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Outside in the dark, the strip malls are approaching, their lights serpentine like a necklace along the horizon, their shadows ominous and oppressive. Those strip malls go up in two weeks. First the indigenous vegetation is mowed mercilessly to the ground, then comes the wood skeleton, next the drywall partition with the yellow insulation stuffing and the enclosed aluminum duct canals, followed by a healthy dose of chicken wire and stucco spray. Macaroni-and-cheese architectural misery.
From his bedroom window, Bill can see, on top of what was some of the most prime farm soil in the country, the glowing fast-food signs arranged on a corner a half mile away; Burger King, McDonald's, Taco Bell, their placement neat on perfect rectangular blue-gray asphalt blocks. Soon to be ghettoized condos whose lights 500 yards off reveal, even at night, a desert that has long since been domesticated. Fast-food wrappings and Diet Pepsi cans clump in the weeds, tearaway color newspaper ads offering shiny objects from places like Kmart, Target and Radio Shack hang from barren and ill-nourished mesquite tree branches and cling to the outside lower edges of backyard fences. Empty 40-ounce beer bottles trigger stinging flashes of reflective light from headlights of passing cars traveling on the nearby two-lane highway, a highway soon to be jettisoned in favor of the new corporation-friendly freeway. An injured stray dog limps along in the shadows in futile hope of a feeding, a victim of an obscene suburban torture.
At night, Mr. Mackel's windows next door are a perpetual dim blue/yellow, as if the moon is hanging inside, a moon, no doubt, sucked out of the sky by the evil satellite dish sitting atop his horrible dwelling. If Bill looks out his front door, he can see into Mackel's square front window. He can see the man sitting there, his features pinned between a crack in the curtains, all life removed, his sullen face a blank screen upon which the television light plays out its unholy assurances. The only times he has noticed the old man out of that chair are on rare occasions when the old guy retrieves his mail.
His frail and thin body moves with a defeated grace like a starving cat with too many kittens to feed. The '64 wing-tailed Chrysler sits in his carport as if it, in the year it was pushed off the assembly line, is the year his life story stopped evolving, like something horrible and ugly came down to kill him, but not enough to stop his heart from beating.
It is an eerie surrender, Bill thinks, a kind of surrender he wants no part of. Bill looks at Mr. Mackel again and sees himself in the not-too-distant future.
Bill hasn't been to church in 20 years, not since his last day as an altar boy when Father O'Leary slapped him so hard it left a stinging four-finger imprint on his cheek like a perfect salute. This was after the Pastor found Bill downing red wine backstage before Mass, straight from the Manischewitz bottle. When that happened, Bill threw his altar vestment directly into O'Leary's round face, ran out the back door of Our Mother of Sorrows parish and hopped on his Sting-Ray with a strange new joy buzzing in his blood and head: He discovered alcohol and the illusion of confidence it offered. It made him happy. There was no looking back.
But like McDonald's, God had been tattooed on his psyche before he could talk, therefore a near impossible idea to shake, and redemption is not an easy word to define once he learned that his tricks no longer keep the ducks in a row. Now Bill finds himself on the steps and about to enter the town's new church, a free-standing building sandwiched between Gold's Gym and Blockbuster Video. He is in his one suit, an ill-fitting and wrinkled brown two-piece laugh that he has carried around since the late Eighties.
An usher hands Bill a program and he slides into a pew at the back. From his vantage point he has a clear view of many backs of heads. Lots of balding and gray ones, fat and cockeyed ones; as unattractive as it is, it is still a far sight better than looking at the fronts of heads. The women are all wearing floral print or dark solid colors. Most of the men came dressed in horrible pastels. They all look like they shop for clothes at the same outlet, in some nearby mall.
The priest standing at the altar has a short, sharp hairdo and looks silly in the updated vestments. The altar looks cheap and fake as well. The carnations and gladiola appear to be plastic and somehow appropriate for a church of white cinderblock with track lighting. The scene is homogenous, stuffy, even claustrophobic.
When Bill was an altar boy, Father O'Leary wore silk robes with lace fringes. His altar was mahogany with individualized carvings, topped with elegant linens and good silver. The church was stone and had arched ceilings with angels in patented, maternal, sorrowful expressions. O'Leary's sermons were creepy takes on the evils within us and how we project it onto others. It was at once horrifying and uplifting.
When the sermon begins today, the preacher starts by likening Jesus Christ to a major sports figure. His point is that all success can be achieved through "investment" and "belief." He speaks in contrived, self-confident tones that would bode well as patter on a used car lot. He knows his shit because he has the congregation on the edge of their pews and on their knees. He knows exactly what they want to hear. Bill is up and out of there before communion.
He is in the old spiritless Ford speeding past the new suburban cathedrals like banks and malls and car lots. He can't wait to get back to his trailer and share with himself all the evils of the devil like Henry Miller, the Clash, porn and beer. Bill feels redeemed, not through some ham-fisted patriarchal religious dogma but through a relief of just being for the sake of being; a complete spiritual freedom without the reliance on some money-grubbing deity. He realizes then, with some great outward leaps and spirals of pure faith that he now, and unknowingly for the last 20 years, has his own personal religion. One with his own congregation, his own grace, his own faith. Himself. Amen.
Old Trick New Dog
Here is a recipe for a fine album: Loop-driven versions of old glories imbued in sleepy adult-contemporary textures minus any of the sexuality, tension and hipswing of the forbearer. Picture a record made by one who has recently found God. Did Mister Cassidy find God?
The white-soaked blandness of updated Bible-belt versions of "I Think I Love You," "Heartbeat," "I Woke Up in Love This Morning" and "Rickey's Tune" would suggest that he did indeed find the Lord.
Oh fuckin' Lord in heaven.
Anyone who grew up in the Seventies wanted to do David Cassidy; he was the picture of unspoken sex, it dripped from his flowered fingers, hairless chest and unpolluted voice box. Boys questioned their sexuality over his being and girls just creamed. He was pure porn, a sex star disguised by lunch-box covers, TV censors and the screams of 12-year-old girls who at night saw his face replace the unicorns and talking caterpillars as they floated off to warm dreamy sleep with a strange feeling of butterflies between their legs. David beaming into American living rooms on The Partridge Family TV show gave birth to a trillion contrite sex dreams, in girls, boys, their mothers and maybe even fathers. Only a real rock 'n' roll star could do that.
Almost like Jesus. Perhaps, David Cassidy should have died at age 27 or 33?
Contact Bill Blake at his online address: email@example.com