Obscene Chapel

Danny Long

For several hours before Spencer wheeled into the garage, Eric, Pat, and I had been sitting on Eric’s bedroom floor rifling through his stash, ripping picture after picture out of the magazines, and setting each one onto a tidy pile between us. We must have torn out a hundred of them, and it was these one hundred pictures that Eric had shoved under the sleeping bag to keep from Spencer’s view. When Spencer had left, then, Eric retrieved the stack and placed it, next to the cordless phone and Scotch tape, on the garage door, which was open and, as such, a convenient catchall. “Back to work,” Eric said, always the leader.

We taped for an hour, cramming as many pictures as we could between the rafters, sweating as we went, the nylon sleeping bags sticking to our legs, the floating dust gathering on our arms and faces, clogging our nostrils. It was dirty work.

In that hour we completed half the ceiling and so decided to take a break to enjoy the fruits of our labor, which Pat had shrewdly likened to the Sistine Chapel. Climbing down the ladder and looking up, we expected to feel proud, creative, resourceful, to marvel at our genius, maybe shed a few tears. “Look at what we’ve done! Look at what we’ve given the world!” But we didn’t feel any of these things, and we were too overwhelmed to produce any tears, of either joy or pain. There was nothing exciting about the collage, nothing attractive, nothing thrilling. We didn’t chuckle in satisfied amusement or high-five each other on a job well done. We simply gaped in silence at a mess of body parts, all more or less the same fake-tan orange. Our magnum opus was grotesque, a token of arrant shame, a terrifying failure. Somehow, in the short time it took us to climb down the rickety steel latter, the Sistine Chapel had become the Gate of Hell.

The phone rang, scaring us out of our disappointed stupor. Eric answered and handed it to me. “Danny,” my mother said through the receiver, speaking slowly, overenunciating every word, as mothers will when wronged: “Get. Your. Butt. Home.”

“Dammit!” I said, after I hung up. “I forgot to mow the lawn!” My tone of voice belied my eagerness to leave. The collage unnerved me. I welcomed the chance to separate myself from it for a while. And yet, I also forced a desire to complete it, not because I wanted to see it finished—how couldn't it get worse?—but because I hated to see it unfinished. “I’ll be back later,” I told Eric, “with more tape.” Pat, also deflated, decided to leave too. We hopped on our bikes and rode off.

A few hours later, lawn mowed, I rounded onto Eric’s street, one hand steering my bike, the other holding two or three fresh rolls of the sticky stuff. The sun had begun to set, the edge of heat to dull. Shadows overlay the houses to my left, while to my right the pre-twilight color of burnt orange flickered through cottonwood and birch leaves and beamed off rooftops. Eric’s house was nearer the far end of the street, on the left. As I closed in on it, Spencer’s white helmet emerged from behind the bushes, tilted downward. He was looking at something. Eric’s garage door was closed.

After Pat and I had left, Eric chose not to continue taping on his own and went inside to enjoy a cup of green tea and lose himself in the soundtrack of The Phantom of the Opera, responsibly shutting the garage door behind him but irresponsibly forgetting to remove the stack of pictures from on top of it. The result was staggering. It looked as though an adults-only newsstand had exploded above Eric’s house. Dozens of airbrushed blondes, brunettes, and redheads lay strewn across the driveway. Several were tangled up in the bushes, and several more, having been picked up by the wind, had relocated to the street, where they danced for passing cars and families out for a stroll.

It was this mess of pictures that had caught Spencer’s attention, and caught it so thoroughly that he didn’t seem to notice my arrival. He fixed his gaze to the pandemonium before him, his eyes popping out of his eight-year-old face, now a little less angelic. Speechless, I tiptoed past him, still clinging to the hope that he hadn’t noticed anything. I then punched in the code to the garage door, which opened with the speed of an arthritic geriatric.

Art’s Cadillac was gone. He hadn’t yet returned home from work. Inside, Eric was half asleep in his favorite big blue recliner, his two gray bichon frises, Bluebell and Violet, curled up on his lap, sleeping, the music of The Phantom haunting its way through the house.

“Eric...the pictures...fucking everywhere!”

Eric knitted his brow. Then, “Oh, shit!” He levitated from the recliner, dumping Bluebell and Violet onto the carpet, and in a second was outside with Spencer, frantically gathering the pictures into a loose pile against his chest. I watched it all from the living room window. I realize now I should have helped.

Spencer’s lips moved, but I couldn’t make out the words. When Eric came back inside, panting, the pictures swaying in his arms, I asked him, “What did Spencer say?”

“He asked if I’m some kind of pervert.”

“And what did you say?”

"Yes.”

This was not an answer. It was, to be sure, a confession. Spencer’s discovery of the unmoored nudies did something that no one or nothing had ever done before: it laid bare, before our very own eyes, our guilt; it peeled away our outwardly young, virtuous flesh to reveal the lechery within. We had found our limits, found the indistinct line we dared not cross. Somehow we understood that finishing the collage meant passing into some new, some lewd country, a country that still frightened us. We were not ready, not yet, not ever. No, despite all the work we had put into it, all the hours, all the tape, all the tearing, the collage had to go.


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