It’s Thursday Night, and Darrell is all set to tell the angels he won’t go to their meetings anymore.
At first he thought about just walking away–that is, going home after work on Thursdays, instead of taking two buses out to Jim’s suburban estate. On the other four weeknights he can walk in twenty minutes to his third floor flat, whose one distinguishing feature is that it overlooks the Seekonk River. Darrell suspects the rent would be a hundred bucks cheaper without this. The toilet gurgles all night long, and the neighbors downstairs aren’t always as quiet as he likes, but no matter–it’s home, and he need not share it with any other guy.
Just forget the meetings. They’ll get the idea soon enough.
Angels, though–he’s not sure what they would do. The last time someone left, Jim and his assistant leader, Tom (who’s still not an angel) went to the poor devil’s house and knocked on his door and asked nicely what was going on. Darrell doesn’t know how the conversation went, but the poor devil did not return.
That was before the whole portrait business started, though…
He likes more and more the idea of free Thursday nights. He could fix a proper dinner, like frying chicken in the Fry Daddy instead of stopping at the corner burrito shop and munching with one eye on his watch. He wouldn’t have to balance on a metal folding chair with a boxy guitar on his lap, strumming praise songs he’s privately never really liked, singing those songs besides, and leading everyone else in the singing on top of that. When his own attempts at transformation didn’t work out, he’d thought at least maybe he’d get out of leading the songs. An angel’s singing voice turns even a nursery rhyme into the music of the spheres, and fingers dragged across metallic strings interfere with this more than accompany it.
Still they urged him to play on.
Angels. “Portrait angels,” they’re commonly called. Not everyone wants to be one; many are understandably leery of the process. No one knows yet if it’s reversible.
Jim’s house sits on a winding, quiet lane. It has one story and three bedrooms. The kitchen adjoins the living room, a waist-high marble-topped counter separating the two. The other side of the kitchen opens onto Jim’s masterpiece, the back yard, with the play sets and the shed where the folding chairs are kept.
But something happens to the homes of angels. Jim’s house always kind of shimmers now, for he’s transformed and so has his spouse, but not the three kids–he wants them to “grow normally” first. Darrell thinks this is a laugh, considering where they live.
Several of the group have transformed. And several angels in one place trigger a kind of illusion. The house gains a second story. Darrell, unless he arrives before the others, sees it as he walks up the lane. It rises like a gable cut from ice and is dotted with oval windows of the same size, sometimes a dozen, sometimes only one, sometimes innumerable. The windows show a clear blue brightness like dawn, and the whole structure seems made of light. In fact, like all angel-houses, it reminds him of the book of Revelation, with its eternal city and temple and so on. Everyone is looking up those descriptions nowadays, as if Noah’s Ark had appeared and drawn everyone’s attention back to the original story. No one has been up there except Jim, and he says it’s “just bright.” Darrell wonders what Jim’s not telling.
The first floor gains a whole lot of space, on the inside. The walls appear far away–too far to make sense, and it always gives Darrell an uneasy sensation, that this can’t be right, it’s nowhere near that big outside–and it has the wide-open feel of the outdoors. Nonetheless everyone crowds in close on sofa and loveseat, Jim in his easy chair, Darrell and the others on the folding chairs. The walls, hardwood floor, ceiling and portraits look like glass embedded with galaxies of light, infusing the house with the brilliance of the Almighty’s own throne room.
It’s been said that the Almighty dwells in “unapproachable light.” Maybe it’s different types of light–lights of happiness, goodwill, patience and so on–combining into a mosaic of the healthiest emotions any of His well-adjusted, baggage-free creations could boast. The angels’ light calms minds, grants peace, and radiates all the good cheer of Christmas. (Darrell can’t help thinking, this is what we try to capture every December with TV ads, junk on sale, plastic decorations, and endlessly-recycled carols over mall loudspeakers.)
And the transformation, it seems, removes all the inner crap that hinders this, allowing the lucky people to–as the song goes–let their little light shine.
Darrell doesn’t want to be selfish. He’s told himself over and over that he needs the fellowship. And Jim has insisted he belongs. But how? The life celebrated all around him is not his life. He only observes it. And hears about it:
“Brother, you haven’t lived till you’ve got zero grudges against anyone…”
“I used to get into arguments all the time. Now I see all it does is get everyone angry and flustered for no reason.”
“I’d forgotten what it was like to not be mad all the time.”
“It’s like I’ve finally woken up from a bad dream.”
True, it didn’t happen that long ago–Jim first at ten weeks, Stephanie most recently at three–but one would think at some point the post-transformation bliss would end, the gushing, the giggles, the eyes that actually sparkle like the Crown Jewels under lights. But it hasn’t ended yet.
Darrell is mad all the time. He knows it. It’s like being shackled to some rabid beast, all teeth and claws, that tears and chews at him. He’s confided this to the group, and to an intern pastor at counseling sessions. Or tried; his voice tends to seize up around people. That’s part of the whole curse. After enough painful experiences, a person learns to fear people. Darrell stiffens; his mind blanks. Words come hard.
And sometimes it’s erupted out of control. His former job in a call center didn’t help. He hung up on people, once throwing down his headset, another time storming out and slamming the door as everyone stared. It got him suspended, then fired.
The spectre of his older brother invades his mind, towering and scowling and loud, to castigate his every move. Out of the inner scars grows an image of his brother like a fire-breathing monster, far more hateful than the man himself, although Darrell tends to forget this.
He’s talked with Jim about it. “One night when I was twelve or so, I was walking to recreation at school. Every Tuesday night they had basketball or battleball going on. My brother chased after me and confronted me and punched me in the nose. It bloodied my nose a bit. He went back home and I kept on going, the blood drying on my face, holding in my anger, ready to blow but never blowing. It’s always been so frustrating, the way I’d just take it! At the time it was like, it never even occurred to me to hit back or anything. It just wasn’t there. And from then on, besides the memory of someone hitting you or spitting on you or ridiculing you, you have to live knowing you let them do it. It never goes away, that shame. It kills your self-respect. And it’s happened over and over again.”
“What did they say when you got to recreation? And why did your brother hit you?”
“I don’t remember.”
Ah, yes. Those things, the harmless ones that don’t chew a man up inside–they fade, but not the painful memories. The bad memories fester, get worse over the years instead of better.
And if I transformed, it would all go into the portrait. The portrait would rot under the old clothes in my closet, all the rage and hindsight stuck to it like flies, leaving me clean, refreshed, and free of all anger.
Dear God, why won’t it happen?
It’s time to part ways with the group. Then he can at least spend his Thursday evenings in peace. Quietly too, if the neighbors spare him the thump-thump-thump of their stereo.
Tonight Darrell arrives later than usual, at six fifty-five. He’s supposed to kick off the songs right at seven, but people always take their time filing in. Even those who are angels now, tend to lag; radiating like God himself doesn’t necessarily improve a person’s punctuality.
He finds Jim, Heidi and assistant leader Tom gathered around Ted in the living room. Ted is one of four men in the group still not an angel, maybe not meant to be, but like Darrell he’s not ready to accept his lot. Something flat is propped up by his side, wrapped in a dark brown sheet. He steadies it with one hand as he talks.
“–had a good artist do it, she’s done it for other people and it’s worked for them–”
“Ted.” Jim, whose voice could calm a riot, raises a finger. It looks like a saint making the sign of blessing. “Are you certain she was telling the truth? You know about the con artists and people out to make money, who’ve never even picked up a brush–”
Those who want the transformation try all kinds of things: enclose it in a round frame, use oil paint, avoid acrylic. Never watercolors. Put Jesus in the background above you, preferably with a halo. Paint yourself surrounded by crackling lightning, or wreathed in fire. Some angels swear these will work. Others say no, that’s trying to force the issue. Get an actual artist to paint it for you, don’t try it yourself if you’re not trained. No photographs, either. The magic won’t be fooled.
“This is legit, this is legit,” Ted sputters. He wears thick glasses and if not for his mop of graying hair, he’d pass for a college kid. “I know about all that. The lady who did this is registered with the Better Business Bureau. She’s done six paintings and five of them worked. I know, I checked it out. And I think–I really have a good feeling about this, and I want everyone here when I uncover it.”
Darrell is sitting on his chair by now–he usually helps bring the chairs in, but someone else did it this time, probably John–tuning the guitar that Jim keeps in a closet so he doesn’t have to lug it from his apartment to his job to here. Darrell stops twanging strings and listens to Ted. Darrell has a bad feeling about this.
Jim’s transformation, and the transformations of others, leads people to believe this is as quick and easy as Christ’s miracles picking back up where they left off. If Christ hasn’t returned yet, at least his miracles have. But there’s something about Ted. He’s always jumpy, as if pumped on amphetamines. When the group’s old leader decided to move to Hawaii as a missionary, Ted alone raised a stink of objections and refused to attend the sendoff party.
“He can’t just run off and leave us–!”
Ted would also claim he’d overheard some remark of yours, always a hurtful remark. You called this woman fat. You called that man a nut. You never said anything of the kind, you don’t gossip in any case and you tell him so. But he insists that yes you did, and never budges.
Darrell gets up. He leaves the room as the others talk on, heading for the bathroom, as he often does during the prayer session that closes out the meetings. Everyone takes long turns praying aloud, some even two or three long turns, and Darrell’s bladder pangs well before the final amen.
There’s a second door in the bathroom, between the sink and the tub, about three feet high. Doesn’t it lead up to the attic? The house’s magic-illusion second story comes to mind.
Ted’s voice grows louder out in the living room.
Darrell tries the handle. It’s unlocked. He opens the door and sees wooden stairs going up. He climbs them to a hatch in the ceiling, also unlocked, opening with a creak. It’s just large enough for his shoulders; he wriggles through with care. Ted’s muffled voice still chatters below. Ted seems to be the only one talking now, excitedly as ever.
The attic is mostly bare. It’s not like the attics in stories, labyrinths packed full of antiques and furniture. It is dusty, none of the attention to cleanliness Heidi pays the ground floor. The temperature drops several degrees, cool like a cave. No windows, but a string dangles down, and Darrell pulls it to click on a bare bulb. He’s disappointed: no glow of heaven, and no oval windows that perhaps, from inside, show you paradise itself. And no sparkling stairs spiraling up any further. There’s only an old desk chair, tilting at an angle like it’s broken its neck, three campaign posters on the floor, and five cardboard boxes of old newspapers. That’s it, aside from a year’s worth of dust caking everything. Darrell’s footsteps stir it up and it tickles his nose.
Why did Jim even bother transforming? Nothing from his past was eating him. No bullying, no abuse, at least that he’s ever related. Everyone must have taken some hits growing up, carry some scars.
Darrell’s memories always surface by themselves, no trigger or reminder needed. He tries mightily not to dwell on them. Then one day he realized he’s been “trying mightily” for an awfully long time now. They creep out of nowhere, magnify in his mind and inflame it, and before he knows it he’s worked himself into a fury. At home, at his job or just out walking, puffing, face red, teeth clenched. He thinks of all the sunny hikes ruined by memories of old humiliations.
He decides to check out the newspapers. He never reads the paper; he has enough to cope with without the daily bad news slapping him in the face. How old are they?
The one on top is dated ten months ago. It’s marked up. Darrell bends down, squints to see, picks it up, brushing off dust.
It’s something from Section B, a letter to the editor, like the ones Jim used to write. This one is not from Jim, but a Reverend someone or other. Underneath the heading WHY GOVERNMENT CAN’T SAVE US runs a lengthy, detailed epistle explaining point by point why Christians should stay out of politics. Jim marked it up with a vengeance, scribbling rebuttals here and there in pencil. “When the righteous triumph, there is great elation”–Proverbs 28:12. “Triumph” means a hard-fought battle!
The paper beneath it has one of Jim’s own letters. It’s only two short paragraphs and carries no heading. Darrell doesn’t read it.
The one below that is from more than a year ago. It shows the White House with a moving van parked out in front, the last president leaving office. Big letters scrawled across the top: YIPPEEEEEEE
–and beneath that lies the rest of the stack, paper after paper from day after day, articles about said president and all his outrages: the anti-family bills–yes, Jim brought those up in meetings, urging everyone to get on the phone to their Congressmen–the vetoes of other, pro-family bills, and so on, and so on. Jim marked these up too, rebuttals to various presidential remarks, furious critiques tearing apart his speeches.
Darrell holds the dusty paper. He’s not sure, but he thinks it’s heating up. Will it catch fire in his hands? There’s no way to tell nowadays.
His eyes fall on another comment, by a header about some new bill considered by Congress:
This means they’re coming after our kids
He drops the paper. It thumps on the floor with a puff of dust. It tickles Darrell’s nose again, and he can’t help blasting out a sneeze.
Jim–the old Jim–descended from the Greeks, with chiseled features and a crown of black hair, the kind of stout breed that doesn’t grow fat or bald. He was comfortably nestled in his thirties when everything changed. To hear him talk about his life…well, Darrell never actually asked him about hardships or general unpleasantness, but one got the idea no asking was needed. The moment you first see Jim, you know he graduated from college and lives in a nice suburban house, not a mere apartment. You also know there’s a gold ring on his finger (unlike yours). He has a manicured green backyard that he fixed up from scratch, clearing it out and planting grass and populating it with a swing set and playhouse for his three tots. He’s married to a charming lady and works at an important job, a job Darrell’s not too clear on except that it involves city planning.
But now something else about Jim comes to mind.
It’s from the old days–the pre-portrait, pre-angel says. One of Jim’s letters made it into USA Today, and he proudly presented it to the group, reading it aloud from his easy chair. “‘We are not giving up the fight for family. We violently oppose–‘”
Hold on. Violently? Jim wasn’t that type. The word made him sound like a terrorist. But he pronounced it, and everyone listened, and neither Darrell nor anyone else called him out. Now Darrell can only wonder why.
Then there are were the kids. Other people’s kids always seemed to end up in tears, somehow, when playing with Jim’s. Darrell even saw a four-year-old boy sobbing in Heidi’s arms. Heidi asked him patiently if her and Jim’s son, also four, had been mean to him.
Maybe Darrell should have realized it. Jim, who had everything going for him: strong, smart, raised by two healthy parents in an upscale neighborhood, spared monsters like alcoholism, drug addiction, divorce and dysfunction–he seemed to have breezed through life in a Norman Rockwell parallel dimension, all dances and apple pie, ascending to a triumphant adulthood.
But at some point Jim had to realize this world wasn’t that pretty. A self-described “information junkie,” he devoured everything that channeled the news–CNN, Fox, USA Today, Time and Newsweek. And they brought him reality, slamming, clubbing and bludgeoning it home in all its high-definition glory.
And Jim had his three children…who would have to grow up and live in that world.
Darrell lets out a snort. An instant later he regrets it. Musn’t be mean himself. But he envies Jim. Why deny it? Hasn’t everyone always envied Jim? So favored in life, yet he forgot this in all his news-fueled anxiety, the urgency of getting the right candidates elected and the right laws passed to create a safe world for his offspring. When this proved difficult–no, impossible–he seethed. He worked, canvassed, wrote the editor and called his Congressman, supported his candidates to the hilt. And yet so often elections did not go his way, and the wrong laws got passed. Things he wanted abolished remained, and the things he wanted instituted didn’t happen. Each day brought his children closer to adulthood, and still society refused to cooperate. He could not seem to understand this. It exasperated him to no end.
And it tainted his enjoyment of all that life had lavished upon him. He went through the motions at his city planner job, not counting his blessings that he could afford such things as a home in a nice area and provide for his family, because he was too busy seething at the president. He went home to his wife, but didn’t feel her peck on his lips or smell her perfume because another anti-family bill loomed and had to be stopped. He stomped through every day tight-lipped, fists clenched, perhaps gaining relief every so often when the bill failed to pass or his candidate won. But the next election always lay up ahead.
Now Darrell tries to recall Jim’s last admonishment. Stay up on events. Here’s the church paper, it tells you who to vote for. This is important! Protect our kids! But, no…not since his transformation.
Jim’s portrait must be somewhere in this room. It’s nowhere downstairs. And whether it hangs on a far wall, or even lies under the planks like Poe’s telltale heart, it no doubt mutters things like, “We violently oppose…” “triumph means a hard-fought battle…” “our kids, our kids, our kids…” Over and over, spit out, snarled out, unceasing.
Darrell would not want to see Jim’s portrait.
A noise sounds downstairs. Ted’s voice had faded away, but now everyone’s crying out. “Ahhhhh!” Even now the angel voices stand out, patient expressions of awe.
Darrell hurries down from the attic. By the time he reaches the living room, everyone is on their feet and Ted is nowhere in sight. Jim and the others are standing over Ted’s portrait, which lies flat on the floor.
Darrell moves in for a look. The painting is face up. He puts a hand to his mouth.
He’s never actually seen one of these post-transformation residues before. Now he knows he never wants to see another. It’s as if someone spent a long time calculating where to splotch black and red bile, puke, and sludge to bring out the worst in Ted’s countenance, past aging, past mutation.
But where’s Ted?
Any moment he’ll come gliding in, radiating the now-familiar glow with its unshakeable sense of peace. Darrell waits with the others, facing away from the picture, for a minute. Two minutes.
It’s Jim who in his angelic wisdom guesses it. “His entire self got fused to the canvas.”
Ted’s portrait begins to talk. It’s his voice–Darrell well knows his voice. Its mouth does not move, nor anything else. From what Darrell can make out, Ted’s not even aware of what happened. Maybe his mind is still catching up.
“Joe? Hey, Joe. You laughed at Heidi last Sunday during the service. I was sitting right behind you, I heard it. You told everyone sitting around you she’s just the parrot Jim keeps on his shoulder–”
Joe’s mouth falls open. He’s roly-poly and the loudest talker in the group, often breaking into spontaneous prayers. His eyes widen beneath his ballcap. “No, no!”
Both Jim and Heidi must hear it as well, but neither react. Everyone’s standing back from the portrait, as if it’s radioactive. Jim stoops down, picks it up, and carries it into the bathroom. And up those stairs, no doubt. Five minutes later he reappears. Did he notice the paper Darrell dropped in the attic?
But Jim! Shouldn’t we call someone? His wife at home? His relatives, 911, someone? We can’t just…
“I’ll let Margie know.” Jim glides past Darrell, back to his easy chair.
Everyone resumes their seats and seventeen pairs of shining eyes, along with two pairs of ordinary eyes, fix upon Darrell and his boxy guitar. They always shudder him, those eyes, and when he starts the music their voices swell his heart and shudder him again. The sensation seizes his entire body, down his arms to his hands, disrupting his strumming. It’s a hurdle he’s gotten into the habit of dealing with every week, under this new scheme of things.
But tonight he only grips the guitar like it’s a security blanket, and it occurs to him that if he springs the news now and it sets off the expected commotion, maybe everyone will forget about the songs. So he says, “Everyone? Got an announcement.”
He clears his throat. He clears it again. His left hand clamps the guitar neck tighter, till his knuckles whiten. He sees this and suddenly feels stupid.
Damn it all to hell! His forces the words out. “I won’t be coming here anymore. It’s my last night.”
He braces himself for the onslaught of objections and cries of dismay. They come.
“We need you!”
Jim launches into a speech peppered with buzzwords. He almost sounds like his old self. “Darrell, this is your ministry. You’ve been given a gift for music, to serve the body–”
Darrell bristles. Three months ago he received a letter from Jim. Ordinary ruled notebook paper, flawless handwriting surpassing all calligraphy. He wasn’t sure, but he thought the paper shimmered. He even turned out the lights to check this.
Darrell, I want you to be comfortable, etc. I’m sorry, but freedom from bitterness is a wonderful thing, etc. We have to talk about it and share it, etc. This is your home, and you do belong, etc. etc. etc.
Now the familiar hackles rise. Darrell doesn’t feel like he belongs, he feels like a have-not among haves. Like Tantalus, starving in the midst of other people’s plenty. But he welcomes the anger this time, because it has a way of overriding nerves.
“Just listen, okay?” He pushes this out as loud as can without raising his voice. He knows from experience, though, that it won’t do much good. Everyone is still talking and they’re not yet finished, though they seem to say the same thing over and over.
“It’s just not good,” he cries above the commotion, “for me to be here.”
Finally everyone falls silent. The shining eyes, like gentle suns, gaze at him. He shudders, suddenly warm in winter.
Darrell gropes for words. Why is he the only one who ever seems at a loss for words? “It’s just not…it’s not happening for me.”
“It doesn’t happen for everyone, Darrell.” Stephanie, the mechanic’s wife. Now she and her hubby look like they maintain celestial chariots for Elijah, Apollo and Helios. “Look at John. Look at Joe.”
John and Joe, yes, same as before, as out of place as himself in this suburban residence turned temple. Like mud splats on the White House floor. Both sit in the adjoining kitchen on folding chairs, Joe squat and fortyish, John lanky and freckled and bearded. They breeze through the meetings, week in, week out, as if nothing’s changed.
John throws out the inevitable answer. “We’re called to be content the way we are.”
Then why did you all change? Why didn’t you tell Ted that?
But this answer doesn’t come to Darrell’s mind. Not now. Afterward, as always, it will come, when this discussion is ancient history. All he can manage now is, “I don’t want to live this way. And I don’t think I’m supposed to, okay? I really don’t.”
He sucks in a breath. Is that enough? Pretty much, he guesses. So he turns his attention to his exit. He walks across the living room, he wants to shut his eyes, but you can still see the angels’ radiance and all that’s holy about them because after all, you sense it in your soul and that triggers your visual cortex to register the glow. There’s no way to know how much is their actual appearance and how much is in the eye of the beholder.
Once Darrell puts one foot in front of the other, it’s surprisingly easy. He really only has to go a few steps, after all. He feels all those gentle sun-eyes on him, and he’s seized by a sudden urge to turn around, disavow everything, this is the best group he’s ever known, he swears his allegiance forever. But he bites his lip and wills his feet to keep stepping. Here’s the door.
It’s already propped open; the night is warm for March. Only the grated security door is closed. He opens it, steps through. Now let it shut–it’s spring-loaded, clangs itself closed. Good.
Then, before anyone can follow him, he breaks into a run.
He thinks he hears someone calling out, offering him a ride. He ignores it. He runs, puffing for breath, yes, pound my feet and maybe that’ll pound out some of the anger, and when I get home I’ll be so worn out I’ll go right to sleep. Yes.
I can get on with my life now.