Sunday, November 20, 2005

This is a work of fiction in progress...

Penny and I live in an apartment looking down on the supermarket and its parking lot. You see people coming and going. You look down on women with buzzed hair and scarves on their heads. These are the ones with cancer. You see other women stuffing food in their mouths, the ones who at home are on 'diets' and just need a little something, a cheat, when they go grocery shopping. You see men and women who hang their cigarette out of the car window, hoping that the smoke smell won't get in the car. You see the dad struggling with the car seat and then driving away, abandoning a big, poop-filled diaper in the parking space. Sometimes you see shoplifters. They'll slide the big pack of sirloin steak onto the ground, underneath their car, while they load the legitimate groceries. This is in case the store personnel, or the police, confront them: "Hey, I don't know where that came from! I must have parked right on it!" The last thing they do, as they back out, is pop a door and reach down and pick up the stolen item.

I see everything, all sorts of humanity, from up here. Penny teases me about it. "What are you, an angel, watching over them?" she said today when she came back from the bookstore, and caught me at the window.

"Dunno," I said. "I guess, people are interesting to me."

"I saw some of those vegetable crates by the dumpster, the ones you want to make furniture out of."

I was pysched. "Great! I'll go down and get them now. Maybe I can glue them up before I go to work."

The vegetable crates were like drawers, but made out of thin, disposable wood. I tore the front flap off of them and stacked some upside down on the others. This created larger spaces, shelves. It was like a book case. I applied the glue.

Penny came and admired them. "Nice," she said, "You're cheap."

"'Frugal', I like to say," I said.

By the time I got back from night editing at the campus paper, the glue looked dry. I picked the whole assembly up from the top and it held together. We had sex and the condom broke. It was like a cartoon equipment failure, saw-tooth ragged popped balloon edges.

"Oops!" Penny said.

"I should have known," I said. "I could tell something had changed."

"Happens all the time," she said, trying to sound casual and forgiving.

The next morning Penny went to work at the bookstore and I went to the paper to work on a story. There were more of those crazy notes in my mail slot. There are several pink slips for phone messages. The top one said:

"September 12, 1985

God called."

The box for "Callback requested" was checked. No phone number was given. The other four were similar, and I flipped through them and crumpled them into the trash.

"Still didn't see anyone, eh?" I said to the receptionist.

"Didn't see anyone," he affirmed.

This has been going on for months now. It's some kind of prank. The handwriting doesn't match anyone who works at the paper. And no matter how often I spy on the mail slot, or ask other people to keep an eye peeled for suspicious behavior, we've never caught the perpetrator.

It bugs me.

Then there are the letters. Usually it's biblical passages. The return address will be "Heaven" or "God" or "Love." Once it was "Within."

I sat down at one of the desks and inserted my floppy disk into the Kapro. I opened my story draft and started typing: "University policy prohibits employees from buying excess equipment from their own department, but the second-in-command at Campus Transportation in May purchased a car with a $3,000 blue book value -- for $1,000."

"Chris, line one!" the receptionist declared. I picked it up.

"Want a hot tip?" the voice said. It was a brother.

"Who's calling?" I said, annoyed. People who approach reporters with "hot tips" are usually worthless weirdos.

"God is love," he said. "Maybe you should put that in your next story."

Maybe this was the freak who'd been leaving me all the mystery messages? Some member of Campus Crusade for Christ?

"Maybe you can come down to the paper and explain it to me in person." I said. I wanted to have one of the photographers get a picture of this guy, to show to folks as a warning. And to ask if anyone had seen him on the premises.

"OK. See you soon," he said, and disconnected without talking about calendars. It almost seemed like a threat.

Then the really freaky thing happened. I went back to work on my story and the cursor was blinking at the end of "GOD IS LOVE."

I had no memory of typing any such thing. I wondered if I had somehow done it subconsciously during the call from the weirdo.

I held down the backspace key and the letters would not erase. I've fixed a lot of computer problems for people here at the paper, but this was not something I'd seen before. I started to worry, but then I realized that the keyboard was probably malfunctioning. The delete key was broken, or the whole keyboard.

The arrow keys worked, though, and when I used the delete key on my byline, it worked fine. I arrowed down to GOD IS LOVE and tried the delete key again. No luck.

"Jim! Come over here!" I said. Jim came over, amiable and stubbly, pug faced. "Ever seen this?" I said, pressing the delete key demonstrably. He rubbed his chin.


"Those words! The god part. It doesn't delete!"

He thought I was joking. "Boy, what are you smoking?" he said.

"I'm serious! Don't you see it?" I said.


"'GOD IS LOVE!' It says so, right there."

He still thought I was joking. "Well, if you say so, Jesus" he joked.

"No, really!" I protested. "Rachel! Get over here!"

She came over, and then a small crowd. None of them could see it. Then I began to wonder if I were having some kind of hallucination, a mental breakdown.

"All right! All right!" I said. "Get a photog in here."

Dave was drafted, and he was willing to take a picture of the screen. The paper pays for the film. I put my thumb on the edge of the screen so that the picture would be unique.

He developed it within 10 minutes and there it was in black and white, my thumb on a screen that said only:

University policy prohibits employees from buying excess equipment from their own department, but the second-in-command at Campus Transportation in May purchased a car with a $3,000 blue book value -- for $1,000.

Nothing about god.

Despite the evidence that I was going crazy, I decided to give myself a break on the Kaypro Delete Key Mystery. I called it an 'incident' and reminded myself that it takes two points to make a line. I did describe the weird event to Penny. I'm glad she didn't suggest that I see the campus mental health counselor.

Penny is a deluxe girl. My first girlfriend was thin, like me. And I like that, but Penny is luxurious. The first time I was with her, I told her it was like being on a cloud in heaven. She said she loved me.

She's about 5'5", with big, dramatic eyes, green, with powerful dark eyebrows, arched at an angle. She has rich, thick lips and a smallish nose. I like women with strong noses, not little buttons. But Penny's most attractive quality is that she's smart, cynical, and funny. We banter a lot, and laugh.

One time we climbed up on a billboard in the night and spray painted our objections to the ad content.

I was lying next to her in bed. In my best Barry White voice, I said, "Go across the room Honey, I want you now."

She laughed.


In my Thursday advanced writing class we reviewed the pieces we'd submitted on Tuesday. The guy in black leather, Rick, told little blond Megan that her poem seemed "a lot like Sympathy for the Devil." It was your typical college put down, accusing her of being unoriginal, but the joke was on him, I think, because it turned out that home-schooled Megan had been raised in a rock music-free environment, and didn't even know the Rolling Stones, much less that song. She thought that he was literally saying that her poem was satanic. He wound up gently explaining to her that there was such a song. It kind of made him look ridiculous.

I smirked, but avoided laughing.

Then they came to my story, about the guy who gets spiders in his brain, and Megan's girlfriend Trish used "Show, don't tell" on me. I like Hemingway, and the way he can write about something without ever mentioning it (like the implied abortion in the story about the woman who wants to cut her hair), but I think that "Show, don't tell" has become too dogmatic.

"It's not like we always have to avoid telling, is it?" I said. "I've read some good stories that have long expository passages."

But Trish had scored her point, and she wasn't budging.

I got a little steamed and flipped open the Hemingway short stories at random, dramatically. I flipped through a few pages until I found one of those long, long paragraphs where he goes on and on in a nearly stream-of-consciousness way, explaining and not showing. I skip-read the paragraph to Trish, mumbling through the length of it, waving my hand, plucking all the frilly, feminine words and clauses for emphasis.

Trish looked pretty unsure of herself, but the prof backed her up. "You make an excellent point, Chris," he said, "And when you reach the stature of Hemingway you can write as you like." This brought twitters from the class. Then he continued tenderly: "But for writers at your level, show-don't-tell is a good principle to adhere to."

There is so much ego on campus. After class I plodded across the avenue to get an Oakie dog for lunch. I usually brought a peanut butter sandwich and an apple for lunch, to save money, but I had found a two dollar bill on the storm drain outside Tesla Hall. It must have been washed there by the rain. The bill was dry when I bent down to pick it up. I was going to spend it.

But before I could cross the street to Oakie Dog, this big black dude on a Harley pulled up to the curb, blocking my way.

"Avast ye," he said, in a tired but jovial way.

Trying to step around the motorcycle, I said "Excuse me."

He let out the brake and slid forward to block me again. He turned off the ignition. I was still on the curb.

"I'm here to inform you that you are the son of God, risen again." The tone was still tired.

I recognized the voice. This was the guy who'd called me on the phone at the newsroom after the Kaypro Delete Key Mystery, the one who'd had the "hot tip."

I was ticked that he had blocked my way twice in a row -- on purpose. I briefly considered saying something rude, but I preferred to use my agility and quickness to dodge behind the motorcycle and run across the street.

Then a strange thing happened. He appeared again, in front of me, this time across the sidewalk. There was no way he could have rode, or coasted across the road in that short time. The suddenness of it shocked my body into flight and fight mode: Run, and then if you're cornered, fight.

"I am here to--" was all I heard, as I quickly vanished around the corner of the copy shop. Two steps down that way and he appeared again across my path. It was some kind of spooky magic.

I can run mighty fast, and that I did, sprinting back across the street, dodging cars like players on the basketball court, and then racing downhill along the path through the trees. The wind rushed past my ears. The biker appeared beside me, not riding so much as gliding along. "Avast ye!" he barked. I tightly dodged past a tree and a dumpster. If normal physics had applied, he would have run into the tree. But he came out the other side unscathed. "Avast ye!"

Obviously, running wasn't working. I did not at this point so much feel scared, as angry. He was mighty big though, and I knew I couldn't fight him. Apparently, being in control is a big issue with me. I didn't want fatso biker to think he mattered, so -- with one leap -- I stopped running and stood still, looking ahead with no expression on my face. Whatever he was going to do to me was up to him. I would ignore him as if he didn't exist. It was my way of saying he had no right to exist.

"Jesus!" he said. I said nothing, looked straight ahead. I wasn't doing a lot of thinking right then, because my adrenaline was pumping.

"Now," he said in a businesslike tone, "we'll need to arrange some disciples for you. Do you have any candidates?"

I walked downhill and he coasted along beside me. I moved past a tree, and watched him glide through it as if it were a shadow. The bike motor wasn't even running.

"How about a Mark or a Luke?" he said, as I focused my eyes on the place where his hand was emerging from the bark of the tree.

"OK," I said, "How do you do that?"

"Pleased to meet you," he said, extending his hand. "I'm the angel Gabriel. I'm glad you didn't hold out on me as long as some of them do."

His head was still halfway buried in the tree. "Why are you embedded in the tree?" I said, "Is this a hologram?"

"No hologram. I'm an angel. I come to you with a message from God, your father."

"I don't like you Campus Crusade people, I want nothing to do with you. I'm not a Christian, and I never will be. Leave me alone."

Suddenly I was in orbit around the Earth, high above the atmosphere, looking down on the blue globe. I flew over the night side and completed one circuit of the world in what seemed like 10 seconds. I then descended through the clouds back down to campus.

"Wow," I said.

"Wow indeed," said Gabriel. "Like I said, I'm an angel of God."

"You're an alien?"


"Time traveler?"


"Then how did you do that to me?"

"I'm an angel of God."

"You have advanced powers, and you're posing as an angel."

"From your perspective, it's the same thing."

"What do you want with me?"

"Like I said, you're the son of God. You're Jesus Christ."

What he said seemed insane to me. Then I realized what was probably going on: I was crazy. Some kind of mental illness had snuck up on me. Maybe I was on drugs. Maybe a psychotropic mold or fungus had invaded my tissues....

I started walking across campus towards the clinic, then decided to head downhill toward the police station, and turn myself in. I might be dangerous. Let them contact the clinic. Maybe if I saw one of those rape prevention phones I would pick up the handset, and ask the cops to come get me. I would sit quietly at the base of the phone until they came.

Gabriel cruised beside me. "Actually, you're not insane," he said. "This is really happening."

He must have seen me shake my head just a millimeter, because he anticipated my thoughts. "Yes, I know that the senses cannot be trusted if the recipient of those sensations is insane. You think you might have hallucinated your trip in orbit, despite how real it seemed."

"No decompression," I said.

"That was the miracle," Gabriel said, cruising on the silent Harley. I walked on.

"You're not insane," he said.

"Angels on motorcycles telling me I'm Napoleon--"


"Same thing. That's insane."

"What can I do to make my case?" Gabriel said.

"Well, if I am insane, no experience I have can be trusted. so, no proof you can provide is valid."

"To you."

"To me."

"You sound pretty sane. Logical."

"But maybe my dementia leaves my logical processes intact, while scrambling my experience. I need to be evaluated. I need medical help."

"You're thinking that an insane person cannot evaluate their own sanity."

"Right. Schizophrenics believe they see everything clearly, and anyone who suggests they don't is wrong."

"But you actively believe you are crazy and need help," said the alleged angel.

"True, but I could be having hallucinations for any number of reasons, maybe purely physical."

"At least we know you're not schizophrenic," he said. "Tell me what could prove to you that you're not crazy, and that your orbital trip was real?"

"There's no way to prove to myself that I'm not crazy. Even if I reached such a conclusion, it could be dementia."

"You were walking to get an Oakie dog -- how do you know that wasn't a hallucination?"

"It fits with all my experience to date. I take it on faith that the world is as I know it."


"Faith in the form of a lifetime of assumptions based on experience. Don't whip out your religious junk on me."

"You're an atheist?"

"That would be silly."


"The belief that there is no God is a faith, just like any other. God is something which -- by definition -- cannot be proved or disproved."

"What can I do to prove to you that God has sent you as his son to Earth to save humanity?"

"That's insane!"

He checked his watch. "But what can I do to prove it?"

I was disgusted by the game. Now I was getting worn down and jumpy. It came out as annoyance. "Look, if that were true, I'd already know it. I would have known it years ago. If I were God--"

"No one said you're God."

"Jesus is supposed to be God, come to Earth. The whole trinity thing."

He chuckled. "You people do tend to get things wrong. Jesus is a person. That's all."

"Normal people don't come back to life and ascend to Heaven."

"Who says?"

"I mean the whole resurrection thing. And Lazarus. And the miracle healings. Water into wine."

"All lies."

I look at him with fresh eyes then, and he settled back on the Harley a bit.

"You're not a normal Christian weirdo, are you?"

"Like I said, I'm an angel."

"OK, then fly me to Heaven and show me God."

"Can't," he said. "Against the rules at this point."

"I'm tired of this mental torture. I may be strapped in a chair in some CIA prison, being fed drugs and poked in the brain with electrodes, but I'm an American citizen and I have my rights! Get me a lawyer! Get the ACLU!"

"Look, if I were the CIA, I could make you think I'd taken you to Heaven, right?"


"Just like I arranged the orbital trip. That was pretty realistic, right?"


"So why couldn't I show you a guy with a white beard?"

"I suppose you could. But the feeling might not be right. Some doubt might exist within me, and I'd know he wasn't God."



"Oh, let's not go there!" he shook his head, then resumed:

"It's the smart ones like you that are the most trouble. The yokels and mystics I normally deal with are easy to convince. Most of them leap at the chance to be Savior."

"How often do you do this?"

"My son, Christ has been reborn many times."

"How many?"

"We bring a new one in as quick as they get killed."

"You're trying to kill me?!"

"It's part of the job."

"Stuff the 'job!'"

"It's really very important."

"Listen, you Christian freak--"

"I'm not a Christian."


"Christianity is something you people have being doing. But as far as I know, God has no position on the issue."

The thing about the 'angel' was that he seemed likable. He was smart, and friendly, and not pushy. So I cut him some slack.

I immediately worried that I was identifying with my captor.

"Look, whoever you are, can you please just leave me alone?"

"I can do that."

"Good," I said. "I don't want to ever see you again, or get any more strange messages."


"And, no hallucinations!" I added.

"There were no hallucinations. But I can promise not to expose you to anything you consider abnormal."

"Thanks," I said, and walked away, testing to see if he meant it.

To a certain extent, he did. I got home unmolested. Penny saw that I was upset, and quickly comfort-shagged me.

"Penny, I had another hallucination today."

"What was it this time?"

"Frightening, huge, and embarrassing. Some black dude on a Harley told me that I'm Jesus Christ."

"Sounds like a typical day on campus," she laughed. "What was the problem?"

"He could vanish from one place and appear in another. And he sent me on an orbital trip around the planet! It seemed so real!"

"Honey..." she said, hugging me.

"I think I need professional help."

"Maybe you do," she said, sad and worried.

"What is it?" I asked. I wanted to know what was bothering her.

"Oh," she said, composing herself. "I just wondered if I could talk to the angel."

That was not what I had expected her to say at all. But I'm easily led, so I responded.

"How? He's my hallucination."

"If he comes here, and you see him, but I don't, then I'll be honest with you about that. I'll help you get the help you need. If you call him and he doesn't come..."

"Then maybe I'm not as crazy as I think?"

"Then maybe you just need me around all the time," she said with a smile.

"To keep me sane?"

"Yeah? Sure."

I rolled her off of me, and stared bleakly at the ceiling.

"OK, 'Come see us, angel guy, come now.'"

Nothing happened. We heard a car door slam.

"I'm not sure that's going to work," she said.


"I'm just a Jewish girl," she said, "so I don't know all this Jesus stuff very well, but aren't you supposed to pray?"

"Pray? To what? I don't pray!"

"It's all part of the experiment," she said.


"Look, Chris, help me out here. Just get on your knees, and fold your hands together..."

Like I said, I'm easily led. So I got on the bed in the posture she indicated.

"No, don't look all cranky like that... Lower your chin!"

"Now repeat after me... Uh... 'Heavenly Mary, mother God who art ... hollowed be thy name, please send me again the angel who I saw today -- earlier today.'"

"This is ridiculous!"

"Do it."

I said the words. And then we both heard the Harley on the street. Then it was coming up the stairs of the apartment building. Penny's eyes went wide. She was scared.

Through the deadbolted door of the apartment came the angel Gabriel on his motorcycle. He stopped in the living room, put out the kickstand, and removed the key from the ignition. There was no smell of exhaust.

We could see him from the bedroom.

"Word," he said.

Penny was tremulous and freaked. She spoke first. "Are -- Are you really an angel?"

Like he's really going to say 'No I'm not.' What a useless question. I shot her a glance.

"Before I answer any of your questions," Gabriel said, "we need at least one more apostle."

"We don't follow your orders!" I said. "He's not an angel, Penny, he's an alien, or a time traveler, or an illusionist or something."

"What's your scam?" I demanded of him.

"Like I said, one more apostle is needed."

There was an authoritative knock on the door. "I need to check your apartment," came the wood-dimmed voice of Steve, the apartment manager.

"Go away!" I barked. "Leave us alone!"

There was a rattling sound and then the door opened. Steve stepped in and was stunned to behold Gabriel. "There's no motorcycles allowed in this building!" he yelled, astonished and angry.

"There's your apostle," I said sarcastically to Gabriel.

Gabriel looked at Steve. Gabriel had the whole jovial fat man thing going. He looked like an uncle or a cousin ... or a brother.

But Steve was a really handsome, chiseled black man with a lantern jaw. He was muscular and tall. He looked like Harry Belafonte. He had a very pretty young blond wife, and they had a toddler son.

Because of his yellow eyes, the fact that we'd once seen him staggering along and using the wall to hold himself up, and that he'd another time cornered me in a friendly but insistent way and asked me if I liked to get high, and because he worked at the campus medical clinic, Penny and I thought he was a junkie.

Gabriel looked at Steve and summarily decided: "He'll do."

Powerful Steve in his preppy sweater and Italian shoes took a menacing step toward Gabriel. There was a black-on-black familiarity to his rage and contempt. "What you mean by -- How'd you get that up here anyway?!"

"What is 'here?'" said Gabriel in that amused way he had. The ceiling of the apartment parted as if it were clouds opening up, and even though the sun had gone down, a heavenly curtain of light shone on Steve from above. Gabriel was sporting a halo that looked like it came from a medieval painting of a Bible scene. The thing glowed and rotated in two directions at once.

"I am an angel of God," Gabriel said to Steve. The light show then flashed some crucifixes at our apartment manager.

"Christ!" said Steve, and reflexively got on his knees. "I thought this was all bullshit!"

"God is very real, apostle Steve. No bull. The savior whom you worshipped in church as a boy is here." And with that Gabriel indicated me.

Steve looked at me with stark fear mixed with bewildered contempt. This punk? his expression said.

"But I thought Jesus was black!"

"He has been, many times," said Gabriel. "This is the one we have now."

Steve was still on his knees, still looking at me incredulously. "How could it be him?"

"It could have been you, or Penny here. But the lottery chose Chris."

"Lottery?!" I laughed. "What kind of theology is that?"

"Wait!" said Penny. "You're saying there could be a girl Jesus?"

"Joan of Arc, Anne Frank, and Cleopatra are some recent examples."

"What do you want with us?" Steve said. He eased back from his knees and leaned against the wall.

I heard Rosy's voice in the hall. She seemed to be talking to other people. "I don't know!" she said.

She most recent time I'd seen Rosy, her car had backed over a road sign mounted on a wooden post, knocking it down. Then there had been a drunken conversation in the hallway with some date of hers. "No, I'm not going to blow you here, in the hallway! Get lost, you creep!" I had been reading while I waited for Penny to come back from work. I prepared myself to yank open the door and act as backup for Rosy if the guy hassled her. But he just muttered "Bitch!" and was gone.

"What's going on in there? Is everybody all right?" said Rosy. Then she knocked, lightly and rapidly.

"Let them in," said Penny. Steve showed his agreement by opening the door. Eleven people peered in. Five guys and six gals.

"Does everyone see the angel on the motorcycle?" asked Penny in a toasting voice used at parties.

There were lots of affirmations to that, and a few comments about the ceiling being missing.

Penny said to me: "So, either you're completely and entirely crazy enough that you imagine all this -- and so am I -- or else the other players in your reality validate that you are not insane."

"Listen people," I said, "this guy here has remarkable powers. He can work miracles. He claims to be an angel from God. But we've got to figure out what he really is."