Obscene Chapel

Danny Long

Spencer was about eight years old, short for his age, with brown eyes and what I think was blond hair, though I can’t be sure, because he never took off his bike helmet, a bulbous white affair that created an especially odd effect at the end of his Popsicle-stick neck. Inextricable, Spencer and his bike helmet. Nearly every day, regardless of the weather, Spencer would climb into his helmet and pedal his bike up and down the street, up and down, up and down, as if he’d blown a fuse and gotten stuck on repeat. And when he wore himself out and saw Eric, Pat, and me outside, he would stop by to nose about.

He did so that Friday in early summer.

The three of us were in the garage, working on a fort we had assembled by laying large sheets of plywood across the exposed ceiling joists, and pillows and blue nylon sleeping bags across the plywood. It was like a tree house, our fort, with the risk of asphyxiation.

Spencer rolled into the garage on his miniature bicycle. “What are you doing?” he asked. Perhaps it was the balloonishness of his helmet, but Spencer always sounded to me as though he were romantically involved with a helium tank, thus adding a touch of pleasant irony to his usual manner of italicized disapproval. Three feet tall with a two-foot voice and a seven-foot sense of moral and intellectual superiority: that was Spencer.

We peered over the edge of the plywood. His head was tilted upward, as if he was trying to see what we were doing, but his eyes were hidden behind the lip of his helmet. “We’re working on our fort,” Eric told him, grabbing a stack of loose papers and hiding it under one of the sleeping bags. “Don’t come up here, Spence. Don’t even look up here.”

“Why? What do you have up there?”

“Just...decorations.”

“What kind of decorations?”

“Decorations, Spence. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not worrying about it. Why would I worry about it? I just want to know.”

“But you don’t need to know,” said Eric.

“That’s why I said I want to know. Wants and needs are different, Eric. Hasn’t your father taught you anything?”

“I know they’re...You know what? I don’t want you to know. How’s that?”

“You’re hiding something. What is it?”

This was too much for Pat. “Goddammit!” he yelled, bypassing courtesy and getting straight to the nub, one of his talents. “Get the hell outta here!”

Spencer shook his head and, still straddling his bike, walked backward out of the garage. “Idiots.”

“I swear,” said Pat when Spencer was out of earshot, “one day I’m going to strangle that little bastard, and when I do, I’m going to rip off his helmet and see what he’s hiding underneath.”

“Well, just keep your eyes open for now,” I said. “He always comes back.”

In a way, Eric had told Spencer the truth. We were decorating. But not G-ratedly. I don’t remember which of our brains churned up the idea. The night before, we were lying on the sleeping bags in our fort, chatting and joking, inhaling the greasy vapors emanating from Art’s light-blue Cadillac, when it dawned on us that, wonderful as it was, our fort lacked character. It needed something. Artwork. It needed artwork. “And nothing says artwork,” we must have thought, “like a collage of naked women.”

Now, most fourteen- and fifteen-year-old boys at the time—and still, for that matter—would have dismissed this idea as mere fantasy the second it passed their lips. First off, the Internet then wasn’t quite what it is today: one couldn't access encyclopedias of pornography with the swipe of a thumb. Second, even if they could have acquired the pictures, and managed to keep them secret, their parents would never have allowed them to stick said pictures to the ceiling of their garage.

But we were not most fourteen- and fifteen-year-old boys. Or at least Eric wasn’t, thanks to his parents. Rather than forbidding such things as garage-based tributes to the female form, they facilitated them. If it isn’t clear already, Art, a well-meaning, well-educated man with a monotone voice, thick glasses, and nipple rings, was the exemplary anti-disciplinarian: unless one of us was seriously injured—and why this wasn’t more often, I cannot fathom—he rarely glanced up from the Fort Collins Coloradoan to investigate our high jinks. Whether he knew what was going on and didn’t care or cared so much he didn’t want to know is a question I’ll leave for the serious historian. In either case, “King, Art” posed no threat to our “Project, Art.” On the flip side, Eric’s mother, Mary, who lived with her new husband, Larry, in Chicago, was Eric’s supplier. When Eric turned thirteen, she decided it was time he learned about sex, so she got into the habit of buying him several dirty magazines whenever he visited her in the Windy City. Many of my friends’ bookshelves were stacked with classics—Charlotte’s Web, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wizard of Oz. Those were the books we were supposed to own, the ones we were supposed to read. By contrast, Eric’s shelves—read “dresser drawers”—were stacked with forbidden fruits: Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler, and a few VHS tapes Eric had made himself by recording Cinemax’s late-night lineup—some of them also classics, I suppose, though of a different strain. In any case, from a very early age, Eric, Pat, and I could read and watch all the illicit material we wanted, without fear of punishment. It was an odd suspension of reality. I mean, this wasn’t right. It made no sense. It was evil, wasn’t it? It had to be, yes. Why else would I tell Mom I went to Eric’s to "play video games and stuff"?


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