don't leave town," he was told, "we may need to get in touch with you again."
Half an hour later the Lear Jet was on the ground, come to a halt beside the terminal. From it descended nine persons; from inside, three additional persons - Snowmen - peeked to see if the coast was clear: having stowed away before, they saw no reason to change class for the return trip. A small band of heavily armed men quickly surrounded the party of nine. The FBI, ever vigilant, had their man and knew it.
"Which one of you is The Jiz?" they asked. Jizmo Knetler held up his hand. "Now the other one," he was told. You're under arrest, kidnapping, extortion and/or terrorism."
"Phew," said Knetler, "it's a tough choice. Boys," he explained, his hands in the air, "I feel a little like the man who goes into a bar, slaps his money down, doesn't say anything. The bartender looks at him, says 'What'll it be?' He scratches his head, looks all around, says 'A little bit of yesterday's dreams, today's memories, tomorrow's regrets - on the rocks!' Bartender tells him the road crew's already been there. He scratches his head again, looks all around, says -"
"Is there a point to all this?" the man from the FBI asked.
"I certainly hope not," Jizmo replied, "otherwise I've wasted a perfectly good story!"
"It's not polite to point!"
"Are you coming along peacefully?" Jizmo was asked. He said he preferred it that way. They thanked him. In truth they liked his sense of decorum so much that had they not had "this pesky warrant" in the possession they would have gladly let him get away; as it was, however - and they apologized profusely - they had no choice but to bring him in.
"Don't worry about it," he assured them, "you're only doing your job - and, boys, if I have to be arrested, I can't think of anyone I'd rather be arrested by!"
This really touched them. "Look," they said, "if you ever decide to break out, you let us know! We've got a few connections, if you know what we mean!"
"Hey, it's alright, it's alright! I consider it my civic duty to go to jail if I've done anything wrong!"
Tears filled the FBI agents' eyes. They knew at last what the term "model prisoner" meant. And yet: not ten steps ahead of them were this man's victims, kidnapped, held at bay, threatened day and night with the butt of a machine gun held to their throats. One false step and they knew it was all over: what that does to people is awesome. Listen to them, thought the agents: trying to act natural, like it never happened. God what courage! What fortitude! What chutzpah! Let them be for now, the agents all resolved; we can question them later, when they've recovered from this aftershock of their panic. Poor things: poor brave things!
It was no trouble acting natural, acting as if the whole thing had never happened. The little party of eight barely noticed their fellow traveler's arrest; they more or less took the FBI for autograph hounds, and were relieved at Jizmo's taking them on himself; they were grateful for his courage, they applauded it; then went on with their talk, caught up as they were in the events of this past weekend. Three distinct groups could be discovered: two women and a boy; three women; and two men, one very old, one middle aged, it being from this last group that Jizmo was identified and captured.
"Fans of yours?" the middle aged man, Mr Mango Airline, President, Senior Vice-President and Board Chairman of Airline Airplanes of the Adirondacks, inquired of his friend. Jizmo shrugged as if to say "That's all part of the game. What can you do?" The two gentlemen continued where they left off, only without Jizmo.
"You don't think Barnum and Bailey would object?" Mr Airline was asking. "I've always understood they require nets."
"Impossible!" exclaimed the older of the two. "The Great Julio does not work with a net! Never! Never! If he takes a spill, he takes it! Jesus will look out for him, as he always has!'
This comment, owing to its volume and its content, drew a retort from one of the ladies: it was Julianne, who was engaged in conversation with Mary, Jesus' mother, while little Tony, Mary's grandson, pulled at the crotch of his trousers and grimaced, trying all the while to wrench his other hand free of Mary's.
"Take it from a theologian, father," Julianne said rather sternly, "you cannot at your age continue your acrobatics and expect Jesus to be there every time you tumble off your trapeze! You're too old for that monkey business!"
"Too old?" cried Julio, "Why I just turned ninety-five two weeks and a few days ago! What would you have me do: take up lion taming or some other such sissy sport? Ha! Me, the Great Julio, who can do the quintuple blindfolded: me, a nursemaid to a bunch of feckless felines! Ha! Never! Never!"
Julianne turned back to Mary. "Ah," she said, she assumed confidentially, "you can't tell him a thing! He's just like his children!"
"I heard that!" said Julio. "And I say it again: I must have been pushed off the causeway going into Mexico City or I'd never have fallen! Why, I've walked that bridge a thousand times! I know every inch of that railing like it was -" Here he whispered something to Mr Airline which made them both giggle. "The Great Julio take a fall from it? Never! I was pushed. Pushed I say. Pushed. Jesus knows. He saw whoever did it. He knows. He knows."
"Except you didn't walk the railing," Julianne said, "you walked a tightrope."
"And a man can't be pushed from a tightrope as easily as from a railing?" Julio asked in a sarcastic voice.
"Mary," Julianne gave up trying to convince her father to abandon his trapeze act, or his tightrope walking, or his various other acrobatics, and resumed her previous conversation with her friend, "I'm really determined to have that face lift. Take it from a hag, Mary, you're never too old! A good face lift'll put bounce in your step! What do you say? You and me: we'll both get one together. And being Jewish Mary you must know a good doctor!
Mary gave no reply. She, of course, needed no face life: being the mother of Jesus, if she chose to look young, her wrinkles would disappear just like that; it went with being part divine: one of the perquisites of being so close to God. But yet, Julianne was her best friend, a loyal friend, and a very good companion, and to refuse - specifically, to refuse because she needed no such thing as a face lift - would hurt Julianne's feelings. So should I? she wondered. Or shouldn't I? That is the question.
The other group, of three ladies, was likewise engaged in conversation. They walked ahead of the others: their talk was more lively, their expressions more animated; consequently their step was quicker.
"Elizabeth," said the one in the center, the laundress: Yvonne. "Elizabeth: don't let me forget: I've got to call Mr Fish before we leave the terminal. I promised him I'd be back tomorrow; now of course it looks like I won't make it till Tuesday. Tuesday's always a bad day for me, always has been. It's either a good day or a bad day - never in-between!"
The woman Yvonne spoke to was quite small in stature, and somewhat buxom. She had very blonde hair, almost white, and clear blue eyes. Everyone at the terminal in Mexico City had taken her to be Mae West, the famous movie star; they all asked if they could "come up and see her sometime," to which question she merely smiled, a coy yet a very ironic smile. 'Come up and see me sometime?' she thought over the implications of their question and found them deliciously absurd. "Is it up, where I live?" she then found herself wondering, "or simply away? Or perhaps neither, perhaps another frame of reference altogether. Another dimension? or merely a distance? Space and time? or...or 'It?'" She had indeed smiled. "It - the It she mused over - had no antecedent, could not be translated, would not cross over from her world to this one, not for all the words in the unabridged dictionary. But it was pleasant trying to imagine such an undertaking.
"She's much younger in person isn't she?" everyone asked; and everyone agreed that yes, she was. "It's all part of her image," they realized. "She couldn't remain young and be a legend, so they changed her birth date to make her appear much older. They do it all the time in Hollywood!"
Lisabeth, so alike to the legendary Mae West, spoke with a soft, almost sultry voice. "Don't worry Yvonne," she said, "I won't let you forget."
Yvonne turned to the other woman, a young woman, a very attractive woman, and said "You'll like Mr Fish honey - he's my boss, and a nicer man you won't find anywhere."
The young woman said she felt certain she would. Then, in a voice suddenly filled with excitement and delight, she said "Oh mother, it's all coming back to me! This is all suddenly so familiar! I can almost recall being taken to the Mexican Embassy in Washington and from there brought her, put on a plane, and going to Tampico, where they decided I belonged. Oh it was hot there mother. But nice. The President of Mexico was such a nice man, so compassionate, so understanding. It really did my heart good, really it did, mother!"
"Now that is a true Pisces speaking!" Yvonne said with a laugh. Oven laughed to. Lisabeth, moved by the rapport between Yvonne and her daughter, also joined in the laughter. There had been no awkward moment when, arrived in Tampico, Yvonne finally met her long lost daughter; nor was there any awkwardness now, nor was there likely to be any. The 15 year separation might just as well not have happened for all the distance it placed between the two.
In Lisabeth's company they walked from the plane to the terminal; Mary, Julianne and Tony trailing behind them; Mr Airline and Julio behind them. Little clicks stretched the pavement almost beyond inanimacy, sounds of footsteps making non-living fiber seem for a moment alive and conversing with the little party of eight, while from overhead all the light of the world, of the universe perhaps, converging as if from basket weaving in and out of the clouds, passed iridescently across a plane parallel to the pavement, just an inch or so above the heads of these shaded figures. All the cities seemed to have brought the haloes of their skylines on flights from everywhere, to be here, at this moment. Colors were discernable which normally were not seen in the twilight. Nor did the sky appear to simply absorb a bleeded city glow from Manhattan become every city alive; it gave as much as it took from below. No doubt the most distant stars made their presence felt.
"Look," said Tony, pointing; but everyone missed the shooting star, so briefly fading into where it was darkest above. The moon was outlined behind thinly flocked clouds, almost a rainbow, but a shade darker. Here and there other clouds opened when an opportune moment to display a star occurred, then quickly closed back, as if to save the twinkle from light strain. Altogether, the sky played an aurora for Manhattan. The eight tiny figures moved beneath the subtle display as if projected from somewhere else through a medium capable of displacing droplets of haze into shapes: not figures, placed on a pavement, but animated images realized inside a magical mist surrounding Manhattan.
They had come from Mexico City. There, from Tampico; and, to there, from Guadeloupe, where they had traveled first, upon leaving Mexico City, their initial destination, to effect a good circuit. Then, they had been a party of six, plus one washer and dryer. They caught a bus to Guadeloupe. It broke down in a little village; but they were given, first, shelter, then, a ride, the rest of the way, with a prelate on his way to the shrine who, being introduced to the mother of Christ, could hardly refuse his station wagon.
"She'll seat six comfortably," he assured his guests.
"Well, honey, that's fine," agreed Yvonne, "but if you include yourself and your driver, that's eight of us!"
The prelate counted, first in Spanish, then in English; then double counted, reversing his idioms. His count tallied with Yvonne's sure enough.
"This automobile will seat eight quite comfortably," he said. His driver scoffed at his pragmatism, as, silently, all but one of the party likewise did; but, upon getting in and seating themselves, they found to their surprise that there was room to spare, just as if the vehicle had grown while they were doubting the prelate's accommodations.
"A little lesson in faith," Mary whispered.
"Mary," said Julianne, "take it from an infidel: we could all use a little more!"
The ride was very smooth, despite a few pot holes along the way, which the driver incorrectly referred to as "potfalls."
"And may a poor priest ask why your holiness is traveling to Guadeloupe?" inquired the prelate.
"Honey, she wants me to teach her to be a laundress," Yvonne answered for Mary, who nodded in agreement, and smiled at this one further proof that even she, with the aid of some extraordinary people, could become an ordinary person, if only for a short time.
"My cloak," Mary explained: "it could use a good washing."
"I beg you, holy mother, just one thing," asked the prelate in a desperate voice: "no bleach - please!"
"No bleach it is," Mary assured him.
"Stop the car!" the prelate cried all of a sudden. The car stopped. He jumped out, ran to the shoulder, retrieved something lying there, and got back in. "You may continue," he said. Everyone, puzzled by his actions and curious as to what it was he had picked up - he had rolled it up so that all anyone could see was that it was cloth - hoped he would mention it. Fortunately, just as Yvonne was preparing to breach the subject, he did.
"I'm determined once and for all to cure the Sisters of the Long Black Veils of stopping along the roadside to go skinny-dipping!" he exclaimed. "Now this - I recognize it by the taco stains: we had tacos last evening at the cathedral - this belongs to the Mother Superior, Sister Sourire. I expect her to set the example. She's in for a little surprise when she finishes her swim - no? Maybe a good lesson is what she needs - because if she goes skinny-dipping, how can she require her novitiates to refrain? Though what I'll do with this habit, I've no idea!"
"Let me take it along," Yvonne suggested, "we'll wash it up real nice and you can send it back to Sister Sourire. Taco stains, I can get out - I know just what to use! Believe me I do!"
During the course of the journey Jizmo Knetler remained quiet. Not that he was deep in thought, exactly, or a bit under the weather , or anything of that nature; rather, he was busy planning his new routine for his nightclub act, going over it in his mind so as to have everything down just pat - particularly the ventriloquism, which, previously no more than an adjunct, he had decided to make the focal point, the centerpiece, of his act. He was going over - silently - the letters of the alphabet to see which, if any, might prove stumbling blocks. So far they all seemed entirely manageable.
Two thirds of the way there, Jizmo was asked by the prelate why he was so quiet and if the Pink Panther had gotten his tongue. He could not resist the opportunity to respond ventriloquistically.
"'l, I'n 'ike the 'an who goes into a 'ar, sla's his 'oney 'own, says to the 'arten'er -"
"Who said that?" asked the prelate.
"Not me," replied the driver, "I talk like a decent Mexican. I anglicize nothing! Que nada!"
"Then who?" the prelate continued asking until Jizmo finally owned up to being "the world famous ventriloquist, The Jiz!" The prelate asked for an autograph - "for my little nephew!" he insisted. He tucked the piece of scratch paper into his cassock with a big grin on his face.
Up ahead was Guadeloupe. The station wagon drove alongside the great cathedral which housed the peasant's cloak with the Virgin Mary's image on it. The prelate apologized for stopping here, "so close to the servants' entrance,"; but, as he explained, "with two such celebrities as the mother of Christ and the world's greatest ventriloquist," he did not think it proper to stop out front, lest there assemble from the otherwise quiet, orderly and reverent parishioners a mob of "autograph hound dogs!" which would all but make the visit "a travesty of mockery and irreverence"; so he had his driver stop at the side entrance. They all got out, unloaded the washer and dryer onto a dolly, and went inside.
Mary walking, holding onto little Tony's hand, came face to face with Mary reflected from within a glass case. She paused to once again observe herself in her youth, or, actually, her middle age. She took a good picture, not that this was a photograph, her image on the peasant's cloak, the same cloak which, nearly three hundred years ago, had carried a bunch of roses to the bishop; but it was near to being one: the divine principle had preceded by some years the discovery of absorbent emulsions, silver nitrates, plates, hoods, lenses and the like. But since man had yet to discover photography, such an image as God caused to appear on a piece of cloth could not be termed a photographic image, only a miracle.
"Mary," said Julianne, "you were so beautiful. No wonder God chose you as His bride."
"That's you grandma?" asked Tony.
"It was, yes," Mary answered, then fell to musing. It had been a while since she was here. She had left soon after the cathedral was built. The old church had greater appeal for her, with its greater simplicity, its hominess, its humbleness which intimidated no one. She vividly recalled her last day here, before moving on.
The last remaining plank had been walled over. Where wood and adobe had been was marble, plaster, reinforced concrete, even some steel, and oh such finery. But where, she had wondered, is he: he, that poor peasant whose simple devotion had so moved me? Would he feel right here? Would his spirit hover above this altar? Or would he not, rather, feel out of place now? as if he of all people did not belong here? Oh, I know they have done it all for me, and out of devotion: I know. Nevertheless, their medium is less pleasing to me. The riches of this earth: it is true I cannot say what God's purpose was in putting them here, perhaps He did intend them to be used for His glory; but as for me, I prefer them used for the good of all, not for something like this, however well-intentioned.
It was as if, she went on remembering - as if the very walls had been reduced to sawdust, which scattered everywhere amidst the splendor and had had to be swept up, so they appointed a janitor with no other task in mind than clearing away the old church's debris. I wish - and I will ever wish - I had thought to cast its image onto the mountains or someplace so that it should not be lost; but I did not, so consequently nothing remains. Only this cloak.
"And a little memory to cling to," Mary recited from a popular song she suddenly recalled having once heard: "Elusive Dreams."
Somebody, she thought, should write a song about the old church, and how it was absorbed, body and soul, into the new one. Those who come here now can only be awed; those who came then were made to feel the gentleness of eternity. They felt at home. They felt equal to their beliefs; now they feel, I think, a little intimidated by those same beliefs. So much the worse. So much the worse.
"Grandma, it's not all that dirty - look: see? I could spray and wash it, all it needs is around the edges!" Tony insisted. Then he observed, not caring in the least whether the term was appropriate or not, it simply came to mind and he liked its symmetry, that it was "frayed." He laughed.
With the help of the prelate, who assured the bishop and the maintenance staff that the image, owing to its having come into being through divine agency, would not "rinse out" - otherwise the proposed laundering would never have been allowed - Mary was able to take the cloak and wash then dry it. Upon the quitting of the dryer - a debate had ensued as to whether the cloak ought to be dried on normal or permanent press cycle, the washing itself never in question (it had to be the wash and wear cycle), a debate settled when Yvonne, an acknowledged expert, insisted that, as it was homespun, it should be set at normal - after the dryer stepped, out stepped Lisabeth. Nobody had thought to prepare the prelate, the bishop or the maintenance staff for this eventuality - in truth neither Yvonne nor Mary really believed the procedure would release the trapped witch; consequently a great hush overtook the cathedral, with all the staff and the prelate falling on their knees, all except for the prelate's driver who, unbeknownst to anyone, had been converted to Islam and fell down and kissed the floor several times in praise of Allah.
Mary, however, insisted they get up; she did not wish to be the cause of their worshipping false idols. Yvonne then introduced "Elizabeth" to everyone, reminding that "she's a Cassiopeian witch with Polaris rising and Armageddon, I think she said, at the midheaven." The crowd crossed themselves hastily, except for the prelate's driver, who touched his forehead, his lips and his chest while bowing.
"Is she come to wreak havoc?" the prelate asked, but Lisabeth assured him - assured everyone - that her mission was peaceful, that she was here to prevent a very great wrong from being committed, that some Snowmen had come to kidnap Jesus, and that she and a fellow witch - "that would be Joan," Yvonne noted - had come simply to warn Jesus.
"Why they want to kidnap him, I don't know," she said, adding that, where she was from, Jesus was "such a good administrator we hardly miss him!"
"You do not plan to make lewd movies?" the prelate asked.
"No indeed," Lisabeth insisted.
"Then why do you look, dress and act like the infamous American actress Mae West?"
Lisabeth had no idea. The churchman remained unconvinced of her good intentions. However, Mary, never once forgetting the other purpose of their trip, informed everyone that they must be going - that they had an early appointment in Tampico. She winked at Yvonne as she said this.
"Right you are honey!" replied Yvonne, collecting up the washer and dryer, which of course had to be returned to her boss, Mr Fish, first thing Monday morning. In her possession too was Sister Sourire's habit, which had been overlooked. "I'll wash it and mail it to you," Yvonne promised the prelate. Or else dry clean it," she added as she felt of the material.
A trip back to Mexico City, guests of the prelate, and a bus ride to Tampico, the washer and dryer left in storage at the Mexico City Airport, brought mother and daughter together for their much awaited reunion. All the while the three Snowmen who had been such fans of Rodney Dangerfield trailed behind at a discreet distance, observing yet unobserved; they very much regretted being unable to hear the many jokes their favorite comedian was bound to be cracking the whole trip. They were only at one point unmindful of their loss, and this only slightly. The occasion was their inadvertent introduction to the President of Mexico, at a reception they spied on a bit overzealously, ending up in the receiving line before they realized where they were: then, of course, it was too late, they had to proceed with the introduction. They had, as always, been trailing Yvonne's party; unbeknownst to them, however, Yvonne's daughter Oven had been raised by the President so that naturally she would wish her mother and her mother's friends to meet her benefactor.
"And who are these gentleman?" the President asked his Chief of Protocol. The President had in fact gone out of sequence to greet the Snowmen first: they had a look of urgency about them, and his excellency did not like keeping his guests waiting any more than his people starving.
"Les hombres des Norte, I would surmise, your excellency," replied the Chief.
"Where are they from?" the President then inquired.
"We are a little closer to the Arctic than the Antarctic," was the Chief's rather pedantic reply. "Besides which, there are only Penguins in Antarctica."
"And Admiral Byrd, don't forget!" quipped the President. The Chief of Protocol, a professional linguist, nodded approvingly at this. "Gentlemen," he then turned to the Snowmen, "this is indeed a great honor. You've traveled a great distance to pay your respects. Please accept the hospitality of the Mexican people!"
"A most gracious host," the Snowmen agreed, sipping tequila and sucking lemon wedges.
His excellency then proceeded with the rest of the introductions, offering his apology for side-stepping his guests in order to greet the Snowmen first. Oven introduced her mother and her mother's friends. Everyone was charmed at meeting one another, and when it cam to Jizmo Knetler, the President of Mexico seemed especially pleased, and stopped a moment to chat before moving on to the rest of his guests.
"Ah!" his excellency exclaimed. "So, we meet at last! I had long awaited this opportunity!" Jizmo looked puzzled: never having rehearsed a Spanish version of his nightclub act, he wondered how his fame could have spread so far. Perceiving his guest's chagrin, the President elaborated, in the interrogative. "You are the famous gringo outlaw The Jiz, are you not? The one involved, I'm told, in a coup d'etat to overthrow the government of the Estados Unitas? Or are you under orders from the generals not to speak of this thing openly just yet?"
Again Jizmo was puzzled. He wished to say something official sounding, but as he was not an authorized representative of his nation - neither a diplomat nor a spy - he felt it inappropriate. So, as an afterthought, and as something better than nothing at all, he replied simply that "It's not yet official."
"Ah, but of course," his excellency immediately understood the necessity of keeping the lid on such information. "Well, in the name of the people of Mexico, let me welcome you to our little land. Normally, now, we do not harbor illegal aliens - but in your case, we make an exception! Any friend of Oven's is a friend of Mexico's! Stay as long as you like, only - please! - do not incite a rebellion among the populace! I realize what I ask of you is difficult - you cannot help but exercise your demagogic skills; but, as my personal guest, I expect restraint."
"And you shall have it, your excellency!" Jizmo promised, only in the vaguest possible sense aware of the implications of his agreeing to restrain his demagoguery.
The whole time this conversation transpired, the Snowmen were holding their sides trying to suppress a laugh - many laughs, since they were still convinced this was comedian Rodney Dangerfield and not the noted outlaw Jizmo Knetler.
"And so this is your mother!" his excellency exclaimed at finally effecting Yvonne's introduction. His rationale for keeping her waiting, while conversing with Jizmo and the Snowmen was "saving the best for last."
"I can't tell you," he said, "how pleased I am to make your acquaintance!"
"Same here, honey, I'm sure!" Yvonne replied, giving the President of Mexico her hand in friendship.
Next came Lisabeth, introduced to his excellency by Yvonne as "the witch of the North."
"Charmed, Elizabeth," said the President.
Then it was Mr Airline, upon the occasion of his bankruptcy, as the news had just that evening reported, consoled by the President.
"A strike," the report had mentioned, "has crippled Airline Airways, sending its Chairman Mr Mango Airline into receivership. He could not, however, be reached for comment as he was vacationing in Acapulco. Nor can we confirm that Mars of Massachusetts has offered to bail him out or at the very least to buy him out. More as it becomes available."
"So sad when a business fails; so sad," his excellency expressed his condolences.
Finally, it was Julianne, then Mary, the mother of Christ.
"Ah!" said the President to Mary, "I had heard you were in town, but of course I never dared hope you'd pay a call at our humble summer palace. I'm so pleased. And we've heard, I might add, some very good things lately about your son."
"Well he's, you know," said Mary, a bit ill at ease in the company of a world leader, "he's here for a visit. Just a visit to a small planet, as they say. A small visit. Nothing extended. Oh and here's my, er, grandson: Tony."
"Young man, I'm please to meet you!"
"Do you have a bathroom?" asked Tony. "Cause I really gotta pee!" Then he motioned his excellency closer. "And maybe take a crap too," he whispered in the President's ear. At once a host of servants, summoned with a motion of his excellency's elbow, offered to escort Mary's grandson to the toilet.
"And how is your father?" Julianne was asked.
"Well, Mr President, take from a prodigal child, he's still going strong when he ought to have retired years ago. But who was there to come for him, what with his daughter gallivanting all over the South of France in a wheelchair?"
"Now there is no need for a wheelchair!"
"Oh I saved it Mr President just in case father Julio decides to retire! In fact, I've got to get back to Mexico City this very evening: I've been told he's all set to walk the causeway first thing tomorrow morning! Of all the foolishness!"
They stayed only awhile, as the personal guests of the President of Mexico, being seated at his table for dinner and a light aria from Verdi. Then they were off again, back to Mexico City for the final leg of their sojourn South of the border. Tomorrow evening they would fly back to New York, via Air Mexico, since all Airline Airways planes - presumably including Mr Airline's private Lear Jet - had been grounded and placed in a blind escrow account until the cost of the bankruptcy could be ascertained and a bill for the accountants' services given the Board Chairman. Negotiations were currently underway between the creditors and the detective agency of Smith & Smithers to track down any hidden assets Mr Airline might have; Mrs Smithe, during the absence of her employers, took it upon herself to arrange things, going so far as promising to renew her temporarily suspended license and do the "gumshoe bit," as she called it, herself if they failed to show by nine A.M. Monday morning.
"You see before you a broken man," moaned Mr Airline. "But not for long though," he vowed. "I'll rebuild, from the wings in, if I must"
The first thing Sunday morning, the sun came up. There were cheers; not for the sun, that was too matter of fact, but for the second thing Sunday morning in Mexico City, the thing contingent upon the first: the tightrope walk across the great causeway leading into Mexico City. At sunup - not a moment sooner, not a moment later - the great Julio, Mexico's greatest acrobat, had promised to cross the causeway on a tightrope he had stretched, the night before, from one end to the other. Thousands looked on as the old man, in baby blue tights and a blue tank top shirt, rose up from the center of the causeway, where he had gotten a couple hours sleep toward dawn, and made for the beginning of his walk. In a flash he had leaped - not climbed but leaped! - upon the silvery gray wire almost golden red now in the morning sun's path. Cheers went up all around.
"Bravo Julio! Hula! Hula! Bravo!" He took his bow then started across.
That was when Jesus appeared. The crowd gasped; at first cheered, or halfheartedly tried to, not sure what was proper; then fell to their knees in awe and prayer and silence. Julio had not seen him.
Suddenly, Jesus or no, the crowd arose. The old man teetered on his golden red strand reaching from just outside to within the limits of Mexico City. This was where the great causeway leading into Montezuma's Aztec city of Tenochitlan had stood, end to end. Where Cortez had lead his conquering band of a handful, a wire into which a tingle had crept and slowly built until it shook like a volcano twig about to wrench loose of its base shook old man Julio free of its aura of entwinement, shook him free, and threw him, horse and rider like, from the causeway down into the ravine below.
It was then that Jesus stepped down: divine acrobatics designed, if not to please the crowd, at least to spare its hero the troublesome embarrassment of being killed performing his greatest feat ever. Jesus caught old Julio in his arms just as Mexico's greatest acrobat would have landed face first in the ravine. A light so beautiful surrounded Julio it made him forget to curse having failed in the performance of his feat. It was smooth too, and cool rather than warm. Not once did Julio expect to be hurt, because on his way down he caught sight of Jesus passing him - overtaking him, passing him, descending like steel beside a feather, and awaiting him, outstretched arms becoming a so beautiful light to envelope him, cushion his fall, gather his anger into its honeycombed spectrum and leave him landing, soft, unhurt, and filled with a peace all but perfect.
The crowd began to sing. Absolutely spontaneously it sang. And all sang the same song: The Lonely Bull, for which prior to this no one had known any words subtle enough, poignant enough to accompany the delicate nuance of sorrow and resignation and yet hope which flowed from the trumpet.
"Viva Herb Alpert!" both Jesus and Julio exclaimed upon hearing the refrain from above.
And "Viva Jesus and Julio!" the crowd sang as an added verse. Then the day broke full upon Mexico City; the magic of sunrise God put away till it was again time for it. The crowd quickly dissipated. Jesus was gone. And Julio trudged his way up the ravine, still a spark of magic in his eyes.
I have seen Jesus, felt God, and heard Mexico giving words to Herb Alpert, he thought, and burst into a profound laugh.
"Viva Vidal!" he cried, over and over. Over and over. As the magic sunrise fell back into the East to pause on its way home.
From the terminal stepped a tall, very lean black man, a man whose expression was great dignity: great because it was the dignity of compassion, not of style and decorum; a man who had gleaned from amidst the freewheeling play of events, plucked out from the eternal whirl of man and God, an approximation of The Truth; a man changed by Jesus Christ himself, through the momentary persona of one Norman R Zellor, to seek out Mary, mother of Christ, and Grandma Julianne, the old and very dear friend of Mary's, whose grandson and whose father had figured in two miracles, one in the Bronx, the other in a ravine in Mexico City. He was alone this time, this man; his microphone, his camera crew, were not with him. He approached the little party just disembarked from Air Mexico 909.
"My name is Amos Andee," he said with a gentle voice. "Please excuse the interruption, but yesterday, at this very airport, Jesus said to come here and speak with you, Mary, and you, Julianne; and that you would clear up certain matters."
The story of the great miracle was gotten. Reporter Andee kept his note-taking mental. He spoke at length with the two ladies, and learned of the peasant's cloak, of Lisabeth the witch from the Laundromat, of Oven and the President of Mexico, and of little Tony, Mary's grandson.
"Tony Rosetti?" Andee asked the boy. The question made the boy start, but then the more he thought - the more he tried to recollect where he had heard that name - the more it receded into his most hidden memories, until in another minute it lay alongside his memory of birth itself, and was lost to his consciousness forever. Seeing the boy's consternation, Andee regretted his dogged pursuit of this story: was any story worth that lost look on this little boy's face? he wondered.
In their company he walked back into the terminal, to a blast of sound and light, as if a party had suddenly sprang from a cavern just beneath the terminal floor. Every reporter in New York was there. Feeling very good about himself, but a little doubtful of his career, Andee stepped aside to let his companions bask in the understandable fame they had garnered. But everywhere he moved, the party moved too; he could not escape it. Finally, cornered, his companions way behind, he turned to face the gaudy trajectory. Let it explode in my face then if it must, he thought, without a clue as to why it should pursue him instead of the others. Not a very smart bomb, he concluded. Then came the first of a billion questions, rapid fire, each testified to with a flash of light and a prize winning photo.
"How does it feel," reporter Amos Andee was asked, "to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism?"
The question made him jump. The reporters all laughed knowingly: knowing how little prepared one of their own is to have his news worthiness thrown at him split-seconds after it has become fixed in real solution, before he may even knows of it.
"How does it feel?" Andee repeated his questioners' refrain. A smile came to him. "I feel a little like the reporter who goes into the newsroom, slaps his story down, says to his editor "here's muck in your rake!"
While being given his Prize, reporter Andee missed his chance to speak to the mother of Christ. The little party had slipped away unnoticed, through the terminal, past the luggage rack, where they retrieved Mr Fish's Number 11 washer and drying, and to an awaiting taxi cab, which took them to mid-town Manhattan, to the Kleen-Your-Rama, which was closed.
"What now?" asked Mary.
"Well honey," said Yvonne, "there's a hotel right across the street. "You could check in for the night. For me, I'll have to catch the first bus home."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Mr Airline. "You'll do nothing of the sort, none of you! This being Sunday, my belongings can't possibly go into receivership till tomorrow at the earliest. I've got one more day to be a rich man - and by God I intend to enjoy it to the hilt! You're all to come to my mansion on Long Island, as my personal guests, for the night. It won't take me ten minutes to fluff up the pillows in the guest rooms, I'll have Maggie Gilette fix a nice late night snack -"
"Anything but tacos honey!" Yvonne insisted. "I don't want to lose my Oven twice in one lifetime!"
"Anything but tacos it is!" Mr Airline agreed. "And, come tomorrow, I'll drive you home myself."
"With what?" asked Yvonne. "You won't have a thing left once your creditors get through with you!"
"Aha!" said Mr Airline. "What they don't know is, I've got an old VW bus stashed away in my garage somewhere, just waiting for such an occasion - and it's all perfectly legal too: it's stolen property, I bought it from a fence, he said it was one of a kind, and it's not listed on any inventory of my holdings, so there's no earthly way the receivers can get their hands on it! So: it's to the Island with you's! One and all!"
"Alright!" cried Tony. "And I get to swim nude in the big tank with the sunken cheeks!"
"You got it!" Mr Airline promised.
"And I'll doggie paddle with my peepee too!" Tony promised.
"That's enough now Tony," Mary cautioned the boy. Tony laughed and took her hand.
Another taxi was flagged down. "To Long Island," Mr Airline instructed the driver.
"Better Long Island than Alcatraz Island!" remarked the driver. Everyone agreed it was much closer.
"Ain't distance I'm talking Missuses and Misteres," the driver answered back, "I'm talking Jizzes, I am! 'Cause that's where he's going, looks like: to the big house on the West Coast. He and the President is one of them gray tandems: the two most dangerous men in the country. Cellmates for life. And Missuses President to Sarah Lawrence for a crash course in home economics: Sarah Lee Lawrence Cake Finishing School, with a minor in citruses. See," explained the driver, "I had me a renowned philologist giving him a ride yesterday. He stressed agreement of subject to predicate. He said he'd met the greatest master of language he'd ever seen on Flight 703 out off Rome. He advised me to scratch everything I ever knew. And I did have an itch behind my ear, as I recall. Ah but I tell you: a world where Jizmo's locked away with a politician: I just don't know. No sireses and ladieses, I just don't know. That there's a subject and predicate can't never agree on nothing!"
Soon, up ahead lay Long Island, stretching into the evening as far as the day could go. Barely anything remained of twilight but a haze somewhere far behind, thinning into a cellophane band turning red to blue black to invisible night. A taxi full of eight people plus one driver sped slowly beneath the opening universe toward a big dimly lit house on a broad avenue, a car full of quiet except for the irregular rasping of the CB radio and an occasional "Over" called into it.
Meanwhile a car slammed on its brakes on a small side street in Queens; but it was too late. A small mongrel dog, started across the street for whatever purpose, was crushed under the wheels. No one showed to report the incident to the American Public. When the driver got out to investigate, no one noticed. He looked down at his wheels and stood transfixed a moment; and when he tried telling passers-by of the glow emanating from the poor creature just before it died, no one listened. He picked the dog up and carried it to his car - he had no idea why he should suffer a trail of blood and gore on his fine business suit or on his car seat just to give a dog a proper burial: why not just leave it for the dead animal man? - and he drove it to a small deserted park where, using the component tools of his automobile jack, he dug a grave. When he turned around to lower the dog - he had set it behind where he was digging - it was gone. In its place Jesus was standing. Jesus at first said nothing, but only came and patted the man on his shoulder. He could tell though that this kind and generous man was puzzled, and he was moved by the circumstance to offer an explanation, thinking to himself that he had had to deceive so many fine people in these last few weeks that he would make this one exception.
"My father somehow overlooked endowing animals with souls. It was a very great oversight. These in particular - these oh so noble animals - these dogs: it is so incomplete in heaven because there are none. I have found one I find especially pleasing. I'm hoping to give him a soul. For that, though, there is great cost. I have had to agree to give up a small part of my own. In heaven are no dogs but so many people - all of them professing to love me - and do love me - but I wonder: if their salvation had not hung in the balance, would they? It's a thought, isn't it?"
Jesus had tears in his eyes as he confessed this; then he turned and walked away. The man had noticed a terrible scar on Jesus' forearm - almost identical to a jagged wound on the dog's front paw. The man bowed his head and whispered a prayer.
"How many sir?"
"My housekeeper, Maggie Gilette," introduced Mr Airline.
"How many sir?" the tall thin woman reiterated, unimpressed with the introductions: this was business, not pleasure, introductions were for pleasure - for parties, for leisure, for romantic interludes - not for business.
"They'll all be staying," Mr Airline informed his housekeeper: "Mary, Julianne, Julio, Yvonne, Oven, little Tony, Lisabeth too."
Maggie Gilette looked them over, no expression on her long thin face with its slightly weak chin line. Her large black eyes recorded each guests' features. She then turned to her boss.
"How many sir?" she again asked.
"Dinner for everyone!" Mr Airline ordered.
"Well now honey," Yvonne interjected, her comment directed at Maggie Gilette, "I doubt if poor Elizabeth here'll be having dinner: she's not feeling quite up to par, not up to her old self - you can see under her eyes how tired she must be, poor thing. She'll probably want to go straight to bed."
"Oh, I'm not really all that tired," Lisabeth insisted, first to Yvonne then to Mr Airline, finally to the housekeeper who, in turn, looked toward, first, Yvonne, then her boss.
"How many sir? she asked, her question expressed as dryly as it was patiently.
"Dinner for eight," an exasperated host finally managed to say.
"Will they all be staying sir?" Maggie Gilette asked as she inspected the guests.
"Actually I'll be the eighth one," said Mr Airline.
"Counting them sir?"
"Let's do Maggie."
"Yes sir. I'll go set the table, if I can find eight place settings. Will the child be staying too sir?"
"Me and my peepee both!" Tony exclaimed. Again Maggie Gilette looked the guests over.
"How many sir?" she again asked, the boy's untoward reference suggesting a whole new tallying of the guests.
"Eight!" Mr Airline insisted.
"The old man too sir?" was next asked.
"He's not that old!" Julianne took up for her father.
"I can chew, I can still chew food," Julio let it be known. Maggie Gilette seemed to be pondering this allegation, then turned to her boss as if for confirmation of it.
"He eats nails for breakfast!" quipped Mr Airline.
"Breakfast? Will they be staying over sir?"
"It's just an expression honey," Yvonne interceded. Maggie Gilette looked at her in a somewhat dumbfounded way, making a mental note: escargot for one for breakfast.
"And what will the others have for breakfast sir?" she asked.
"I'll have wheelies to go!" quipped Tony.
"With or without sir?" Maggie Gilette inquired, thinking to herself she would have to search the entire pantry to come up with such an item.
"How about," suggested Mr Airline, "we concern ourselves right now with supper, and leave breakfast till tomorrow?"
"We can if you like sir," Maggie Gilette agreed.
"Is there something quick you could fix?"
"I have one of Frank Perdue's Cornish game hens sir. How will I fix it?"
"Only one? For eight of us - nine including you? It won't be enough Maggie!"
She thought a moment. "I could cut it into parts sir," she said, "that will increase the surface area."
"By all means do!" Mr Airline was quick to agree, pleased that his housekeeper's ingenuity would provide sustenance for his seven hungry guests. It's almost like Jesus, he thought: feeding the multitude with but a dozen or so fish and loaves. What a woman!
"A marvel!" he exclaimed when she had gone to the kitchen to prepare the game hen. "She can cook, can clean, can sew, can tend the garden, and can food for the winter!"
"Ah!" inquired Julianne, "but is she good in bed?"
The question went unanswered: no sooner had it been asked than there came a knock on the front door. Maggie Gilette rushed from the kitchen, game hen in hand, to see who it was.
"Yes?" she asked.
"Pardon us," said a voice, "but we're your neighbors - at least, my parents are, my mother and father that is. It seems we've gotten ourselves locked out. Well, actually, mother won't let us back in. We forgot her present. She wanted us to bring her a nun's habit, from Rome or Turin or some other holy place. We forgot. And now she's locked us out. It seems we're stranded. We were wondering if we could come in an use your phone."
"How many of you are there sir?" asked Maggie Gilette.
"Three: my father and I, and a lady friend."
"We only have two phones sir; one of you will have to wait outside."
"I'll wait out here if necessary," said the visitor, Norman R Zellor who, with his father, Mr Zellor, and Joanne, had just come from the Zellor residence next door, where Mrs Zellor, upset at not getting her habit, had, after finally maneuvering the three outside, locked the door and bolted the windows and threatened to call the police if anyone tried breaking in.
"How many will be coming in sir?"
"Two," replied Norman.
"All at once?"
"If it's no trouble."
"We want no trouble sir," Maggie Gilette half cautioned, half pleaded as she admitted Mr Zellor and Joanne.
"Two guests sir," Maggie Gilette informed her boss, who vaguely recognized Mr Zellor but was not absolutely certain where he had seen him before, "one for each telephone. They must call their mother sir and ask her to call the police."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Mr Airline, "we'll call them from here!"
At once Lisabeth and Joanne recognized each other. After a warm embrace and an exchange of "How are you's," the latter was introduced all around. Joanne, in her turn, introduced Mr Zellor, who the others had not met, except for Mr Airline, who had seen him only in a neighborly persuasion prior to this, and only while Mr Zellor was practicing his skills with the pneumatic drill.
"Honey," Yvonne asked, "where's Norman?"
"He's outside," replied Joanne.
"Maggie: ask him in please," Mr Airline insisted.
"What will we give him sir, we only have two phones?"
"We'll work that out later."
Norman was invited in. He too made the rounds among his old friends, whom he never expected to see here, of all places, and now, of all times.
"Will they be staying for dinner sir?" asked Maggie Gilette.
"By all means!" replied Mr Airline.
"Then I'd better get a smaller knife, sir, to cut Frank Perdue's Cornish game hen into smaller pieces still, hadn't I?"
Maggie made for the kitchen, where, from a moment of silence in the living room, sounds of chopping could be heard. The introductions seemed to be over. Sam had waited for this opportunity. He rather conspicuously cleared his throat.
"That you honey?" asked Yvonne.
"Oh, what does it matter?" replied Sam in a dejected voice. "Last hired, first fired: that's me. I just kind of go along for the ride."
"Well come give Vonnie a big hug!" Yvonne exclaimed. Immediately, Norman withdrew a pack of matches from his pocket which he placed in Yvonne's outstretched hand. Slowly, as the individual matches began stirring, life began emerging from the cardboard and sulphur; a glow arose, a glow visible beneath the dim light of Mr Airline's Long Island Mansion living room, the glow, not of matches coming to flame, but of a living being's vitality becoming, from an unmoving solid, a flow of motion and of purpose. Sam took shape before the roomful of people. Only the housekeeper had failed to witness the metamorphosis, busy, as she was, creating from a Cornish game hen a feast for nine hungry guests.
"Sam you old rascal you!" cried Yvonne, "you look like you just saw a ghost!"
At first Sam was silent. He merely looked up into Yvonne's hazel eyes, content with his importance to her reflected back at him. Then he spoke.
"Not a ghost, Vonnie. Call it a premonition." Sam was uncharacteristically subdued. "Forces - great forces - forces gathering...gathering all about me...are about to envelope me. Not hurtful, just... metamorphosizing, if you will. While we were caught up in having such a free-wheeling time -"
Little Tony, who had all but fallen asleep, roused at the sound of the word "wheeling," smiled, started to say something, then dozed off again.
"- things were happening, mostly unnoticed. Things destining our lives to be changed irrevocably. Our way of life is coming to an end Vonnie. I sense it. That man - that Jesus: he'll alter things to where we can no longer live as we once did. Forgive me for saying this, but I am no fan of Jesus. There will be from here out a kind of somberness. There will be little space for nonsense. It'll be hard to keep our sanity Vonnie."
"Sam," Yvonne said in a soft whisper, "this is not like you. You've never talked like this before. What's wrong?"
"In Jesus," Sam replied wistfully, "there is neither day nor night. Nor magic Vonnie. Nor mystery. Nor fantasy. All will be revealed. Through words unintelligible: all will be revealed, Vonnie. There will be no awe left unsplit...or unspilt. Vonnie: it is a world in which there can be no place for such as me. There will be peace, and there will be order, and justice and mercy: complete rationality, without doubletalk. But no mystery. No absurdity. No uncertainty."
Yvonne just shook her head and smiled lovingly. "Honey," she said, "where'd you ever get such a notion?"
"Me and this Arab here - Fatima: we thought it all out - no, we didn't think it," Sam corrected himself, "we sensed it. Together. It must be. It must come to pass."
"So what'll you do?"
"Go elsewhere," said Sam. "Just because it's all worked out here doesn't mean the absurdity doesn't exist someplace else, because it does."
"Does it ever!" cried Lisabeth. "Sam," she went on to say, "when Joanne and me -"
"Joanne and I," Joanne corrected.
"- when we go back home: how about you come with me?"
"Alright!" cried Sam in such a hurry that it took him a moment to realize how his eagerness to leave might affect Yvonne. "Vonnie," he said in a tender voice, "I will always care for you - you know that. You were my keeper here, in this world. You'll always be a part of me. But I have to go where I'm needed. And soon I won't be needed here any longer. I hope you understand."
"I understand," Yvonne replied.
"Maybe I'd better go to Lisabeth now," Sam suggested.
"Elizabeth," said Yvonne with a wink, "you've got trouble on your hands! The passing of the guard, honey!" she said as she handed Sam to Lisabeth. "The passing of the guard!"
Noises were already sounding outside. They - the noises, like disembodied, motorless whisks of air - gave a creeping texture to the Long Island grounds of the Chairman of Airline Airways. Various noises, collecting into an amalgam as they neared the front door.
The six Snowmen had regrouped. They followed their respective quarries, noting the absence of Jizmo Knetler who, being in the hands of the law, was no longer a free agent; the three who mistook him for Rodney Dangerfield regretted his absence. Smith and Smithers were not far behind, having just stepped from a corner phone booth where they had called their client, the most Reverend Gideon G Tueshoos, to inform him where everyone was headed. "Aha," he had said knowingly, "I suspected as much. Any man who flies planes for a living trails Satan's tusks behind him."
"How so?" Smithers asked for his partner and himself.
"It's all in my tract 'Only Angels Have Wings'" was the reply. "It explains the current mis-use of commercial air lanes in terms of Revelation. "For a dollar - plus postage - I'll send you a copy."
"Well," said Smithers, his interest and that of his partner piqued, "as soon as you send us our fee we'll order a copy."
"The Lord will provide," said Tueshoos, repeating himself before hanging up. "The Lord will provide."
Smith and Smithers worked their way from bush to tree, finally to the pillars of the front portico, in their endeavor to track Jesus for their client. On the way they encountered a familiar face: that of Mrs Smithe, their secretary, who was acting on behalf of Mr Airline's receivers. Being still unlicensed, however, she felt it best to keep to the shadows. "What about the phones?" she was asked. "Not to worry," she assured her bosses, "I've installed a phone mate. Every message will be recorded." Smith and Smithers both slapped their foreheads. "We'll be ruined!" they despaired, "our every word will be there on tape for all the world to hear! Our clients'll think we've sold them out! Whatever will we do?" "Well," Mrs Smithe suggested, "if I ever get my license back, I could use a couple good receptionists!"
In the Long Island night other sounds as well could be heard filling the void surrounding the mansion of Mr Mango Airline: sounds of the FBI, sounds of the local police, sounds of Secret Servicemen; sounds of GAO accountants rattling away, to the very last minute, on their pocket calculators; sounds of the National Lemonade Council of the Department of Agriculture - gurgling sounds, swishing sounds as of wine tasters, the debate over the properties of the First Lady's infamous lemonade still raging, coming as it were to a boil; sounds of pressmen and their cameramen; sounds of sandals, as if from the past; the tiny sounds of a magical dog's paws upon pavement; and the ethereal light almost soundless sounds of holy feet, divine feet, upon the Long Island ground. All approaching, at steady and unsteady, regular and irregular loud and soft notes, intervals, rhythms. The Snowmen wondered, Smith and Smithers wondered, Mrs Smithe wondered, each special interest wondered, at the surrounding cacophony; while, inside, Sam alone knew what was what, the sounds still too muted for ordinary ears to record.
"Here they come!" he cried. "Oh, Maggie Gilette!" he called to the kitchen. "Company's coming!"
A voice from the kitchen cried out. "How many sir?"
"Only time will tell, my dear: only time will tell!" noted Mr Airline.
"Nlonck," agreed Mr Zellor quickly and poignantly with the wisdom of his neighbor's words. The rest of the party all nodded their own agreement. A moment of silence, anticipation; then, as if the timing had been set ever since the beginning, a rap on the front door. Maggie Gilette felt the obligation to see who it was. She hurried past her boss, past his guests, taking time only to note that "Spiders are not permitted in the dining area, sir," a statement which elicited from Sam a muffled "What a bitch!"; and on to the front door.
"Yes?" she asked.
"FBI ma'am," the man from the FBI introduced himself.
"Some men from the FBI are here, sir!" Maggie Gilette called to her boss, who could not resist reframing a familiar question: "How many Maggie?"
Maggie turned to her visitor to inquire as to quantity when a second man spoke up. "Actually," he said, "we're not all from the FBI, ma'am. I'm from GAO. These two are from the Secret Service, these others from the Department of Agriculture, and, in the back there, those busy little beavers are my head accountants. And this," he announced with a flourish, pointing to a man in handcuffs, "is the President of the United States!"
"Neither shackles nor rodents allowed in the dining area sir," Maggie Gilette informed the President.
"May we come in?" asked the President, "if we leave the busy little beavers outside?"
"Please, please do!" replied Mr Airline, rushing at once to greet the President.
"Uh-hum," muttered the man from the FBI, "just as I suspected: these two do know one another." Then he spoke up. "This is not exactly a social call. Mr Mango Airline: you are being placed under arrest for suspicion of conspiring - just as soon as the police get here! I advise you, first, of your rights, and, secondly, not to attempt an escape."
"Gentlemen," Mr Airline assured his guests, "I'm at your disposal. Please join us, if you will, for a late night snack. My housekeeper, Maggie Gilette, has prepared a small banquet. We'd be honored if you'd join us - wouldn't we Maggie?"
Maggie Gilette looked the new dinner guests over. "Not counting the one in shackles," she asked, "how many will want dinner sir? And am I to feed the rodents on the front porch?"
"Just do the best you can, Maggie," her boss replied.
It had been discovered that the airplane the President's staff had used to secure lemons for the First Lady's lemonade was, in fact, one of Mr Airline's private charter jets. This information, coupled with Airline Airways' apparent attempt to force Mars of Massachusetts off the market, led the officials inescapably to conclude a conspiracy to take control of the reins of not only government but commerce as well by suppressing free trade. A warrant for Mr Airline's arrest was immediately issued.
Momentarily, the local police arrived. In their custody was none other than Jizmo Knetler, whom the FBI agents, so dismayed at apprehending, had released for lack of solid evidence but whom the Long Island police had picked up for questioning in connection with an all points bulletin, an international warrant, and a case of mistaken identity. "Impersonating a celebrity," the police chief informed Jizmo upon his apprehension. They were admitted en masse to Mr Airline's home.
Maggie Gilette, unable to locate enough chairs to seat everyone, informed the most recent guests that they had "the right to remain standing during dinner" if they so chose.
Next came the press, which had been tipped that the President might attempt a get away if he saw his chance. The "unnamed source" of this tip had been the First Lady, who had meant to say "give away," meaning a give away of his office, but who had been attacked just then by a water bug in the East Room of the White House and was attempting to shoo it off. The press too was summarily admitted to Mr Airline's home, with the understanding, however, that they enter by the rear door, wipe their feet and don't spill anything.
"Pressmen must go around to the service entrance sir," Maggie Gilette informed her latest guests. "Rules of the house, sir," she added authoritatively, shutting the front door in their faces. Momentarily a bang on the rear door brought the housekeeper.
"Yes sir?" she asked.
"The press, ma'am," the bureau chief, who had come in person, replied.
"This way sir. And wipe your feet on the paper, sir. And be very careful not to spill any food or drink on the carpeting sir. And if you need to use the bathroom, there's a gas station down the road sir."
The instant the President was sighted - in the company not only of Mango Airline, empire builder and free-wheeling monopolist, but also of the notorious international terrorist, kidnapper and master of disguises, Jizmo Knetler - immediately, lights flashed, cameras snapped, pads and pencils came forth, the press had itself a field day. Only the sudden appearance of Jesus Christ quieted the volley of questions.
He forgot to knock. He very softly opened the front door and came inside.
"Sir you can't just enter a person's home like that," Maggie Gilette informed Jesus. "We're having a small dinner party, sir, and we've very little food to serve gate crashers. I'm sorry sir but you'll have to leave."
"Maggie," Mr Airline drew his housekeeper aside to inform her who this uninvited guest was, "this is Jesus."
"Is he here alone sir? Or will the Holy Ghost be joining us too sir?"
Jesus smiled. He thought to himself. "I like this Maggie Gilette. She's got a no-nonsense attitude. She wouldn't make a bad -" He let his thoughts trail off, deciding in a flash that the moment was right, the time had come. He would reveal his plan. First things first though. He went back to the door, opened it, called out - an action which garnered an extremely no-nonsense look from Maggie Gilette.
"Mr Smith, Mr Smithers, Mrs Smythe: please join us, won't you? And bring your friends: the six of them. It's time for a little talk." As they approached - detectives and Snowmen - Jesus turned back to the other guests. First, however, he had to smooth things with the housekeeper.
"I am remiss for admitting guests without first consulting with you," he apologized to Maggie Gilette.
"As long as you admit no rodents sir," Maggie Gilette replied.
"Norman," Jesus said, "call your mother. Yvonne has in her possession what your mother wishes."
"Yvonne," he then said, "will you be so good as to let Mrs Zellor have the mother superior's habit?" Yvonne brought out the item in question and handed it to Norman - but only after informing Jesus it had not yet been dry cleaned to remove the taco stain.
"If I don't clean it, honey, I mock everything I stand for," she said.
"Understood," Jesus replied. He then touched its hem and the stain disappeared.
Norman was shown to the phone and called his mother, informing what was waiting for he.
"I'll come right over," she told him.
She hurried over so quickly that she beat the last two Snowmen in by a hair, excusing herself for almost knocking one of them over. While the exchange took place, and while an excited Mrs Zellor busied herself getting the habit on, pronouncing herself Sister Zelder, Jesus Christ went into a quiet corner to speak a moment with Mary.
"Mother," he said, "will you be staying on?"
"Oh I don't know," Mary replied. "What with the boy and all," she indicated the sleeping Tony, "I don't see how I can leave. Besides, I'm thinking of visiting the Philippines. I'm halfway tempted to appear before one of those aborigines: they're so gentle a people. And maybe having a shrine built. It would be nice to have one again. Where have all my shrines gone, Jesus, I wonder?"
"Long time passing?" asked Jesus.
"Either way I suppose I'll have to be going."
"You'll have to get your divinity back if you're to make a miraculous appearance. What sign will you give this time - have you thought of that?"
"I'm thinking in terms of a gold chain necklace," said Mary. "I don't know why that; but I like the idea. And what about you, son? Will you too be leaving?"
"Yes, mother, I will. Soon, what I came here for will be accomplished."
"I may go back to the Snowmen. Or maybe with Joanne and Lisabeth. I haven't decided for certain. I think I'd rather like to get to know Sam," Jesus mused, in a voice part interest, part scheming. "I'll know by evening's end one way or the other."
Jesus was scarred: about the nose and under one eye and on the forearm. Mary, indicating these marks, thanked her son for his kindness to her old and very dear friend Julianne. Jesus smiled.
"Mother, I think it's time," he told Mary and hastened back to the assembled multitude, where he worked his way toward the center.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced in a soft voice barely above a whisper but which everyone heard as clearly as if he had shouted, "I'd like to introduce to you at this time the President of the United States, who has something he'd like to tell you. Mr President?" Jesus called.
In handcuffs, the President made his way to the center of Mr Airline's dining room to stand beside Jesus. A burst of applause greeted him. From somewhere, and not in every case from the same direction, each person assembled heard strains of "Hail To The Chief," faint, but definitive, in March Time, a la John Phillip Souza who, if he did not write it, might well have. Outside, a mongrel dog, his forepaws upon the window pane, peered in at the gathering; he seemed to be humming. From the kitchen, sounds of chopping came toward the dining area, forming a variety of counterpoint to the music. Maggie Gilette too was humming, though unaware of it. The applause - and it continued some five to seven minutes - died down. The President of the United States spoke.
"Mr Speaker," he said, then caught himself. "Ah, that is, Mr Jesus, assembled guests, members of the press, and anyone else who might be listening in: I come before you of my own free will. I stepped in out of the blue, so to speak. I was here today but gone tomorrow." It soon became clear to everyone that this was an impromptu speech and that it wanted some slight supervision. Jesus sensed the guests' uneasiness.
"Mr President," he interrupted, "can you tell us what your immediate plans are?"
"My plans for now are as follows:" The President began, but failed to specify. After another awkward moment, Jesus again came to his rescue. He threw his voice; it came out the President's mouth, guiding what might otherwise have been babble into a clear manifesto.
"I am resigning my office." There was a gasp from the audience, followed by a volley of flashes from the reporters' cameras. "I am placing all my power into the hands of Jesus, to do as he sees fit. Such is the will of my people. Such is my will. Such is the will of God. I will take no questions. I will only add that it has been my great pleasure to serve as your leader. Thank you."
Solemnly they applauded his speech, in keeping with the essential dignity of the moment. Jesus once again took the floor. "Thank you Mr President," he said. "As my first order of business, I appoint as my vicar here on earth -"
Just then the door burst open and a SWAT team entered, guns in hand. From their midst a tiny man in very big leather boots and wearing an impressive looking cap with many medals on it stepped to the center of the room, a paper in his outstretched, gloved hand.
"I have a warrant here for the arrest of one Jesus H Christ. Is he here?"
"I don't have a middle name," said Jesus, "otherwise I think I'm your man. May I see the warrant?"
"Don't tear it or anything," the SWAT commander enjoined as he handed the warrant to Jesus who, upon reading it over, just shook his head. The warrant was issued at the request and behest of the most right Reverend Gideon G Tueshoos; it specified a probable suspicion of sedition and/or irreverence, linked to an outside plot to overthrow the duly authorized and legitimate government of the United States of America.
"That man'll be the death of us all yet!" Jesus muttered to himself.
"Gentlemen," he announced to the SWAT team, "give me just five minutes here and I'll join you."
"You'll come peacefully?" asked the commander. Jesus nodded yes, he would, smiling at the irony of the question.
"As I was saying," Jesus continued where he left off, "I have chosen as my successor here on earth -" The entire audience waited with baited breath, "Mister Zellor - Mister Dimwiddie C Zellor that is." Jesus looked straight at Norman as he spoke those words. He saw the sudden glow on Norman's face disappear into a dark dejection.
"I'm sorry Norman," he whispered.
A burst of applause greeted this announcement. Mr Airline, always the perfect host, brought out and passed around champagne and glasses sufficient to a general toasting of the new leader's good health.
"Cheers!" they all cried.
"Prolst!" cried Mr Zellor - and why not? He had not used that word yet.
While the father was being congratulated, the son slipped next to Jesus. At first he said nothing; when he did speak, it was as if he were simply speaking aloud to himself.
"Maybe I'll be given Oven as a consolation prize at least!" he quipped in a sarcastic voice.
"Now Norman," said Jesus, "your father would never say a thing like that."
"Who would know it if he did?" Norman asked, again sarcastically.
Jesus put his hand on Norman's shoulder to calm him. "Now you're beginning to see why he was chosen and not you, or anyone else," Jesus said gently. "Being unable to understand anything he says, they will interpret his every word as wise and good. He will be a perfect ruler because no one will ever know otherwise. And in his perfection they too will find perfection. From the goodness they attribute to him will follow their own goodness."
"Does this mean my mother will become First Lady?" Norman asked.
"No," he was told.
"Behold," Jesus replied.
Maggie Gilette entered carrying a tray on which was a single Cornish game hen, cut up into a couple dozen small pieces, which she passed around. Everyone took a piece, thinking it would all be gone before even a quarter of the guests were served. But, as if a bottomless pit of chicken parts lay just beneath the two dimensional surface of the platter, no sooner was one piece taken than another filled its place, so that there was enough to feed everyone, and some even for leftovers.
"Maggie Gilette our First Lady?" Norman asked, almost in disbelief. Jesus nodded in the affirmative.
"Go now," Jesus told Norman, "and be with your father, stand beside him, be his advisor, his friend, his son. Go, Norman. Be whoever you can be. Keep a place in your heart for me. And remember: whom I have chosen to honor as my successor is not necessarily whom I love best. Go now."
Outside, the mongrel dog whimpered a soulful sigh looking in at Jesus parting company with Norman: he understood, even if Norman could not yet, or perhaps would never understand. He understood that without Norman there would not have been Jesus either; that Jesus needed a go-between, just as he himself had once tried to be a go between; that man could no more comprehend the son of God than he could God Himself; and that one of mankind was needed to make it all work, but only one such as Norman who, being nothing in himself, could be anything man needed at the time: a catalyst, for the carrying out of the divine plan.
Jesus turned as if to go. "Oh Jesus!" one of the reporters called as he ran up to the son of man. "How about a couple quick questions before you go?"
"Fire away," Jesus consented to be interviewed.
"Careful sir!" Maggie Gilette cautioned the reporter, "don't spill champagne on the carpet!" The reporters had up to now all been kept beyond the carpeted area.
"I'll watch after him," Jesus promised.
"Please do sir: these reporters can leave things in shambles in no time at all sir," Maggie Gilette reminded Jesus.
The reporter started right in questioning Jesus. "Why did you choose a proxy? Why didn't you assume the Presidency yourself?"
"To be truthful," Jesus replied, "I don't think I could administer things very well: I'm not that kind of person. I never was. I don't believe I ever could be. Not here at least. Maybe in another world...another dimension...perhaps..." Jesus looked over, first at the two witches, Joanne and Lisabeth, then at the six Snowmen, as he gave this explanation, winking in turn at each grouping.
"What will you do now?" came the next question.
"I may...travel a bit," was the reply. Again Jesus looked to the right and to the left; again he winked.
"Are we to take this, Jesus, to be you second coming?"
"This right here? No," Jesus replied, "this is my second going!"
"Why was there no Armageddon?"
"Don't ask me," said Jesus, "ask your fellow man. It's he who had the choice; he who made the choice. It always was in his hands. He can have his Armageddon or not, as he sees fit."
"Tell me Jesus -"
"No, I will tell you nothing further, I'm sorry, but I must go with these gentlemen here," Jesus pointed to the SWAT team. "I've evidently run afoul of the law." He turned, indicated he was ready, and, accompanied by the commandoes, left. Not ten seconds later the SWAT leader was back inside, asking, in an agitated voice, if Jesus had come this way. Told that he had not, the leader at once left, mumbling about issuing an all-points bulletin. Jesus had escaped. The SWAT team ran off into the night in hot pursuit. From somewhere, a laugh opened, and dog's paws tapped the pavement.
"Well, Mr President, how does it feel?" the reporters all crowded around Mr Zellor for his first press conference. He looked them over before answering.
"Zulu Mneess cimpseen jlicknan luwnk potato pie reckn," was the studied reply. The audience, the reporters were all brought to an almost unearthly state of attentiveness by this unforeseen remark. A few more questions followed; a few more replies in a similar vein. No one knew what to make of it - except Norman of course, who took a strange delight in his unique position, but who said nothing to shed light on the matter.
"How did he get here?" someone asked Norman, who remained at his father's side. Norman shrugged.
"They didn't come through the door sir," Maggie Gilette. "I couldn't have three people trying to use two phones at the same time sir."
"Why would they?" someone asked. "Why would anyone come through the door when he could pass through the walls?"
"There's nothing the matter with our walls sir!" Maggie Gilette insisted.
"I didn't say there was. In fact, for all I know, they could just as easily have come through the ceiling!"
"Who are they then?" someone else asked.
"Isn't it obvious? From his speech alone you should have guessed it: he's a visitor from outer space! A charioteer of the gods! An ancient astronaut!"
"And his partner?"
"Could only be one person: Eric von Daniken!"
"The Eric von Daniken?"
"The very one, who wrote about it all in the first place - and who, of course, was chosen to show the visitor the way to Long Island!"
"Then he can interpret -?"
"Wrong!" exclaimed Norman. "I cannot interpret a word he says!"
On the spot an interpreter was sought and, located in an instant through his reputation, brought to Long Island in a helicopter, which landed on Mr Airline's front lawn, deposited its passenger, and took off again. At the front door stood the interpreter. Instantly, he recognized his fellow travelers to and from Rome, and they he. Nods of greeting were exchanged. The interpreter - the famed linguist - was ushered into the dining room; offered some refreshment by Maggie Gilette, who urged him to try one of the hen's wings, and immediately put to work interpreting the message - the great wisdom - the visitor from outer space - the new President, who would show the world a new way to a new tomorrow - had brought from the great beyond.
"But," one reporter expressed his trepidation, "can he interpret an outer space tongue?"
Overhearing, the linguist replied in a haughty tone that "Indeed, all languages are pretty much alike: know their roots, their inherent syntax, their raison d'etre, and, liepshin, you know the whole lot! So let's brook no further discussion when there's so great a work to be done ahead of us!"
Mr Zellor, slapping his forehead in acceptance of the utter futility of it all, declared himself "Impt ooknaknih spluntikas on balls!"
Everybody looked to the interpreter. "Uh hum," he mused knowingly, nodding his head in an authoritative way, "Just as one might well suspect. Here he refrains - and well he might! - the ancient Etruscan dictum to 'Impt' - or 'Amp,' taking the later form - that is to say, in our tongue, to 'implant' the 'okanakaniknor,' which translates all the way down to us, virtually unaltered, as the 'oaken knick-knacks.' So what he's saying here, so far is to 'implant your' (the 'your' or 'yuk-yuk' is always implied in this the incusative form): 'implant your oaken knick-knacks." Now the 'spluntikas' would I rather suspect be the vulgarization of your Neo-Babylonian 'spluntikitakimas' - from which, I might add, the modern day 'splenetic' derives - which, in this particular constructive adjuncture suggests a derivation on a rebirth, as it were, of something on the order of a monument, rather like the tomb of King Maussolos of Halicarnassus. The 'on balls' is, of course, the verb stem, implying a forging of one thing from another. So, all in all gentlemen, what your new President has just informed you is, quite simply - and I quite succinctly think you'll agree - that 'mighty oaks from little acorns grow.'"
The press had a field day dispensing all the great wisdoms issuing forth from the interpreted words of the new President. All the world stood agape listening, waiting patiently for the latest word, ready to carry out verbatim these commands emanating from the Great Beyond. The interpreter was made Minister of State. Maggie Gilette, whose Cornish game hens became the last word in cuisine, was by unanimous decree made titular First Lady; she served every state dinner. "How many tonight sir? could be heard every time a visiting dignitary expressed a desire to dine at the White House.
The Snowmen went home, so did the witches.
"Where we're from," said the Snowmen, "Jesus is...well...not like he is here. He's...how shall we say it?... something of an outlaw. When we heard he was returning to your world - your 'dimension,' we believe is your Mr Einstein's term for it - we were naturally apprehensive: being mortal, and unable to protect yourselves with spells and the like, we naturally assumed you were in for some trouble. We had not allowed for his being your savior. We apologize for any inconvenience."
This was told, in private, to Norman, after which the six Snowmen departed. The witches, too, revealed themselves to be aliens from another dimension - one where Jesus was an administrator of sorts, dreadfully incompetent though, an incompetence neither Joanne nor Lisabeth wish inflicted upon humanity. They too left, taking Sam, his friend Fatima and, as it turned, Davvy the Davenport Cicada along.
Yvonne, with her daughter Oven, likewise returned home. Mr Fish was please to see them, as well as to get his equipment back.
Mary and little Tony, accompanied by Julianne and her father Julio, made for the Philippines; Mary, however, after arranging for their fares on Air Manilla Flight 333 out of New York, promising to meet them there shortly: she would go a slightly different route, one which took her through an emerald green corridor of light at sunset. And when she emerged, she was Mary, as mankind knew her, again, ready to appear, miraculously, to a gentle aborigine.
Mr Airline accompanied Jizmo Knetler and the former President of the United States to jail. Asked how it felt to be in the Big House, the Jiz explained it this way: "Well Mr President, I feel a little like the man who goes into a bar, slaps his money down, asks the bartender what he's got good. Bartender looks up; hauls off and hits him in the jaw; says 'I got a damn good left hook!' Man just stands there, don't know whether to laugh or cry."
"Is that the end of the story?" the President asked.
"Just about," replied the Jiz.
From time to time Norman visited his friends in jail, assuring them his father would pardon them any day now - which in fact Mr Zellor did, almost daily, but unfortunately all his words for pardon translated into one dead language after another as something else. And the word itself: he had already forgotten it, though he retained as vividly as ever the image of what it had meant.
The lobby of the Broadcast Building was swept clean of its now useless photograph (which ended up in the locker of the janitor), its red velvet ropes, its sign instructing visitors how to approach Jesus. Amos Andee was made anchor of the nightly news, but quit after only one week, to take an extended vacation in the Philippines.
The little oxcart was returned to the Hindu, who used it thereafter to pick up and deliver laundry from people's homes.
The most Reverend Gideon G Tueshoos decided to run for the US Senate.
Finally, Mother Rosetti gave up praying that her grandson Tony would come out of his coma. She kept up her nightly visits to the boy's bedside; but that was all. And, each night, beneath the endless reach of everything that was beyond earth, she trudged home in silence, or maybe she would sigh as she negotiated the perilous streets of New York. She had thought that she knew Jesus - all her life she had thought it. Now she wondered.
July 22, 1982, 10: P.M.