Through the muslin of my surgical mask I asked, ‘Have you read my book, Madalyn?’
‘I was never much of a reader,’ she said.
‘Well you should. You’re in it after all.’
‘Yeah? In what category?’
‘Five Cranky Atheists Who Won’t Return My Espresso Maker.’
‘Mmmf,’ she said, her mouth filled with club sandwich.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair and I were eating lunch in a trendy sidewalk café called Forese’s with Carny, my Maine Coon cat. Later we planned to go to the Cineplex (often called the ‘Cinderplex’ after the ugly concrete-and-mortar construction) for the opening of a controversial new film. Although every movie released in Hell is dubbed into a dead language (and I suspect A Night at the Roxbury might have lost something in the translation to Navajo) this would be the first film that actually was written in one.
‘Why do you care about your espresso maker, Irving?’ Madalyn said. ‘You never even drink the stuff. What about that ‘each according to his needs’ crap?’
‘I wouldn’t quote Marx out of context in this neighborhood. He lives in the third brownstone from the corner.’
‘Yup. It’s a Frank Lloyd Wright.’
‘Wright lives in Hell?’ she grumped with more curiosity than surprise. ‘I figured him for Heaven.’
‘Some people in Hell are unredeeemable, some are unbelievers, some are unproductive, and some are just assholes.’
‘And then there’s you, Irving,’ she said
‘And then there’s me.’
It had cooled some in the last month but only by a few degrees, and the yellow jackets, always aggressive, surveyed us from low altitudes. Madalyn’s brittle, blonde hair, damp from humidity, stuck to her head like thin seams of caulk. ‘Why won’t you let me help you?’ she asked.
‘I would; I’m not proud,’ I said. ‘But there’s nothing you can do. There’s nothing anyone can do.’
‘That’s what you think,’ she said. ‘Me, I’m working on a thing.’
‘What?’ I asked.
‘A secret thing.’
From the east end of the street we heard heavy stomping and orders barked in a raspy, high pitch. (Without anything like a magnetic pole, directions in Hell are a bit arbitrary; ‘South’ was generally identified as the dangerous, dilapidated center of Circle Nine, and ‘North’ was indicated by the perimeter of Circle One, beyond which, it was generally believed, existed the Kingdom of Heaven.) Two dozen men in riot gear and S.W.A.T. uniforms (Sixth Circle Wrongdoer Anti-dissent Team) skipped in double-time toward us. A short and stocky man in a too-small cowboy hat ran ahead and stopped at our table.
‘Miss Madalyn! Irving! Miss Carny!’ Sheriff Hoover knew the three of us because we had helped him with several cases in the past. ‘I think you should leave the area right away!’
‘Cool it, Edgar,’ Madalyn said. ‘We’re just having lunch. Or is that on your list of suspicious activities nowadays?’
Leaning on our wire mesh table, Sheriff Hoover was quivering. Excited swelling and elevated blood pressure purged excess moisture from the corners of his lips. ‘But there will be protests!’ he said, spritzing us with his esses. ‘Broken windows! Burning cars! Idealistic, college sophomores in tank tops and cargo shorts with shoulders like mantelpieces and calves like tennis balls whose manipulation of giant satirical puppets will be so sublime that the impulse to kiss them up and down their pectorally-bumpered sternums could compromise my sworn duty to maintain order!’
Members of the S.W.A.T. team, hand-chosen by Sheriff Hoover, murmured their agreement that this indeed would be a difficult task while other diners whispered and wondered what we had done to attract the attention of Dis City’s top law enforcement official.
‘Protests?’ Madalyn said looking up and down the quiet street. ‘What the hell are they protesting?’
‘I heard about this,’ Carny said. ‘But I don’t think there are going to be any college boys. Or puppets either, probably.’
Down on the west end of the street leather sandals phlapp-phlapp-phlapped against the soft, hot blacktop. Perhaps 30 men and women in stolas and togas and light armor were marching our way, carrying hand-lettered signs and chanting: ‘Sum! Es! Est! Sumus! Estis! Sunt! We’d never crucify your God! We didn’t! Couldn’t! Wouldn’t!’
‘Romans!’ Sheriff Hoover exclaimed. ‘We must stop them before they reach the Cinderplex!’ He turned to the S.W.A.T team. ‘Form a line boys. Glutes out, heels together!’
Madalyn asked. ‘What’s in the movie that’s got Romans hacked off?’
In the boulevard in front of us, the protesters paused before the phalanx of policemen and shouted: ‘Agricolae! Agricolarum! We didn’t mean your Savior harm!’
‘I’d ask them to join us, but they’d probably just decline,’ Carny said with a dry yawn.
I told Madalyn, ‘An early script of the movie has been running around Hell for a few months now. Some people who’ve read it believe the film blames the Romans for the crucifixion of Jesus.’
‘Feh,’ Madalyn said. ‘Lot of hullabulloo over something that never even happened.’
‘You are not a Christian just because you believe that Jesus lived or that Jesus died,’ I said. ‘To be a Christian is to believe that He rose from the dead.’
‘Suckers,’ she said. ‘So who cares if it was the Romans that killed Him or somebody else?’
‘Well, the Romans do for starters,’ I said.
Carny interrupted. ‘I think she means what would be the point of blaming anyone at all? If you’re a Christian you believe the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was preordained, if not inevitable. In fact, it’s the defining happening of Christianity: God dispatched Jesus specifically to die for man’s sins; without His sacrifice, no soul could enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Who cares which individuals were responsible for the death of Jesus if the executioners were merely instruments of God’s will?’
‘Yeah, that’s right,’ Madalyn said. ‘You don’t hear Christians going around saying how fucking great things would be for everyone if Jesus had never died. Just the opposite, in fact. If Christians want to be pissed at someone, they should be pissed at people who tried to stop the crucifixion.’
Sheriff Hoover stepped between the cops and the protesters and waved his arms for silence. ‘With the authority granted me by the People’s Underworld Parliamentary Protection Intervention Emergency Safety Act I am bringing you all into the temporary custody of the Dis City Sheriff’s Department.’
‘That would be Simon Peter,’ Carny said.
‘Who?’ Madalyn was distracted by the police action taking place just steps away.
‘He tried to stop the crucifixion. When the high priests brought their servants to arrest Jesus, Peter drew a sword in His defense and cut off one of their ears.’
‘He also betrayed Jesus,’ I said. ‘After His arrest, Peter twice denied knowing Him.’
‘There!’ Madalyn said. ‘They got this Peter guy coming and going. He tried to subvert God’s will and then later, when things got bad, he turned tail and ran. Christians oughta hate Peter like a gay Scout leader reading Harry Potter in Health class.’
‘Actually, Peter’s a revered Catholic saint,’ I said.
She pointed a finger across the table at me. ‘This is what I’m talking about. Religion never makes sense for two seconds.’
‘Or, maybe the contradictions and mysteries of faith reflect a complex universe, one that science and logic alone are incapable of describing,’ Carny suggested.
Annoyed, Madalyn lit a cigarette: ‘Go lick your own ass.’ Carny did.
The Romans sat on the curb as the policemen bound their wrists with plastic handcuffs. Madalyn stood up and tapped Sheriff Hoover on the shoulder. ‘Cut the crap, Edgar.’
‘Step away, Miss Madalyn. Here in Circle Six, we like our status to remain at quo. The PUPPIES Act says I can arrest anyone in the city for conspiracy to commit disorder. Also, in a little known provision, I can commit Dis City cons for ordering piracy.’
‘The PUPPIES Act was passed to stop terrorism. Specifically terrorism by Ninth Circle, Antenoran anarchists,’ Madalyn said. ‘These people aren’t terrorists. They just don’t want their children, who are already considered geeks because their fluency in Latin gives them a leg up on the SAT verbal, to be called ‘Christ killers’ on top of it.’
Sheriff Hoover guided Madalyn back towards our table. ‘Something’s about to go down, Miss Madalyn,’ he whispered. ‘We’re hearing things. The Antenorans are planning something here in Circle Six. And soon. We can’t allow chaos in the streets to distract us.’
‘Then stop being distracted,’ Madalyn said.
The cops cut the Romans free from their restraints and apologized. Sheriff Hoover declared one young Centurian in a particularly short petticoat of metal-tipped, leather pleats, a ‘person of interest’ as he did with anyone who even barely resembled Sal Mineo. The protesters regrouped and the police dispersed.
‘So, back to this secret plan of yours, Madalyn’ I said. ‘Tell me.’
She grinned and reached into her pillowcase-sized purse and tossed a handful of bumper stickers on the table. They were blue and red with ‘Madalyn’ in white letters and the words ‘PUT YOUR FAITH IN MAD MURRAY O’HAIR!’ in smaller type underneath. ‘I’m running for Parliament,’ she mumbled over the menthol stick in her mouth.
‘I’m running for MP to represent Circle Six.’
‘Think about it. You and Carny were sent to Hell because of some bureaucratic mix up. I’ll get myself elected, find out who misfiled your paperwork or whatever, and after I fire a few civil servants for giggles, the two of you will be on the next bus to Paradise or wherever.’
‘I don’t think it works that way,’ I said.
‘Fine. What’s your grand plan?’ Madalyn asked. ‘Prayer?’ I didn’t reply. ‘I know you pray at night, Irving. It’s a Goddamn waste of time, if you ask me. Even if I’m wrong and there really is a God, you told me yourself: He can’t hear us. Our big punishment is that we’ve been removed from God’s presence, isn’t that right?’
‘You don’t need the Man Upstairs,’ she said. ‘You need a friend at City Hall. Clout is the only chance you got of busting out of this place and I’m gonna be yours.’
The Romans turned the corner and another chant (‘Amica! Amicae! This was not a deicide!’) faded behind the bricks and glass of a gourmet candy store. Madalyn stood up, waved at a hovering hornet, peeled the glossy back from one of her stickers, and, smoothing it across the seat of her molded plastic chair, officially announced the start of her campaign.