Possum Agonistesfrom Trophy, a novel
Darla the Weather Girl is cool. Her palms stay dry; her fierce good cheer is a kabuki mask, and no way through the painted smile to the scream behind, if there’s a scream behind. Who knows? Until six weeks ago one would have thought her absolutely unflusterable. Here was a woman who commanded her clicker with a magician’s invisible nimblesse: Goddess of the Green Screen. In short, the pinnacle of cool, if cool has a pinnacle―which it may not, pointiness and upward striving of the mountaintop type perhaps lying beyond the pale, cool-wise; peaks always look like they’re trying, which Darla never did until that once―until her live interview with Pablo the Bible-Believing Possum, mascot of a semipro baseball franchise out in the farm country west of Columbia.
The ballpark visit was part of a spring promotion called Up in Your Grill. The TV station sent its weather-readers into the community―first to backyard barbecues, later to even bigger infernos―to deliver the forecast while wearing a WIST apron and searing wursts and burgers. The message: We’re plain folks, only prettier. Often there were mesh trucker caps or T-shirts to accept (“Pengilly Family Reunion Welcomes the Weather”), embroidered pillows to exclaim over, or side dishes to taste. On Darla’s first venture out, the Pengilly reunion, the producer had her pause in mid-report to nosh on Aunt Pearlene’s tater salad, which featured a secret spice called “turmurk.”
“Ah, turmeric,” said Darla. “That’s awfully good. Flavorful. Thank you, Mrs. Pengilly. Tomorrow . . . ”
“Turmurk?” the old biddy interrupted. “That’s A-rab for zesty. Doesn’t make you want to blow stuff up, either. You mix it with good American spuds and all, yeller mustard, and all it makes you want to do is nap, like picnic food aims to. I reckon the starch cancels out all the killin’ urge, leaves just the zesty. I been makin’ it this way on forty years, and ain’t none of my family started wearin’ a turbine yet.”
“Thanks, ma’am,” said Darla with bland good humor. “It’s good, all right. Yes it is.”
“Maybe we should just bomb I-rack with picnic grub, is what I always say. They’ll be full as a tick, you know, too logy to massacre Christians. And my boys always say my cupcakes like to make you jump up and thank Jesus.”
Darla kept her composure through all this. Her teeth glowed; her skin sang. Instantly a production assistant, responding to signals Darla made somehow using only her shoes―less a movement, he would have said, than something almost mystical: a pulsing intensification of their color, a whetting of their sharpness of toe?—tugged Pearlene away by the elbow, and the cameraman moved in for a tight shot of the grill. Darla showed off her black-striped franks, glided through the five-day forecast without even a hint of pique.
Her professionalism was held against her in some quarters. Some folks, lacking it, like to punish the cool for their cool; Darla could understand that. Still, she had expressed no sympathy. She’d said nothing untoward. What was she supposed to do? Tackle the old kook? Grind a red-velvet cupcake into her face while shouting Allahu akbar?
No, Darla was not to blame. But it was she who in the next week received five envelopes packed with indignant notes and a not-so-suspicious yellow powder. Which experience with spice-rack jihad, two months before her venture to the ballpark, had left the off-camera Darla wary and irritable, and might have left her disillusioned had she been naïve enough, six months into her TV career, to hang on to any illusions. She begged to be excused from Up in Your Grill for her safety, but the controversy had been a ratings-grabber, had vaulted the newscast to the top of Arbitron for the first time in eons. The station capitalized during May sweeps with several days of Beautiful-Weather-Girl-Is-Victim-of-Spice-Mailing-Liberal-Terrorists stories, including one in which a lab-coated “chemist” (really the producer’s poolboy cousin, a sophomore science major at Erskine) divulged that one letter contained, “according to my analysis,” not turmeric but cumin. Which might indicate anything, speculated the investigative reporter who was handling the series: A change of tactics? An escalation to spices that rhyme with “human”? Perhaps financial straits caused by the Administration’s war on terror, which had forced the evildoers into buying a spice that cost a quarter less at the local Winn-Dixie we checked, forty cents less at Food Lion? Or just the lazy, imprecise kind of vengeance you could expect from people who took Jesus for a mere prophet? His trenchcoat’s dangling sash trembled with every hysterical finger-jab.
All this made Darla, just twenty-six, a regional celebrity. “Yeah, the celebrity victim,” she scoffed. “Like the Black Dahlia, but with my head still on.” Beneath the scoffing, though, one could glimpse an unmistakable hint of pleasure: As she spoke, her hand went up to her hair, probed above the ear as if checking for a flower. Then her hand came down, and her tone hardened again. “More or less on.”
Perhaps the most distressing part was political. Darla found herself beloved, as she’d always imagined she would be, but by the wrong people and for the wrong reasons. She, a fire-breathing liberal from Maryland, miscast as the heroine of a twisted Margaret Mitchell pageant of right-wingers. Everywhere she went to grill, the crazies teemed and flocked. There were hand-painted vans from splinter churches; guys in fatigues carrying flags, Confederate and Don’t Tread on Me and the state’s crescent moon and palmetto on a blue field (which banner always made her sad, seen in those hands―a misused beauty, like her); lurid color pictures of aborted fetuses on foam-core, mounted like heads on pikes; a booth manned by partisans of a barbecue king who gave out samples of his “certified turmeric-free 100% American sauce” along with brochures explaining how the myth of the happy darkie wasn’t a myth at all, that West African slaves blessed the Lord for his bounteous goodness in delivering them to mild Christian owners and a climate that suited their complexions. There was also a florid rotundity in full Rebel uniform and sidewhiskers who carried a sign reading, “Remember when Salt and Pepper Were Spice Enough? And We Kept ’Em in Separate Jars?” Darla couldn’t help noticing that the flags were mounted on stout sticks that could double as truncheons, in the lucky eventuality of a riot.
Darla was adored by these people, and her bosses―though they didn’t go so far as to make her embrace her fans―asked her not to rebuke or reject them publicly, either. “We’ve got a good thing going,” said the station director. “Let it ride.”
“More like let it night-ride,” Darla huffed. But she let it go.
There was the sex-symbol stuff, too, a fan flamed by the station. Usually she was costumed as a combination of ingenue and minx that Darla called “Catholic call-girl,” and the weather report featured inexplicable midrange shots of her tartan-plaid miniskirt, held together with a gold safety pin the size of a padlock. Now the station issued her a grilling apron that fit as snugly as a wrestling singlet. It offered no protection against burns or splatter; it did little but lift and separate. And they started sending her out every Friday, always to majority-white suburban or rural events. (The station did air an occasional “Diversity Barbeque,” an event always given the uppercase letters of self-congratulation, but these were presided over by Nykesha Davenport, one of the weekend meteorologists. She was beloved around the station for the time when, advised to “dress ethnic,” she shuffle-bowed into the studio one day in full Japanese makeup. Never again did the honchos try to wardrobe her like Pam Grier in Mandingo.)
Darla was ashamed by the attention, but also clearly flattered by it. And she’d made all the calculations that ambition bade her make: For now, as long as it stayed discreet, the adulation of the madding (or long-madded) crowd would do her no harm. Most viewers would have no idea what a cult figure she’d become to the right wing, because the hullabaloo played out off-screen by design. She’d warned the station manager that if they did anything at all to identify her with the cause of the downtrodden white Southerner, bereft of his battle flag and his “sacred hurtage,” she would bayonet an effigy of Robert E. Lee on camera, maybe even squat over it and pee, and damn the consequences.
The station manager, Bruce, agreed. Management was, after all, dancing the same razor’s edge she was. At the carnivals that began to surround Darla’s grill-outs, interns dispensed trinkets to WIST’s new constituency, and each week the brass sprang for a truck with drinking water to make sure the righteously indignant remained hydrated. But the gestures could go no further; balloons and change purses and paper cones would have to suffice as tokens of friendship. The owners couldn’t afford to alienate other viewers, so every week they finessed the camera angles and banked her in with rows of children whose job it was to wave and smile and prop up the dry-erase board on which were printed the day’s statistics. Darla began to refer to the kids as her human shield.
Up in Your Grill at the Ballpark was an especially nervous-making gig, and as Darla would tell the story later, she knew all along it would turn out poorly. The franchise was owned by evangelical Christian brothers who operated it as missionary outreach. They’d conceived of small-time minor-league baseball as a new way of proselytizing: Hitting the Eternal Cut-Off Man, Dropping in the 3&2 Gakker for Christ When Satan’s Sacks Are Juiced. Gilyard, twenty miles west of Columbia, was one of those formerly rural towns turning quickly exurban, with incursions from the capital’s upper middle class, who brought along their wrought-iron gates and security-guard cabanas and dragged behind them a train of Applebee’s and Target and Ruby Tuesday, and also from Hispanic farm workers, former migrants now setting down their roots and their signage, replacing the abandoned wig shops and appliance stores downtown with lavaterías and taquerías.
It wasn’t a bad idea. Small-time independent baseball leagues had begun to thrive again, especially those based in towns otherwise too dinky and sleepy for the minors and in need of an infusion of civic pride and family-friendly entertainment. Plaster “Pelion” or “Swansea” or “Edgefield” or “Gilyard” across a throwback buttoned-front baseball jersey, and people would come. The allure would be all the greater if the fans―and South Carolina’s Midlands are Belt-High in the Bible Strike Zone―could conceive of going to the game as a boon to their souls, as a way of augmenting or even replacing their churchgoing. Show St. Peter your ticket stubs, my child, and all will be well.
It was better than a not-bad idea, Darla had to admit; it was ingenious. A couple of weeks before her ballpark appearance, she read an article about the franchise in Sandhills Business. The owners, brothers named Shealy, came across as perfectly sincere about their Christianity. Vick Shealy cited as his inspiration a troupe of Lycra-clad soul-savers who’d been touring the state bringing sinners to Christ through weightlifting; they were called Spot Me, Jesus. The epiphany, as Vick described it, was pretty banal (“And I thought hey, you know, they’re right: Sound soul in a sound body. Why should we leave sports to the secularists? Billy Sunday used baseball as his ministry”), but Darla figured the profit-seeker in him played a role, too; the brothers also took their capitalism seriously. If those goofy steroidals could make a living military-pressing for the Lord in high-school auditoria, then surely . . . yes, praise God and pass the fungo bat.
The Shealys figured their customers at first would be mostly local church groups and families in search of wholesome outings, and for almost every home game they dreamt up a promotion, a task for which Bill Shealy turned out to have a talent that verged on mania. He arranged giveaways (Gideons’ Pocket New Testament Night; Lazarus Arise-and-Bobblehead Day; the somewhat controversial Inglenook Feast of Cana Night, where fans who brought in a sealed bottle of water―to be donated to charity―could exchange it for a plastic cup of white, red, or blush wine; Dr. Scholl’s Least-Among-You Sandal Night, featuring free flip-flops for the first six hundred fans, and also foot-washings by volunteer penitents―an event that went briefly awry when the penitents got infiltrated by foot-fetishists, who were slow about relinquishing their turns). There were visiting evangelists: Baptismal Font Night was a big one, with wildly cheered dunkings after every half-inning in an aboveground pool installed in the visitors’ bullpen, a pool donated for promotional considerations and thus carrying signage for Flip Fersner Swimming-Holes-to-Go. Before long the region’s TV preachers, having absorbed the Gospel of Cross-Promotion, began aggressively vying for spots.
There were also political nights, exploiting the target audience’s xenophobia (Osama Night, when the Shealys let in all men wearing beards and homemade head-wraps for half-price and offered free admission to the first seven hundred virgins, signed pledge required) or prejudice (on Homosexual Shame Night, their answer to Gay Pride, they flew in G. Gordon Liddy to throw out a first pitch―and had a local guy who professed himself a “recovering fag” catch it, after a short, ugly tiff that had to do with the man’s insistence that, as what he called a “former power-top,” he should be on the mound rather than behind the plate. “I wasn’t that kind,” he kept saying. “What will people think?”).
There were missteps. They denominated one late-May game “Krystle Night,” in honor of a girl downstate who’d been doused with gasoline and set afire by her foster parents, tweakers on a binge . . . but the promotion had to be canceled when it was revealed that online neo-Nazi groups were abuzz and intended to hijack the occasion to commemorate another crystal night, another immolation.
In general, though, God had smiled upon the venture with sizable crowds and regional, even national, publicity. Buttering up Liddy didn’t hurt, won them a following on conservative talk radio, and some of the TV reverends who did wrangle gigs in Gilyard showed video packages of their trips when they got back to the pulpit. In June, Jerry Falwell was photographed wearing the purple Gilyard cap, the logo an effulgent golden G in a black background with a pale circle partially superimposed to the right―the Shealys’ version of the empty tomb and rolled-aside stone. Soon folks started making pilgrimages to Gilyard from across the South, and the brothers had to haul in new aluminum risers and deploy them down the foul lines.
All this, too, contributed to Darla’s anxiety. The team’s religious affiliation was well known in the broader metropolitan community, and if the station was seen to have scheduled this weathercast to curry favor with the Religious Right or to give the Shealys a platform for their views, her reputation would be cemented, and goodbye forever to more sophisticated markets up east. She’d find herself, at forty, singing praise songs to chili frito pie on Good Morning, Phoenix City.
Also, the event was by a factor of ten the biggest WIST had yet attempted. The Pengilly family barbecue took place in a fenced backyard in a split-level suburb; guests had been limited to thirty. But the events had grown steadily larger and more public, and now Darla found herself longing, almost, for a good rap about spud salad as the all-American armament that could turn jihadists into sloths. Could standing there with a plastic fork next to Aunt Pearlene be worse than occupying an Astroturf platform outside Jesus of Nazareth Field, home of the Gilyard Risen?
It was a gruesome vision: Darla, her determinedly vacant smile making her cheeks ache as if someone had implanted bolts just above her eyeteeth. Darla, ignobly avoiding her public by touching a finger to her nonexistent earpiece and doing a hearkening pantomime. Darla, center of a maelstrom of yahoos.
They’d set up, as always, by 5:45―to give her an hour to mingle with the public before beginning preparations for the broadcast. She wandered, shaking hands, graciously waving at the wolf-whistlers rather than flipping them off. She turned down countless offers of junk food and soft drinks, including one (nearly irresistible) from a rainbow-wigged ectomorph sipping cola from a Tupperware salad bowl.
The stadium was a former American Legion field with the power alleys expanded, extra bleachers plugged in, and the whole enclosed by cheap aluminum fencing sheathed in the green mesh that cuts wind at tennis courts. Its stated capacity was 1,500, but by 6:30 at least twice that many people had assembled, and the Shealy brothers were determined to have each and everyone pass, like camels through the eye of a needle, the three rusty turnstiles that led into the park. It would take extra time, they warned, and sent a couple of kids up and down the line to cry out Bible verses: “Let patience have her perfect work,” yelled the boys in purple satin Risen jackets, “that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” (Darla noticed that the Shealys, canny operators who understood human frailty, also equipped these criers with keychains, superballs, and promotional sponges to assuage those fans who’d let patience have only imperfect work and were thus unentire and wanted something. (The sponges were especially sought after―each was a flat blob of about palm size that, wetted, inflated into the stone that sealed Christ’s tomb, if the stone that sealed Christ’s tomb could swab away dish crust and had the name of a car-wash sponsor on its Savior-facing inward side.)
All of which made for a dicey situation, community-relationswise. By dispatching the Up in Your Grill crew, WIST’s brass wanted to send the message to the Shealys and their flock that the station approved . . . but they couldn’t afford the appearance of official endorsement. Darla was instructed to make clear on air that she was delighted to be present for this exciting event, but not to indicate what said exciting event was, beyond a baseball game.
This was difficult, given the chaotic atmosphere. Tonight was the first of a two-game set against the visiting Chester Red Devils, and the Shealys, offended or mock-offended by the opposing mascot, had declared it Armageddon Night. Besides the usual suspects who haunted Darla’s Up in Your Grill forecasts, there were millennialists from as far as Tennessee who’d come to celebrate the end times and eat dollar franks. Two dozen Operation Rescue activists had bused in from Mississippi, and they were jostling with cops at the barricades around the WIST platform, presumably because God’s plan was to defeat abortion once and for all by getting their picket photos into a corner of the weather report. At 6:33 a shout went up from them, a cheer. A tiny plane chugged high overhead, trailing a banner with the legend “This is Roe v. Wade” and an illustration that looked from this range like maybe a DeKooning, or one of those classroom Maps of the World with the colors gone lurid. At 6:35 Darla went to test the microphones, and three protesters surged after her. When a chubby cop barked, “Get back across that rope, chief!” one anti-abortionist turned to him and hissed, in a tone more hurt than rageful, “Brother, there ain’t no doughnuts in hell.”
WIST’s platform was set up along the left-field fence, and in the narrow lane between two sections of bleachers Darla could―when she grew tired of Cameraman Joe’s entreaties and gave in―make out what she was told were the armies of Megiddo, massing behind the shoulder-high outfield wall into the battalions of the earth’s four corners. Maybe two hundred people, mostly teenagers, milled there, divided into more or less equal squads. Cameraman Joe, who had his lens trained on them, said they were responding to the prompt of an end-of-days website called beammeup.org. Darla could see only the yellow T-shirts in right, blue in right-center, but Joe told her that a scraggly white army was encamped behind the Dairy-O sign in left center, and a slightly skimpier group in red clustered around the foul pole in left. (The skimpiness of the red army, Joe suggested, was “the legacy of a half-century of rabid American anticommunism.” Joe was an ex-hippie who gave it up, he said with a bitterness edging into disgust, when his ex-girlfriend Starfire became a periodontist. He’d made his peace with the straight world, over the years, though if you asked him―few did, Darla would guess―gum care would always and forever be counterrevolutionary. He claimed still to be a dues-paying member of the Wobblies―but that was mostly out of nostalgia, he said, and for the music, a sentiment that made him sound to Darla like many an Episcopalian. Meanwhile it was his sorry lot to be“shooting weather and griddle meat at some kind of Rapture freakshow.”)
6:42, and Darla’s nerves were jangling. There was, for one thing, the difficulty of getting through these next forty minutes without offending the ideologues of hin or yon, Gog or Magog. Joe’s not-quite-whispered diatribe might spark a melee at any moment. Already there were those who’d seen his camera and detected his disdain. One woman in a sack dress asked Darla’s producer whether they as representatives of the MSM― “mainstream media,” Darla had to be told later―were there to spy for the Satanist left.
“Mommy,” inquired the woman’s china-skinned daughter, maybe nine, “is that man a jack-bootied thug? Does he ride in one of the black helicopters?”
“I’m trying to find out. You go yonder and pray for the bad people, OK? There are perverts among us, sweetie―they want to pluck your virtue. So stick close to the van. Mommy will be there in a minute.”
Then there were the anti-abortion activists, who lacked both the local picketers’ politeness and their reverence for the MegaDoppler Power of 10 Radar Weatherteam. Most nights when the spotlight came on, Darla was amazed to see that the shouts ceased instantly, the signs quit bobbing and the hands that held them fell limply to sides, and people stood mesmerized―silenced by the cathode glow of celebrity. But these Mississippians were professional disrupters who might be immune to the spell of Darla’s familiar face bathed in white light. They might interrupt her forecast.
And the heat―it was no surprise that South Carolina in summer would set folks to imagining molten pools and brimstone. It was still ninety-five at least, and humid enough that Darla’s makeup felt like a melting mask, deforming her, un-forming her. She had the idea that a sculptor, if a sculptor happened by, could remake her face with a few expert pinches, give her the shape of crone or monkey, and she would go on air and scold or gibber or straddle a toilet and read a newspaper. She didn’t feel herself. Anyone could come along now and mold her, and she didn’t like the available Pygmalions.
But mostly she worried about timing. At 7:18 the airwaves would be turned over to her for four minutes, no less and no more. The plan was to have her report five minutes after first pitch, by which time the hubbub outside the stadium would have subsided. She’d be encircled by cute kids in choir robes, representatives of a safe mainstream denomination and a church with “First” in its name. Bruce the station manager considered this to be clever stagecraft, a way to signal nonsectarian piety and indicate friendliness to Christian theology without endorsing the Shealys’ plague-of-boils-and-popping-eyeballs version. To palliate the brothers, Bruce had consented to a brief on-air “interview” with their mascot―an even wilier move, he thought, as the mascot was one of those cartoon mutes with an ottoman-sized head, and silent by costume design, sacred vow, and league bylaws.
The broadcast was planned like Operation Overlord. The first fifteen seconds would be devoted to inter-anchor patter; then there would be seventy-five seconds of back-but-not-forth with the possum mascot (who would, for Darla’s purposes, be just plain “Pablo”; viewers would be left to their own devices to figure out his species and, if the Lord granted a revelation, his Bible-believing). After the interview would be a quick shot of the grilling meats; a test run was just now being laid out to sizzle by the production assistant, Meg, a squeamish vegetarian who was handling the dogs and patties with surgical gloves and averting her eyes from the carnage―an example of which carnage would at 7:20, thirty-six minutes from now, be hustled into a bun, squiggled with mustard, and given to a grateful youngster as the camera rolled. That would leave Darla two minutes in which to present the same forecast she gave every summer day: sweltering, 30% chance for pop-up afternoon showers. Cake.
Except that the hubbub had not yet subsided and gave no sign of doing so soon. The choir kids too had been made cranky by the heat and were squawking at stage left; many of the cream robes with purple velvet at the neck were smirched by condiments and drenched with sweat, and mothers were attacking these as if they were the taints of sin, using stain sticks and washcloths and even parchment-colored liquid paper. Several mothers had out powder puffs and hairspray, and their children squirmed and shied from beautification. Why couldn’t fame, like heaven, be come as you are?
At 6:46, almost twenty-five minutes early, the mascot arrived. Darla was standing behind Cameraman Joe, half-listening to him and half-trying to screen him from the anti-abortion guys twenty-five feet away, who thought he’d laughed at the “no doughnuts in hell” line in a way too uproarious to be godly and who were threatening to rush the stage and give him a foretaste of the torments to come. God had a sense of humor, sure, but he didn’t need anybody doubled over, holding his belly and slapping at his thighs; that looked to God and his minions like parody, and God cottoned not to parody.
Pablo’s shoulder tap caught Darla off-guard. She whirled in alarm and discovered problem number one. He was carrying, or rather had been carrying―it landed on the podium with a sound like a rifle crack―a huge book. It was the size and weight of an elephant’s heart, if elephant’s hearts are massive-dictionary-shaped and weigh approximately thirty pounds.
The book lay between them, face up. She recognized it as a dictionary, but it had been fancily disguised and caparisoned: painted black, HOLY BIBLE stenciled on its cover in golden block letters. They’d even dusted the deckel edges with gold glitter.
She looked from the floor to the mascot. No wonder he’d dropped it. In a misguided attempt at truth-to-nature, they’d given the creature shortish forelegs. Pablo looked like a thalidomide opossum. It had to be terribly uncomfortable to wear a suit with such stubby, misproportioned arms; the kid had to keep his elbows locked against his ribcage, she guessed. Which made it nearly impossible to carry the book, much less carry it while freeing a finger―an oddly delicate pink, rubberized finger, like the nipple of a baby bottle―for tapping Darla’s shoulder.
Darla pointed to Webster’s Third Holy Bible. “Shealys’ idea?” she asked.
The kid made an exaggerated palms-up shrug, cocked his head comically. Staying in character. It looked like it pained him even to turn his palms up; his triceps must be taped or tied to his chest.
“You can talk to me. You have to, in fact, or you can’t go on air. This book the Shealys’ idea?” This would mark her first venture into live interviewing since the Aunt Pearlene debacle, and Darla was determined to gauge him―mute cartoon rodent or not―with a chat beforehand. The prop Bible only fed her resolve to do so. If he pretended during the interview that God had spontaneously granted him―miracle of miracles!—the ability to speak, she’d be a laughingstock across the country, and the clip would enliven blooper reels forever. No way. She would not suffer the good-natured jabs of a 120-year-old Dick Clark.
The snout swung down. The kid was looking at the fallen Bible for guidance, or maybe waiting for the feeling to return to his forearms. He brought his hands together, bounced the eight pink bottle-nipples together in a parody of contemplation.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said at last. The sound zizzed through a silver grate at the possum’s neck that glinted in the sun.
“You can’t bring that book on air,” she lied. “FCC regulations.” He had dropped to his knees to pick it up.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“You can just leave it there for now. It’s fine where it is.”
“No, ma’am. The Shealys wouldn’t like that. It’s sanctified.” The last word had a tired, sardonic edge.
“It’s a dictionary.”
“But it’s a sanctified dictionary.”
In sunlight the costume looked ratty, grubby. The possum is a nocturnal creature, and like its model, the suit was built for the after-dark hours. There were patches on the thighs, and the long pink curlicue of tail was soiled with parking-lot gunk and looked like it had been stepped on countless times. Nor did the costume allow for much display of fine motor skills, Darla noticed as he tried to corral the dictionary. Ten seconds passed as he scrabbled at it with his pink nubbins and tried to hold up his heavy head. How hot must it be in there?
“Why didn’t they hollow out the dictionary?” Darla asked. “Or just make one out of a cardboard box? You’d think they would go with portable. How are you supposed to engage in, you know, hijinks in the stands while you’re hauling a holy . . . ”
“Ingot?” offered Cameraman Joe over his shoulder. “Cinderblock?”
Darla left it at that.
From twenty feet away, one of the Operation Rescue guys yelled, “Is that critter salaaming? Is that a Moslem possum? Praying to Mecca and the whoremaster Mohammed?” Darla saw the crowd-control cop roll his eyes, put one hand on his billy club; a smile creased his face. He looked like a man who wouldn’t mind the chance for a beat-down, were such a chance to present itself.
“They didn’t think about the weight till after they’d painted it,” mumbled the kid, still on his knees. He started to turn to her, then abandoned that as a lost cause; the head was the size of an oil drum and no easier to wield. The costume’s feet were flat and dusty, shaped like baseball gloves; it seemed to Darla a strange intimacy to see the soles, and the tail draped between them, umbilicus-like. “And then it was too late. Vick said it might have been consecrated by the stencil. Now that it was a Bible, he wasn’t sure it would be OK to carve out weight. He put in a call to the synod, but he didn’t get a response in time. The brothers were sorry. They didn’t mean it to be so heavy. But they said to buck up and think of Christ at Calvary. His cross was heavier than my book and my head put together, they said.” Pablo returned to his flipperish digging and batting; he’d managed to flip the book open now, and was trying to hook a spatulate finger under the gap at the center of its spine. This was hard to watch . . . but damned if she was getting down there.
“But do you get to sit at the right hand of God the Father when you get home tonight?”
The kid lost patience at last. “Touché, ma’am. I should have held out for divinity. Do you think I don’t know it’s a shitty job?”
Darla suddenly liked the kid, liked him immensely. She bent over and put a hand on his shoulder. “Maybe I could stand on the book, for the interview. It would help heightwise. I’d consider it a favor.”
“Yes, ma’am?” said the kid, restored to his former deference and diffidence. He seemed bewildered, like a hostage not quite sure help had arrived. Or maybe it was just the heat. The tar beneath the plywood seemed almost to be pulsing now, a telltale heart.
“I’m not the synod, but I am short. And I rule it’s not sanctified, stencil or no.”
“Your funeral. Your eternal boiling in hell after the funeral.”
“I’ll take the heat.” Darla squatted, flipped the book shut, turned it to the secular side. Then she helped the boy to his feet. “You don’t need to be hauling that thing in this sun, Pablo. No es justo.”
Naming the mascot Pablo had been the Shealys’ idea of ethnic outreach, and it was the rare ploy that hadn’t paid off at the gate. In the Sandhills Business article, the brothers pronounced themselves flabbergasted when their “gesture of inclusion” didn’t bring in a stream of Mexican migrant workers from the outlying farms. Their tone was righteous disappointment. Here was proof, if proof were needed, that all this “diversity” talk was claptrap. They’d come halfway, given the Hispanic community a stake in the franchise, a flyspecked patch-assed secondhand rodent to call their own (elsewhere in the article, as an illustration of their frugality and shoestring budgeting, they explained that they’d bought the getup at auction for twenty bucks, cap-à-pié, from a folded franchise in south Alabama, the Opp Possums). Darla remembered wondering: Were the grateful Mexicans to come on foot? Crammed into slat-bed trucks that smelled of the peaches or strawberries they’d picked all day? Driving the Lexuses of talk-radio myth? At an hour’s wage per head, at the end of a twelve-hour day, to watch mediocre baseball among gawking peckerwoods and be brought by gringo businessmen to a proper English-speaking Jesus?
“Not everything works out as planned. The Lord gives us all tribulations,” Vick told Sandhills Business. “But let me assure investors that this particular tribulation won’t affect attendance projections over the long haul. God is good. Possums are survivors. You tree us, we’re dangerous.”
The plan for the interview was simple, and Darla―relieved to have a task that would allow her to ignore Cameraman Joe and his antagonists―prepped Pablo. They walked to the fence-facing side of the production truck and stood, slowly sinking, in the searing tar lot. She’d ask four broad questions that could be answered in pantomime. She ran through them, and he had ready answers. Cute, short, silent. He’d be fine.
After the two minutes of prep, they began chitchatting. Chuck turned out to be a nice young man, and surprisingly voluble for a mute. He was seventeen and headed to Duke come fall. A schoolboy thespian in a town stingy with opportunities for schoolboy thespians, he’d been desperate enough for the gig with the Risen that he’d signed a contract stipulating that he’d never lain with man and would henceforth avoid abomination in all its forms (except, he noted, the contractually obligated abomination of wearing a giant possum suit and glad-handing suburban matrons wearing “God Hates Fags” T-shirts. “Christian charity,” he said. “These dudes are, like, bonkers. And the vicious ones aren’t the worst. You can’t imagine how weird it is to clomp around in this outfit and have people turn to their kids and say, in all seriousness, ‘Why look, Cody and Briana, it’s one of God’s creatures. Praise the Lord.’”)
He’d been instructed by the Shealys to be mischievous, but in a way befitting a Christian gentleman of a possum―only the kind of mischief that would be sanctioned upstairs, in the owners’ box and beyond.
“Specifically,” Darla asked, “what’s OK?”
“Commandments tend to be negative, historically speaking,” piped Chuck/Pablo through his confessional grate. “They gave me a much better sense of what won’t go. No goosing, for instance. Possums don’t goose, not according to God’s plan for the species. But I can let you in on this. The chosen love a good whoopee-cushion gag.”
“What’s with the name? Why Pablo? Surely they didn’t really do it to draw fruitpickers. The Shealys aren’t stupid.”
Now Chuck turned philosophical. He figured it a bit of creative blame-diverting. Give the Shealys credit: It was chancy to give a team nicknamed the Risen a possum mascot. People could think that sacrilegious―a possum’s fake resurrection might be a burlesque of Christ’s real one. Which is where Pablo came in. Now if the public judged it amiss, you could put off to cultural differences. Sacrilegious, sure, but in just the ways Catholicism was. The customs of fast-talking, bead-pulling, tortilla-making sun-bronzed peoples are weird, and they’re going to hell of course, but they’re trying to do the right things and worship the right God, it’s just that His Grace is easily mistranslated. Reinhold Niebuhr once said . . .
“Duke, you say?” interrupted Darla. Chuck tapped his snout with a finger, then moved to a different topic.
The Shealys had told Chuck that he could use Hispanic gestures, if there were Hispanic gestures that weren’t gang-related. Stuff from Westside Story was probably OK, but he wasn’t to push it. They might even have him wear a sombrero, if they could locate one of sufficient size and figure a way to secure it; they’d been in touch with the folks up in Dillon, at South of the Border. But in general he was to be an unimpeachably American possum. “Which means we need to dial down the macho,” said Bill Shealy. “Or take that back. Macho’s not going to be much of a problem with you, I sense.”
As he talked on, Chuck seemed to melt in the heat. He leaned back against the station’s truck, and his plastic head made a solid thunking noise against a metal panel. His posture grew wobbly. He began to slur, and his wrists and forearms slumped. Darla’s feet felt like they might combust.
“Do you need water? I’ve got a parasol I use to keep the sun from cracking my makeup. You want that? Some shade?”
“Yes’m, I need water . . . but I can’t get it till first pitch, and then it has to be in the locker room. But I guess you could splash some through my mesh if you wanted.”
Chuck mumbled that management wouldn’t let him doff his head or sit down on the premises, either one. It was partly his fault, he said. In the suit you had no peripheral vision, and two weeks earlier Chuck had found an apparently deserted spot in the rightfield stands―the Risen were up 8-1 in the home half of the seventh, and he thought a conspicuous nap might look like a gag, count as entertainment―and sat on a child who was out there playing with the Old Testament paper dolls the club had given away that night. It was bad enough that a reeking beast startled her and that Delilah and Ruth, fast friends, had fluttered down through the bleachers, lost forever. But the little girl really freaked out when Pablo/Chuck yanked off his head to make sure she had no major injuries. She was just shaken up, not hurt, but the Shealys issued an ultimatum. Chuck would keep his feet, and his head would stay on. He represented the Gilyard Risen, and he would uphold their standard of dignity. He would not squash children and terrify them into thinking he was wearing the mask of the Antichrist. Chuck parroted the Bible verse the brothers used to justify the rule, and though he mangled it pretty badly, Darla was able to quote it verbatim: “The wings of these cherubims spread themselves forth twenty cubits; and they stood on their feet, and their faces were inward.”
Chuck was also forbidden to speak while in costume, but he didn’t seem as devoted to that regulation, either because it was a sin less likely to be spotted or because the rule came unbuttressed by Bible verses. But he fell silent now, for thirty seconds or more, and Darla worried. She scurried to the water truck and brought back four complimentary cones. She’d once waitressed at a beer garden, and she was secretly a bit proud that she spilled not a drop.
“Don’t be a martyr,” she pleaded when she got back. Chuck/Pablo was slumped against the wheel well, and she could hear him panting. “Take off that head and drink. It’s more than a hundred degrees on this asphalt. You’re going to monkey from the heat, and my guess is that monkeying is as grave an offense as goosing. What will the people think if you collapse?”
“They’ll think . . . playing possum,” explained Chuck, thickly but―Darla had to admit―reasonably.
“Mmmmf,” he said, in a tone that conveyed no. Darla could see that the fabric parts of the costume were soaked through, and he gave off a sour odor, not unlike the possums she saw on the road as they underwent the sun’s steady subtraction from three dimensions to two. We all become cartoons eventually.
Darla put one hand behind his head, right at the neck seam. “Mmmmf,” said Chuck again. She tossed the cones of water into the possum neck one by one. The metal mesh, impregnable as a fencing mask’s, seemed to repel most of the liquid, but it must have helped some, because Chuck revived. He thanked her and asked for another round, and she did as she was asked.
And then he seemed better, even jovial. “This head weighs twenty pounds,” he babbled. “I’m like Mayor McCheese, or a combination of Mayor McCheese and a 900-foot Jesus. A 900-foot Mayor McChesus. The good news is I’ll have killer neck muscles, like Herschel Walker. I have his poster in my room. He had amazing traps, looked like he’d swallowed a pool rack. Man, it’s hot out here. In here.” He grunted and rocked to his knees, then braced a shoulder against the van and shimmied to full height again.
Darla didn’t know what to say to all this. She’d liked him better when he was mute, a martyr, when his shimmying looked like bad comedy rather than good tragedy. She glanced at the stack of empty cups in her hand and―she couldn’t say why―held them out to him like a bouquet.
“No,” said Pablo/Chuck grandly, as if turning down an ambassadorship, “but thank you for the offer of your cones, kind lady.” The suit’s chest glistened. He bowed and seemed almost to pitch over. “You go on now,” he continued. “I need to make one more lap of the stadium, but I’ll be back. OK?” He didn’t look steady, but he was already bounce-shuffling off, the gait oddly possumlike for a creature on two feet. Behind him Darla nodded, and hoped his dragging tail wouldn’t get tangled in power cords and either trip or fry him.
Her watch read 7:02―getting late. Darla returned to the stage, where the scene had grown even tenser, stranger. The pro-life Piper Cub buzzed the stadium, clearing the light standards by no more than two hundred feet, its banner snapping smartly behind, a Technicolor closeup of what turned out not to be a Mercator projection. “Abortion at ten weeks,” read the caption. A toll-free number was listed below.
“Sweet Jesus!” yelled Joe the Cameraman, affecting wide-eyed earnestness, as soon as the roar faded. “The babykillers have joined forces with the pilots, and now they’re doing midair abortions so they can piss God off at closer range? And they’re advertising! Strike them down, O Lord! What blasphemy will they think of next?”
From the Operation Rescuers rose a murmur of . . . puzzlement? assent? rage? Or was it anxiety? They’d chased abortion clinics out of the South, confined the practice to a handful of windowless and cyclone-fenced storefront clinics in dead city cores, and outside these last remnants had established permanent picketing missions, at the very least a Panama-hatted oldster napping in a lawn chair alongside a copse of sonograms on sticks and a sign urging drivers-by to honk forth their righteousness. They were winning; you could see it. The misguided women now had to be hustled down the parking-lot gauntlet under burqa-like coats and under escort, and if you glimpsed their eyes beneath their makeshift hoods, you couldn’t but recognize the wet gleam of fear. Inside, before the so-called doctors donned their killing bibs, they had to burden their coatracks with Kevlar vests; the things must hang there all day waiting, wings spread, like buzzards on winter trees. Eternal judgment awaits.
But Satan’s wiles, they knew, were low and ceaseless. Had they left a loophole that allowed for abortions overhead . . . tauntingly overhead, in God’s blue heaven?
Joe kept needling. “Hell in a handbasket. Chuck Yeager would never have done this―God was his co-pilot, and the Lord was Alan’s shepherd. High-altitude baby-snuffing. Soon it’ll be an event in those X Olympics, where the freaks fly their bikes upside down. Used to be kids rode their bikes right-side up, and had haircuts, and didn’t put their dingwillies in sock puppets and wave them in front of snakes so they could show the fang marks on TV. And didn’t murder unborn children in the skies.”
"Joe!” Darla remonstrated. When the time came for remonstrating, Darla could remonstrate with the best of them, and could do so in a discreetish whisper. “Please. PLEASE! This is no time for a riot. This isn’t a joking matter for them.”
“For me, either,” said Joe, looking her in the face. There was a fierceness she hadn’t seen in him before; the soul patch beneath his underlip looked electrified. “If you think I’m joking, you read me wrong.”
She was rescued by the renewed roar of the plane making another pass, so close this time that they could hear the crackle of the banner. Seen close up, the picture was gruesome: all reds and purples, at the center a translucent amphibious hand. This even worse carnage snapped Meg the Vegetarian’s head back down to the grill, a horror she could at least flip shut, and Darla caught herself wincing, turning away. The banner’s crackle trailed by about fifty feet the banner she could see, which made sense. All time is a warp. It deforms all who enter it.
The task at hand, she thought. The task at hand. Darla took a microphone stand and shuffleboarded the dictionary to the proper spot for the interview, then withdrew to the van. Using the weak vanity light of the passenger-seat visor, she patted herself dry, applied a final touch-up, collected her sunshade to keep it from annealing. She checked her watch again: 7:05. The choir kids kept wailing as they were fussed over by their mothers―and one lone father whose dexterity with the powder brush set rival mothers to whispering, Darla heard in passing, about the unfair advantages of homodom. Humidity made the hairspray’s aerosol reek linger in place, a poison cloud that mingled with the humusy aroma of boiled peanuts and the hickory smoke from the grill and caused her stomach to lurch. The sun seemed a steady pressure, a hand holding them remorselessly down, kittens in a burlap bag plunged into a pond that didn’t even offer the parting comfort of coolness. The Operation Rescue protesters were drowning out Joe with a cheerful ditty not quite in the Cole Porter mode and meter; it featured the refrain “It’s a child not a choice,/ Kill them all and rejoice./ And abortionists’ blood in the streets./ And abortionists’ blood in the streets.” A nice touch, that repeated last line―a sign of resoluteness, the challenge of rhyming, or both.
And miles to go before I sleep, she thought.
It was a scene, she’d say later, from those Renaissance paintings they used to show in Vacation Bible School to scare you straight, though you were straight already and mainly used them to get ideas―out-of-date and allegorical ideas, yes, but such ideas were the only ones available to a goody-two-shoes in a sheltered D.C. suburb. The mortal sins of Middle Europe in the sixteenth century―whatever these were; it was hard to tell from the paintings (being impaled on a giant protractor? falling into a mandolin?)― seemed to her as likely then as smoking wacky weed or staying out past curfew in a car in which someone was drinking. Snorting at a jug of wine and having your jaws stained carmine as a cannibal’s seemed more tempting and more plausible than sipping a wine cooler in a girlfriend’s Caprice in a suburban cul-de-sac they hadn’t built back to yet. Second base? She would never . . . but her parents hadn’t specifically forbidden, say, being rogered by a satyr with cloven hooves.
At 7:07, the PA system blared out several explosions of bass and static, pronouncements from on high that were, as usual, unintelligible. Cameraman Joe, looking through his lensfinder again, kept up his irritating play-by-play: “They’ve got the vials of wrath lined up on a flatbed behind the outfield fence, too―and they’re massive, more like fifty-five-gallon drums of wrath. The armies look ready to rumble. And oh, man! In the home bullpen there’s a stripper on an Urban Cowboy bull that’s painted crimson, only the stripper’s wearing like a flesh-colored leotard with a black line down the front to simulate cleavage. Is that the Whore of Babylon? It is, it is! Ho-lee Cow.”
Meanwhile the fans in the bleachers chanted “Ris-en, Ris-en, Ris-en,” and behind the visitors’ dugout a busload of buglers up from Valdosta laid on their horns, heralding the end of time until Darla began almost to wish for it. 7:07 passed this way; 7:08; 7:09; 7:10. Eight minutes to go.
Still no first pitch. The umpires lined up in front of the visitors’ dugout, protecting the Chester players from the raving faithful. Someone had unleashed into the habitation of devils a croker sack full of pigeons. Cameraman Joe, a Chicago native, reported from his lens that it looked out there like a park bench at feeding time, lots of head-high flapping and shitting. One Red Devil had to be restrained from going after the pigeons with a bat. The home-plate umpire, Joe said, turned the angry player back . . . and from above, for his trouble, absorbed a runny dunging; the evidence shone white against his chest-protector.
“Between the birds and the buglers, old Blue is taking a beating,” announced Joe, in full color-commentator mode. “These umps get paid maybe forty bucks a game; it can’t be worth it. Reminds me of Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey, 1979, only tonight they’re here to torch sinners instead of ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie.’ This is some fucked up. That guy with the gunnysack probably spent last night camped in the rafters of the lumber supply, bagging pigeons so that today he could strike a blow for God by siccing them on no-hope minor-leaguers and umpires who drive bread trucks by day. Let’s Arma-Get-It-ON!”
Where was the crowd control? It turned out, Darla discovered later, that every employee not assigned to concessions, the Shealys included, was collecting cash and trying to usher the last few hundred fans into the park. The brothers had asked that the umpires delay the start till they crammed everybody in. At 7:11, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was finally performed, by a Shriner who, Cameraman Joe lamented, had left his miniature convertible at home; he held his fez over his heart like a giant conical pasty and warbled the song feelingly, and the crowd hushed. After that, Kate Smith belted out “God Bless America” from beyond the grave, on a suitcase-sized reel-to-reel player held to the microphone by the Shriner. That went well, too, and for a minute it seemed like those assembled had remembered that this was after all the fruited plain rather than the plain of Jezreel.
7:15. The Shriner strode off to a grand ovation. His fez tassel bobbed proudly as a graduate’s, the tape machine under his arm like a hen secured by a thief. The Gilyard players took their positions, and an applause went up that sounded polite, normal, uncrazed. Darla allowed herself optimism. Now there would be baseball, and God’s wrath would be staved off for another day, the world made safe again for weather reporting.
Yes. Her report would go smoothly as always. Just six-and-a-half minutes from now Darla would ask Pablo―who’d arrived during the anthems, bedraggled but present, another source of her rising cheer―if he was happy as a possum in a yam patch about the team’s 29-17 record so far (her viewers ate up Uncle Remus shit like this, so much so that Darla’s producer had presented her a pocket dictionary of Dixieisms, the better to pone it up with). Pablo would give a thumbs-up and a series of goofy, rapid nods, and then some towheaded cutie-pie in a pleated robe would scarf a wienie, and Darla would pat her head and give the utterly unsurprising forecast, and by 8:30, God be praised, she’d be having a martini with her fiancé at the Summit Club downtown.
But the first pitch didn’t follow. The Chester manager refused to send out his leadoff hitter. He would explain to the press later that during warmups, yahoos had been consigning his players to perdition, which was hurtful, and dumping winged rats into the dugout, which was unsanitary. And those motherfucking bugles needed confiscating, too, or tomorrow night he’d hark some motherfucking heralds up around their noggins with a thirty-four-ounce stick made of ash. “Our boys are Christian, too, goddamn it,” he would insist. “We expect some razzing on the road, but them people wanted us chomped in the jaws of the devil like we was Judas H. Chariot.”
7:17. Joe the Cameraman reluctantly abandoned his vigil and prepared for the telecast. “The world’s not out of the woods yet,” he said. “I’ll give even money that end-times win out over pastime after all. Any takers? Darla?”
Darla laid no bets, but she did cling to hope. The national anthem had mollified the crowd, snatched them back to the everyday. The buglers were taking a respite, maybe swabbing out spit valves or something; the pigeons flapped off to the concourse to peck at fallen popcorn. The abortion plane had chugged toward the airfield, followed closely by the Operation Rescuers, who had an early-morning protest in Jacksonville, they said, and an all-night drive ahead of them. The choir kids had cleaned up nicely, and their complexions gleamed; Meg the Vegetarian had mastered her disgust and done a beautiful job with the franks. The heat hadn’t ebbed, but it had been subsumed into the flush that always burned beneath Darla’s skin as airtime approached; now it was her heat, fully owned and operated.
Chuck/Pablo stood alongside Darla, though he’d retreated into what was either character or stupor―Think positively, she reminded herself: it was character, definitely character―and refused to answer her queries about his health, thirst, readiness. But his head was on straight; his stance was wide and stable; he wore a bright purple cap sideways, like the fungo artist Darla’s dad had taken her to see in Baltimore when she was little. The Clown Possum of Baseball. It was going to work. Joe, returned to his former professionalism, gave the OK sign and began counting down: five, four . . .
But optimism is notoriously fragile, and by the time Darla stepped onto the dictiobible and flipped away her WIST sunbrella, it had gone poof. There was a renewed roar from the stadium that threatened to drown her out, and the buglers began to play a frightening, discordant stew of “A-Hunting, A-Hunting, A-Hunting” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Some of the choir kids were holding devil horns behind their friends’ heads, a joke that―bless them―always stays funny.
Worse, she could see that the heat was getting, had gotten, to Chuck. He’d gone gooey in the brain. Sure enough, after the first question and listless answer―“It’s a great night for baseball here in Gilyard, huh, Pablo?” was answered not with a vigorous head-high fist-pump but with a 360-degree wobble of the head and a loose grip raised from thigh to waist level, a drunk hoisting a phantom pint―Darla heard a loud sigh, and Chuck spoke, saying, “Green glow. Who turned up, gleen grow?” Then he crumpled straight back, lights out, a cherub who no longer stood on his feet and whose face barely stayed inward. The fall was hard enough that his head tottered and threatened to roll away.
Cameraman Joe, the bastard, caught it all. His focus was perfect. He moved smoothly from Darla to Chuck and had the fall―including the head-bounce, the almost comical postconcussive shiver of the possum’s snout―perfectly framed. He jerked the camera rightward just in time to see Meg, rushing to help, trip over the grill and topple it, the hot coals and sausages spilling across the stage toward the helpless children, who sang “Oooh” in lovely chorus, their mouths like those of hymn-singers in Christmas cartoons, a row of perfect O’s. Vick Shealy, ever the opportunist, had rushed from the box office to watch the live shot and could be heard off-camera―Darla had to give him credit for evangelism under fire―shouting, “He spoke! In tongues! Pablo the Bible-Believing Possum spoke in tongues! It’s a miracle. Praise God Almighty!”
Trusting that there would be world enough yet and time to save poor Chuck, leaving until later the weird pietá of weathergirl and Hispanic possum that would appear above the fold on tomorrow’s front page, Darla had done the professional thing. She hopped off the book, strode to the camera, forcibly took the lens in hand, and―in extreme closeup―forced a smile and pretended that Pablo was acting: “Those possums! I think Pablo must have sensed a predator.” Vick Shealy kept yelling about the miracle, and some of the choir moms picked up the chant, too. “As for the weather,” Darla went on, raising her voice, but with no sign of shrillness, “you know the drill. More of the same through your weekend, more of the same beyond. That’s all from Gilyard for now. Back to you, Hannah and Rick.”
So smooth, the tone unexceptionably light. Even in extreme closeup, she bore no taint of pores; her teeth looked invincibly happy, and her eyelashes were sable brushes that lapped almost at her brows. She was a vision. Yet there was fury in her eyes, nothing short of fury.
That was the end of Up in Your Grill.