I am coming to your city to save you, said the handsome man on the TV. He wagged his finger at the camera, at Gabriel and his corpulent mother fused to the pleather couch, and he said to them that he was coming to their city to save their souls. Mark the date!
In fairness, the man on the TV was going to a lot of cities. A disciple called them out as they appeared on the screen with ticket prices and dates, and Gabriel knew as soon as he saw the name of his town that he and his mother would be going. She worshipped the man, Gabriel worshipped his mother, and if the man was to come to their town she would go, and so would he. And Gabriel would have a fight.
Gabriel’s mother would do whatever she had to, to attend.
She sold her son’s cat. It wasn’t even his. Gabriel had found it biting the head off of a bird behind a dumpster and reasoned that it was hungry, and not long after, more or less domesticated the feral animal. It brought the tails of lizards to his bedroom door to show its loyalty. In his dresser, where pajamas should be, Gabriel kept a drawer full of sand that he stole from the playground. He wanted the animal to be able to do its business in private. Gabriel was good to the cat and the cat was good to him. It keeps away the rats, he told his mother. But she sold it anyway. Rode her son’s BMX not so gracefully to the library, kicked a pervert off a computer while he pleasured himself in sweatpants to pornography, logged on to Craigslist without even having to trouble the librarian for the password to the WiFi and posted For Sale: Tough Kitty.
All you need to know about the apartment Gabriel and his mother called home is that there were cockroaches. So many that if you stood on the linoleum to adjust the volume or change the channel, you’d squish one beneath your bare toes.
The man on the TV was not poor. He wore a suit the color of an elephant’s hide. It had stripes, gold ones. The jacket might have been fashionable decades ago. Otherwise it was fit for an aged sports commentator past his prime. No matter, it was expensive.
Gabriel understood this. He had studied the handsome man on the TV. He and his mother watched him that often. Gabriel preferred to spend 6 PM to 6AM eating from a bowl of Froot Loops swimming in soda, staring at reruns of black and whites that aired when it got too late for the cartoons. But when his mom did what she did with her medicine in her bathroom and sometimes after a few dishes of Spam, she would add her weight to the situation, wrangle the remote from her son’s hands, and they would watch the handsome man on the TV together.
His followers lived everywhere and they called him to ask for help with everything. He was like a father to them. Everyone who phoned in, he called child. Peace to you child. Bless you child—strange when Gabriel thought about it, because the voices of the people who phoned were not that young.
The man on the TV’s mission was important. It came from above. This happened one night long before he was on TV, when the man (underemployed, in debt, single and balding), overwhelmed by the evil in the world, climbed a fire exit to stand at the edge of a rooftop of a fifteen-story office building, with nothing but despair in his heart and concrete doom beneath him.
Just as he extended a foot past the rooftop’s edge to take his plunge, a messenger appeared as a twinkle in a cumulonimbus cloud and in a flash descended to place her warm palm against his left breast.
Pedestrians on the sidewalk stared, transfixed, fifteen stories below.
The messenger held the man.
Do not despair, she said.
He replied: How, when this world is so tainted?
How can you flee when it is in need?
But how can I help? What can I do?
You must use your powers, said the messenger. You must use your gifts.
Gifts? What gifts?
These gifts, said the messenger.
And in that moment he felt them transfer to him through the messenger’s holy touch. He felt grace and miracle spread through her hand to his body to the tip-top of his head, to the digits of his fingers, to the soles of his feet, hallelujah.
With her radiant palm still pressed to the man’s breast, the messenger flapped her wings once, twice, and so doing returned the man to the lip of the rooftop.
Now what? asked the messenger.
The way he told it, he then seemed to glow (and have regained his hair).
How might I share our good news?
Go tell them, the messenger said, Over the radio waves and everywhere.
And say to them what?
That you have come to save them. That you have come to heal them. That you have arrived with his grace and his power and that you have been to the brink and back to cure their poor and weary souls—for only a modest tax-free donation of $9.99
Gabriel’s mother also met a messenger. That’s why she gave her money to the handsome man
on the TV, the little she had. Her messenger came when she sought rest after a long day working for minimum wage, at her community pool.
The water was green, filled with algae. The cement surrounding had cracked such that weeds and roses began to grow through. The light was crepuscular. Not a soul was there at the pool. Just as Gabriel’s mother noted this and popped a ciggy in her mouth and struck a match from a box she had been given at a casino, a voice said, Hello.
It was a messenger. She sat cross-legged on the ledge of the deep end, the white tips of her wings dipping in the green water.
The story goes that the messenger shared with Gabriel’s mother one last cigarette. And not just any smoke. When the messenger saw what she was about to puff, she shook her head and performed a miracle that transformed her Camel into a Marlboro.
The calm they experienced was heavenly. Over many drags the two gossiped about the love affairs of characters from their favorite soaps. They discussed who was most likely to be voted off of their favorite reality TV. They discussed Gabriel and how he was special and how important it was that his mother do all that she could, plant as many seeds of prosperity as possible for his wellbeing.
Thereafter the messenger made an ashtray of her halo and brushed her hands on her wings and forbade Gabriel’s mother to stick such a pollutant in her mouth again.
How could she spend money on such things when there were causes she ought to contribute to, when her son was in need and there were those with the power to help him?
Gabriel recited this story every night while he fell asleep twiddling his rat-tail. It had grown long in the years since his father took off, and when running—to make a city bus or to get away from the skateboarders who threatened to jump him on the way home from school—it swayed like the long schlong of a grandfather clock. Playing with his rat-tail in his bedroom as the night got bluish dark, soothed Gabriel. It was like a child’s toy in this way. He was able to think less of his mattress on the floor and the cockroaches and the scratch-off tickets that had replaced his homework on the fridge and the noise of the television emanating through the wall of his mother’s bedroom where she had slept since dinner, soothed by the voice of the man on the TV.
His other distractions were pop-its, papery little explosives, half the size of a lemon drop. Gabriel bought a good many of them the year prior at a fireworks store with his mother on the fourth of July. They spent that evening in the parking lot watching the nearby YMCA’s bottle rockets blow up in the sky. Gabriel hurled the pop-its at the concrete with glee. His mother was with him then, clapping and smiling from her camping chair. She was actually there—as in not only in the flesh, but present, mentally—one of the best nights of the boy’s short life.
He still had many of the pop-its and he had become good with them. He could pop them between his fingers. Bang. In more daring moments, he would pop them between his teeth. Pow. Gabriel did this as both a kind of self-punishment and to obliterate the thoughts of the messenger and the man on TV, until, no matter the noise, his body was claimed by sleep.
They dressed their best the day the man on the TV came to the city. They wore what they usually wore to church, just a little more fancy. Gabriel’s mom bought herself a pair of copper-free earrings from Wal-Mart. If she wore the real stuff her earlobe skin would get all itchy and green. On Gabriel’s t-shirt was an image of a wrestler from the WWE.
They sat in the nosebleeds of a stadium named after a bank. The size and energy of the crowd suggested that a line-up of basketball players was to run onto the court, that a pop star was to take the stage. But today was not their day. Today was for the man from the TV. And though there may not have been popcorn and hotdogs and soda sold in his name, the crowd was enraptured. Those determined to purchase a souvenir could instead of a foam finger, buy a white ball cap with the words SAVE US embroidered in gold. The clerks sold them at the concession stand. Gabriel’s mother bought one, for her son. She said she was able to after selling his cat. He objected to wearing it at first. He liked his rat-tail and he wanted nothing to distract from it and he knew that he did not like the man from the TV. But when he refused the hat, his mother raised her open palms on high and tilted her chin to the scaffolding of the stadium, to the spotlight and speakers and Jumbotron above, shut her eyes and began to weep.
Gabriel thought she might be less hysterical if he put the cap on. So, he did. The man from the TV took to the stage, and the crowd around them, the hundred—no—thousands of men and women shoulder to shoulder, beside, above and below began to do as his mother did, to hold hands on high and cry.
A camera panned the throng as if searching for the lucky ones to be featured on the Kisscam. Gabriel saw this from the Jumbotron. He feared the camera, and though he was strong in his mind, he took, for comfort, his mother’s hand.
This made for an image: the corpulent mother and her urchin, with the hat.
Production assistants were scrambled and not long thereafter, before the man from the TV paced the stage telling his story of the rooftop and the messenger and the mission, Gabriel and his mother were invited to be that much closer to the good word.
Ground level, the crowd was skinnier. Gabriel noted this. His mother, lost in prayer, didn’t seem to. Encircled by cameras, the worshippers before the stage seemed if just a little, prettier, top to bottom done up in real Sunday school clothes, button up shirts, loosened ties, long patterned dresses and those pants that dads called slacks.
Yet no one close to the stage wore shoes. They kicked them off like they had reached the beach and were wary of their shoes meeting sand. Gabriel felt no desire to remove his but did the same at his mother’s behest.
The stench of his feet overpowered the holy moshpit. The noxious odor that wafted from his tube socks caused the worshippers in Gabriel’s ten-foot radius to open an eye that had been shut in his name, just to see where the hell such a rancid scent had come from: the boy with the rat tail in the thick of the throng.
There was a lot of music, a lot of drums and singing and metal guitar. There was a lot of waving. There was a lot of crying and speaking in a language that was not real. This above all infuriated Gabriel. His mother often spoke the language at home. There was nothing like asking for help on your homework, only to be answered with tongue flapping. After the fourth time, it really wasn’t funny at all to say, Mother I am hungry, and in response hear, ashmibahfalatimaparafarati!.
The man from the TV made them do it. He was so close. Gabriel could see the gold stripes of his grey jacket. He would have been able to see the blackheads speckling his puffy nose, had bronzer not been applied to his tanned face so thickly. His comb-over, no matter the gel, had flopped to the side from the sweat worked up pacing the stage. He was tiring. He was beat. Gabriel thumbed the pop-its in his pocket. In his WWE wrestler t-shirt, he wanted a fight.
Fire upon you, said the man from the TV. In the name of the Good Lord I call for his touch to pass through me, through me and into this space and into your heart and body and your tainted, sickened soul, hallelujah, embrace him with me, brothers and sisters let him into your hearts and accept with me your failures, your brokenness.
Are you lost?
Have you sinned?
Do you want to be saved?
Fire upon you.
The members of the crowd began to faint in droves, to fall backwards from their shoeless feet to be caught by men in suits who had closed in around them like secret service agents. Fire upon you, said the man from the TV, and a swath of the crowd would faint with his gesture. Fire upon you, he belted through his microphone and the stadium and the television sets of those able to afford only the low-digit channels at home. Fire upon you, the man from the TV bellowed with his hand outstretched and his palm opened wide, his fingers lengthened, as if from them he cast a spell.
The big people fell and the well-dressed people fell and the tongue talkers fell and all the shoeless people fell, and at last when the man’s hand reached out toward the boy and his mother to cast his bullshit magic, Gabriel, in a shirt decorated in the image of the wrestler Dwayne Johnson, known in the ring as the Rock, threw to the floor of the arena a handful of pop-its that exploded spectacularly, and stepping in front of his mother to make his stand, startled the viewers at home.
One hundred and fifty men and women lay around and behind Gabriel in various states of unconsciousness. From the nosebleeds, he was a boy in a sea of adults made dormant. The cameraman had no choice but to focus on him. The fainting crowd was to be the climax of the day, and so, recorded from many angles. Every grip had been directed to prioritize this spectacle, but the magic stopped, the magic was ceased by a ten-year-old with a rat tail trying to protect his mom.
Gabriel held his arms out in front of her.
The devil’s work can be felt here today. The devil is alive and well in this very stadium. This, the man from the TV said with the microphone firmly gripped. His voice carried through the arena. His eyes did not leave the boy. The devil is at last before me, the man said to the crowd and the audiences at home on their couches.
So, with hospitable gestures and the pretext that it was the devil and not the boy responsible for such wickedness, Gabriel and his mother were summoned to the stage.
No one gave them water. Gabriel and his mother just kind of stood there, center stage, holding hands and breathing heavily. The production crew filmed them at medium length. To those watching at home they looked like the late-night witnesses of a local news tragedy.
They stood sweating in front of a giant screen. Projected onto it were the images of a crucifix and an openmouthed great white. It was Shark Week on Discovery Channel and the show’s producers decided to join in on the holiday. Sunday-to-Sunday the handsome man from TV was on a Great White Crusade.
The only sound through the stadium was the fluttering of the day’s programs that worshippers folded into fans to cool themselves. Occasionally, a cough. And then there was the voice of the man from the TV that echoed through the speakers in the stands.
The devil is in our midst—the devil is in our midst—the devil is in our midst.
With his trademark grey jacket slung over his left shoulder, the man from the TV approached Gabriel and his mother with a slow and confident gait that accentuated his every step on the silent stage and brought to mind the luxury jet that was said to be waiting to fly him home
to a mansion and Ferrari in Malibu. Spotlight refracted off of his dental veneers and Gabriel’s mom’s Wal-Mart earrings as he grinned, narrowed his eyes at the two, and with the flick of his thumb fired up his microphone.
Your son, my sister, is an exceptional boy, do you agree?
Gabriel’s mother could not make words. She could not move her feet. Nor could she blink. Chunky, turquoise mascara dribbled down her cheeks. Her lower lip trembled out of control. She looked at her son as if he was indeed special, just as she had known all along. She looked upon the man from the TV—as if he was even more handsome than the handsome man from the TV for whom she had, for years, prayed and planted seeds of prosperity and forsworn mortgage payments, clothing, diabetes medication, toiletries, square meals— at last so very near.
Fire upon you, he mumbled to the woman, and she fainted and fell.
The man from the TV didn’t want to get too close.
Four suited men caught her before her back met the stage. They hauled her unconscious body off to the wings and her heels dragged the whole way.
Gabriel reached in his pockets only to find he was fresh out of pop-its. His mother lay out of reach and out of consciousness in the arms of men, staring at the rafters above. The man from the TV squatted low to hold out the microphone to the boy, the devil now trapped on the stage. Why have you come? What evil drives you?
Gabriel didn’t answer.
What do you seek?
I, I, I.
What do you want?!
Gabriel mumbled, My cat.
The man from the TV could not hear and continued. I know. I know why you have come. A messenger spoke to me of an evil that would enter this place to keep me from saving the city. A messenger told me that the devil would make himself disguised.
As he monologued he began to pace clockwise around the boy.
See him before me, brothers and sisters. Here he is, here he is, hidden within. I have known of your presence. I have felt it. I feel it now, your wickedness, your malice, your cruelty, your twisted sickened soul and I say to you now my brothers and sisters that I will not allow it, I will not permit it, I shall purge you from this place. I will not yield you this city. I shall purge you from this place. I shall purge you from this place and drive you out!
What transpired was a showdown the likes of which had previously been reserved for science fiction. The man from the TV thrust out his hand with his fingers splayed, and the boy did indeed collapse. A stagehand caught him like a summer camp kid anticipating a trust fall. Held there in the arms of men, Gabriel trembled feverishly—no, convulsed—in his WWE t-shirt, as the man from the TV maintained the holy touch and closed in.
With gestures both violent and wizardly, the man from the TV thrust his veiny hands about in an attempt, it was quite clear, to wrench out whatever villainy had made its home deep in the soul of this obese woman’s boy, and Gabriel, horizontal before the man from the TV, like a damsel before a magician about to be sawed in half, his rattail dangling inches above the floor, did indeed speak the language that was not real.
But Gabriel also spoke in English. The producers would edit it thanks to their fifteen-second on-air delay and the public would never know the gospel of the boy with the rattail. But those in his presence that day did hear him cry: may there come a day when the sick and the beautiful, fathers who seduce secretaries, mothers high on pharmaceuticals and every soul united in involuntarily being birthed to this earth, learn to discern the wickedness of the silver-tongued and the gold-minded who would seek to profit from his sisters and brothers, and may they not fear and may they not be alone, contended that they are at once the most important and the most insignificant collection of atoms ever to be assembled, monkeys on a rock spinning around a star.