From the author: This time god is a woman
On the morning of her 30th birthday, Jan sipped her juice with a delicate air, ignoring the two flies circling the table. "I am here as your God," she said.
Her father, Michael, looked at her once with a guarded eye, then shifted his gaze to Jan’s mother. Ellen would like to believe that her daughter was God, that God was used, perhaps, in a new way she was unfamiliar with--but Jan was too delicate to be convincing, no matter what kind of god she meant. She was small and refined; she had a tiny pointed chin and a sprinkle of freckles like a flush across her nose and fine hair that never kept its shape. She nibbled at food, spare mouselike intrusions, little humming-bird sips.
Jan lived with her parents in Queens, taught school as a substitute teacher, rarely had a second date and never a third. Ellen suspected that her daughter was a virgin and, what’s more, would always be a virgin--out of sheer indifference.
"It’s time," Jan said, rising to collect her books and her small token sandwich. After the door closed, Michael said, "I wouldn’t even let a son of mine be God," and snorted, pleased with his irony.
Since the time had arrived, Jan headed not for school but for a house in New Jersey which had, for the past three months, been visited by the Virgin Mary. The Virgin descended from a grotto built in the backyard, touched the ground, glided forward, and then spun around before leaving. She was dressed in a blue mantle over a white dress with sandals on her feet. A statue dressed in the identical blue and white stared at her from the grotto, but she seemed unaware of it.
The Virgin came on alternate Wednesdays, and the cars and people who came to look stretched for miles. The neighbors complained, the police complained, the mayor complained, but the Virgin still came on her own schedule, silent and twirling her skirts over dusty feet.
The household that the Virgin visited had a mother, father, and teenage daughter--the Simonsons.
Jan parked her car a mile away and walked to the house past the honking, snaking line of traffic until she came to the back where rows of men and women sat in folding chairs facing the grotto, with one eye on their watches. The Virgin was due at noon.
At twelve exactly the sun broke through clouds, the Virgin descended from the grotto, stepped forward to the spot where numerous petitions for mercy had been placed, and swirled.
She was about to step back again when a small voice said, "Over here now, please, it’s time."
The Virgin’s eyes lit up and she held her skirts high with one hand as she stepped out of the pile of pleas and moved swiftly forward. "These visitations, Jan," she said sweetly, "so very rigid."
"It’s what they wanted, unfortunately."
The faithful rose up around them, some of them weeping and a large number of them appalled. "I knew it was a trick all along," a voice said firmly.
"Now that she’s close-up I can see it’s not her at all," a woman cried.
But others, of course, closed their eyes and fell to their knees.
"We’ll have to hurry," Jan said, "while they’re still surprised. We want no bloodshed here." Her voice had a prim, teacherly quality to it.
Many of the cars were still trying to get to the house, although they were late. Some looked worried at the sight of a hurrying Madonna, but they all continued on. Jan, who was familiar with the route, crossed to the emptier side of the street. The Madonna was the first to hear the sounds of someone calling behind them, and she turned, putting a hand on Jan’s arm to slow her down.
"Take me with you!" a woman’s voice pleaded.
"It’s Mrs. Simonson," the Virgin said. "She stared at me from the kitchen window while her husband had his picture taken." They stopped until Mrs. Simonson caught her breath, and then Mary and Jan turned to push their way through the crowds. Mrs. S. followed.
They broke through suddenly and Mary observed, "You know, the ones who didn’t see it will doubt it and the ones who saw it will disagree."
Jan sighed. "It’s always the same problem. Which is the true message: the one I give or the one they receive?"
"That’s one of those false questions," Mary said. "The truth can’t depend on the listener’s understanding."
"All truth must be intelligible."
"Interpretations are what kills the truth. No one lets it stand alone, undefended. You say, ’Do not kill,’ and they say, ’Kill what? Kill when? Kill how?’ "
‘‘Excuse me." Mrs. Simonson, a stout housewife with permed gray hair, put her hand on the Virgin’s arm. ‘‘I’ve been looking out that window at you--looking and wondering. My husband kept saying that you chose him, and I thought, maybe not. I thought maybe you were making a point of not choosing him, because you never even looked at him, not once. I wanted to say, What? Does she have your address? Does she have a watch?"
Mary smiled. "I was about to change to Daylight Saving Time. It would have amused me just to stay for that."
Jan said, "Exactly. That’s perceived truth. It’s what I was talking about--time doesn’t change just because the clocks are changed."
"Well, what is time like for you?" Mrs. Simonson interrupted. It was hard to insert herself into the conversation; those two spoke back and forth as if they were alone. And they walked together, ahead of her.
"More like space is for you," Mary observed. "Sometimes a thing must be gotten to by waiting. But the length of the wait doesn’t matter; we are not afraid of time." She paused. "Or clocks."
"And what are you here for now?" They were getting into Jan’s car, a 1986 VW Rabbit. Mary had naturally gotten into the front passenger seat, leaving Mrs. Simonson to crawl into the back, which was loaded with notebooks, exercises, and extra sweaters.
"It has to do with time again. We have energy cycles in eternity, and of course there were promises. We have to change the moral order around a little." Jan shifted into gear and they took off with a lurch. The car headed east.
"The reason I wanted to come with you," Mrs. S. said without being asked, "was because I was tired of the order in my life. Everyone has somewhere to go, and I--I just have endless routines, cooking and cleaning. I hate to do it anymore. You wouldn’t understand that, I don’t think."
"Expectations run so high at the turn of the century," Mary sighed. "As a matter of fact, I thought the women would be doing more."
"But we are. Some are. Don’t go by me, I’ve been busy." Mrs. S. was frantically conciliatory.
"Only men strike into the wilderness," Jan said. She pulled into the passing lane.
"It’s the childbirth thing," Mary said.
"Nonsense," Mrs. S. said stoutly. "There are women in the wilderness. There are pioneers. I have always been too afraid. I never even considered it, but now... Well, the fact is, now I dream of wilderness."
"Savages," Mrs. S. said wistfully. "Snakes and vines. Nakedness."
"That’s how it works. Sometimes you tidy things too well, so you want to move out of the tidiness. You destroy the jungle, and then you dream about the jungle." Mary did not turn around as she spoke.
"I’m not sure I would actually like it," Mrs. S. admitted.
"It’s the concept that matters," Jan said drily. They were entering the Lincoln Tunnel. "What you long for is what determines what you are. Have I got that right?"
"I’ve never heard that, exactly," Mary said carefully. "And wouldn’t it be truer that what you settle for determines you; wouldn’t that be more accurate?"
"It certainly sounds true to me," Mrs. S. said cheerfully.
When they got to Manhattan, Jan turned down the seedy streets around 10th Ave., until Mary said, "Stop over there." Hookers slouched against each other on both sides of the street. The Virgin pointed out a corner with three women on it.
Mary rolled down her window. "This is the Second Coming," she said pleasantly. "We are looking for someone who has been thinking of leaving the life. We need a balance. But it does not involve sex. You may think of us as a religious order. We need someone for at least a week."
"Money?"’ one of the hookers asked.
"This would appeal to someone with her own fantasy life. It’s an adventure. And you make your own decisions."
Three pairs of eyes stared into the VW and saw a very small woman at the wheel, a woman out of a nativity play next to her, and everybody’s mother in the back. No business, they calculated, unless it was kinky. Two pairs of eyes drifted back to the street, watching cars. The third prostitute--whose face was young and pretty, though her makeup was heavy-handed--tapped her foot. "My boyfriend would kill me if I just left," she said finally.
"He doesn’t sound like a nice boyfriend," Mrs. S. said. "Maybe you should think about dating someone else."
The hooker grinned, a childish, flattered, happy grin. "I think you may be right," she said. "The man is a taker when I want a giver." She turned to her friends. "Tell him the last you saw me I was getting into a car with three women and it looked like it was gonna be a long night."
"The last I saw you," one of her friends sneered, "you were in a white dress and a wedding veil. I think I hear the bells ringing now."
"My name is Evelyn," the hooker said, climbing into the car. "You know, this might be what I’m looking for. Something with a little charge in it." She shook her hair--there was a lot of it--and jingled her bracelets. "Maybe religion is the ticket I’ve been looking for. Hey, it’s a change of pace. I don’t need glitz, I’m not your glamour girl, but there’s no space for me anywhere in the life, I’m not getting ahead and I’m not saving myself. You’re religious, you know what I mean about saving. As for me, it’s the eyes. I can’t stand what’s in their eyes. Well, I shouldn’t even look."
"I would have thought it would be their mouths," Mrs. S. said. "Devouring, cruel, greedy."
"No. It’s the eyes."
Jan drove up the West Side, staring straight ahead. "Our work starts immediately. This will be the first sign."
"Oh yes, signs," the Virgin said, pleased. "I am, of course, partial to signs. The signs are poetry.The center remains the same; it’s the details that change. They require wonders, but proof would spoil it. With proof they would despise their miracles."
Evelyn stared out alertly at the traffic. "Only the details change," she repeated. "Hey, I understand that, I was raised to read the Bible. But there’s a theme there, in all these things: crucifixions, sacrifices, beheadings. Give me a clue, now: Who dies this time?"
They drove across the George Washington Bridge, circled and turned around. As they headed for the toll booths back into the city, Mrs. S. automatically started pawing through her handbag for money, but Jan drew the car off to the side and got out.
The others collected around her. Jan stared fiercely into the traffic and they turned to stare as well. They formed a tight tableau, Jan in the back, Mrs. S. and Evelyn in front of her, and then the Virgin in front of them. In a kind of dream Mrs. S. noted how distinct everything was. Then the roads and cars shifted in her sight and suddenly the four of them were above the toll booths and traffic had stopped because the barriers at the tolls wouldn’t rise. Mrs. S. turned her head and at various angles she saw different lines of traffic, and different roadways. She was seeing, although she didn’t know it, the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queensboro bridges as well as the George Washington. Evelyn recognized them, and she found her own lack of surprise curious. She felt calm and happy and poised. It was as if she looked out over an edge, as if heaven, for instance, ended in a plaza with open views.
The first earthquake struck at 4:00, followed by a much larger one at 4:01 that cracked the upper roadway of the George Washington, throwing a tractor-trailer into the shallows. The Queensboro split into three sections, leaving a taxi stranded in the middle with its meter running. A train on the Manhattan Bridge slammed into an abutment that fell on the tracks.
In all, nobody died on the bridges, because traffic had been so profoundly slowed by the four women floating over the entrances and toll booths. Mysteriously, they hadn’t appeared at the tunnels, and the tunnels had collapsed.
It seemed Americans didn’t travel without their videocameras: at any rate, there was footage of the four women on the bridge on all the newscasts, and the media had a field day. Was the appearance of the women a projection? What else could it be? Of course the presence of the Virgin was noticed, and the New Jersey networks reported her defection from the grotto. Was she a hoax or a symbol?
While they stood elevated above each bridge, Mrs. S. and Evelyn understood the principle of simultaneity--it made empirical sense that space was porous; an idea that it seemed had occurred to them at various times before, but without such obvious evidence.
As they observed the suspended lines of angry motorists, both Mrs. S. and Evelyn felt profound well being, a beaming contentment, a psychic adjustment at once simple and ordained. Life had never before seemed so self-evident. The moments of earthquake were the most vivid and perfect moments of their lives.
Better even than childbirth, Mrs. S. thought.
. . . than sex, Evelyn thought. Evelyn considered herself a modern, sophisticated woman. She thought she had no illusions. With the earthquake she found herself open to illusion again.
The flies had gotten out of hand. Jan’s mother hung up sticky strips, she went from room to room three times a day smashing fine fat flies against the mirrors and windows. And every day, there were more.
Cameras were constantly in evidence as the signs continued; cameras were as numerous as eyes. Jan stood to the left of the man who announced the cure for AIDS; the Virgin stood to the right of the woman who announced a new pandemic in a fatal childbirth fever.
Mrs. S. beamed as the four of them stood on a mound in Central Park, and Jan preached, "You have all lost the capacity for kindness; find it again. You learned to love yourself; now learn to love others. You have feared for yourselves; now fear for others. Don’t kill; and I mean by that--do not kill anyone. If you face killing or being killed, then die. The first rule is to harm no one, and it is not a negative rule. Do not determine another creature’s life, but provide for every creature’s needs; leave their desires alone. If you live only for yourself your life is empty and it doesn’t interest me. Love yourselves, yes, but love every child, every creature who cries out or moans or looks with longing. The degree of your love is the degree of your salvation."
The crowd looked at her speculatively; they had seen her on the news. But their eyes turned automatically to Mary, who was more recognizable. Some came to worship her, having followed her from the grotto in New Jersey, but some came hoping to see how the trick was done.
"They’ve been given everything; they are free from hunger. So they eat potato chips and watch TV." Jan was bitter, even angry, as she walked through a street fair. Smells of food pushed towards them: rich, fat-laden. Jan strode through, pushing people out of the way. "Only the hungry should eat!" she cried. As if on cue, a few homeless people snaked their way through the crowd, creeping around her.
There were cameras at the fair, bright lights and microphones. "What about feeding the hungry?" a reporter asked a vendor.
"I feed the hungry," the vendor said, squinting into the lights. He held up a slice of pizza. "Papa’s pizza," he said, handing slices to the hands outstretched before him. "Every pie you buy, we give a slice to the homeless." Hands reached out to him and he turned to the camera. "Papa’s pizza. Mulberry Street. Be nice to your belly and be nice to your conscience."
They slept in Evelyn’s apartment in the West 40s. It amazed Mrs. S., but Jan and the Virgin did sleep, although only five hours each.
Mrs. S. and Evelyn were exhausted; they had been together three days, but it felt much longer. They were always moving about, swept up in a ceaseless campaign.
"When they talk about ’good,’ they sound so certain," Mrs. S. complained, "as if there were an obvious good. I’ve had children; I know all good is relative."
"But you get the idea."
"The idea of goodness," Mrs. S. sighed. "On one level--of course. But it’s a stretch, isn’t it? To do good for one’s entire lifetime." She paused, and they both considered this, their chins lowered.
Evelyn was thinking out loud. "It was something, wasn’t it? Watching her march through all that food, and they all started handing it out."
"Loaves and fishes."
"I’m perfectly aware," Evelyn snapped.
Mrs. S., who by now was used to Evelyn’s snapping, continued to muse on her own. "Jan was angry."
"Pissed as hell."
"If God has emotions, then God has psychology," Mrs. S. said softly.
Evelyn stared. "Unless it’s just another sign."
Mrs. S. nodded. "Interesting."
Jan and the Virgin were still consulting in the spare room, where they had been shut up for hours. Left to themselves, Mrs. S. and Evelyn had a crisis of faith.
"The thing is," Evelyn said, "I want to believe it, but I’m not sure why. I mean, I would very much like to be a fanatic about something, but I’m just not sure whether I want to be on the inside of this. Have you heard how Jan keeps saying that we must be ready for the sacrifice?"
"I’m sure it’s just a metaphor."
"How often does she talk in metaphors?"
Mrs. S. frowned. "But I believe in her," she said.
Evelyn shrugged and then drew a lipstick from her purse. "I think there’s a price for believing things. This one will be high."
"I worry about my husband and daughter," Mrs. S. admitted. "But not as much as I should. Still, there are people I have loved, and it frightens me: who will be saved?"
"I intend to be saved."
"I would like them all to be saved. It seems sad, now, when you look at them and wonder how they will end."
"You see? That’s what I mean. Fanatics don’t worry about such things. I want to be so crazy about the thought of something that nothing matters, not even death matters. Well, you can see these people are not usual. They have a plan and they have a purpose and they’re looking ahead to something they can already see. That’s better than anyone I know, and the earth seems to bow down before them. You can feel the air’s charged, can’t you?"
"Yes, the air is charged. The back of my neck tingles, I can feel the hairs stand on end."
"I feel it," Evelyn lowered her voice, "like sex."
The door opened, and Jan and the Virgin came out. They had so much light around them that Evelyn had to squint, and Mrs. S. felt again the sense of being on some sort of edge, as she had at the bridge.
"The Rapture has begun," the Virgin said kindly; "we are calling the saved." Mrs. S. turned to see the world begin to extend itself out from the window. She grabbed Evelyn’s hand and together they felt a terror that had at its core a beautiful, thrilling enticement. It was only at the edges--and evaporating rapidly--that Mrs. S. heard her own sad question, "Who will be saved?" Evelyn felt exalted, and her eyes rolled back in her head briefly before she dropped Mrs. S.’s hand and moved with her arms outstretched to Jan. A wind seemed to pour out from Jan’s mouth and envelop them all.
At the same moment, all the flies died. Ellen was sitting at the kitchen table, reading the clips about Jan that she’d torn out of the papers.
She began to sweep the flies up when a wind from an open window blew them into a whirlwind. She looked out and saw a man raise his hand up against the radiance. Something in the quality of the light convinced her that Jan was coming.
She straightened her back, dusted her skirts, and opened the door. The wind was full of voices.
This story originally appeared in Beloit Fiction .