‘Four Cy Young Award winners with subsequent felony convictions,’ she said flatly. Madalyn never posed these challenges in the form of questions; they were commands. For her, the List Game was a demonstration, a drill, and there was as much creativity in her queries (such as this one, exploring the intersection between baseball and sin) as there was uncelebrated knowledge in my replies.
‘Denny McLain. Vida Blue. Ferguson Jenkins. LaMarr Hoyt,’ I said.
Without drawing a breath, she tried again. ‘Five classical composers born in years that are also prime numbers.’
‘Amy Marcy Beach. Benjamin Britten. Norman Dello Joio. Sergei Rachmaninoff. Enrique Granados,’ I said.
Madalyn chuckled. ‘Goddamn you’re good, Irving.’
I indulged in an old joke: ‘So good, in fact, God damned me.’
We kept to the inside of the arcing Sins of the Lion, on the sidewalk nearest the Seventh, so as to make the trip in the fewest steps possible. Madalyn was already winded and I had to advance in short, aborted strides to keep pace with her.
‘Can’t we take the bus?’ she wheezed.
‘It’s Sunday,’ I said. ‘No buses.’
‘Jesus H. Christ,’ Madalyn said. ‘Why would anybody honor the Sabbath in Hell?’
‘I think it’s more about having a day off,’ I said. ‘But you’re right, of course. There are more religious people around here than you’d think.’
Madalyn’s waddling gait pushed her from side to side as much as forward and the wasted effort under the heat made her even crankier than usual. ‘Yeah, what about that?’ she said. ‘I can’t believe how many of you fuckers go to church down here.’
‘It doesn’t make much sense,’ I agreed. ‘God can’t hear you from Hell.’
‘But you believe in Him, Irving.’ This was an accusation.
‘I always did,’ I told her. ‘But His existence isn’t really in dispute anymore, is it? I mean, you and I are both dead, and yet here we are walking and breathing and making lists like nothing happened.’
Madalyn shook her head. ‘I don’t buy that crap. I spent my whole before-life believing in a world without God, and now that I really live in a world without God, that’s supposed to be proof He exists?’
‘It’s a paradox,’ I agreed.
‘It’s bullshit,’ she muttered. ‘Fucking bullshit.’
From our left, the stench of neglect wafted in from Circle Seven on a hot, indifferent breeze. The homes and shops had peeling paint and there were as many windows boarded up or shattered as there were intact panes. We could hear discontented sounds: car horns, house alarms, small firecrackers, too-loud televisions, fleeing bootsteps, slamming doors, mistreated hounds, quarrelling lovers. In the distance, possibly as far off as Circle Eight, I could see smoke rising from a fire: not eternal hellfire forged by defiant Lucifer in a kiln of despair, but possibly the result of some alchemist or panderer forgetting to unplug his George Foreman Grill.
To our right the view was more pleasant. The lawns of our own Circle Six were yellowed from heat and water restrictions, but they were also landscaped and loved. The porches were appointed with swings and rocking chairs and tropical blooms. Loose steps and crooked shingles had been promptly attended to. The wood siding was painted in cheerful hues and the windows were not only unbroken, they were squeaked clean, inside and out.
Although we got a late start (Madalyn refused to cut short her afternoon nap and my cat Carny and I watched the kickoff in our living room on Limbo Lane), we still stopped at The British Shoppe as it’s practically the only place in Circle Six to pick up a decent, last-minute gift. I bought Walt a fun board for playing Shove Ha’penny, and Madalyn chose a mirror with the Beefeater Gin logo.
‘All the TV down here is from 1978, right? That would make this Super Bowl XIII,’ said Madalyn, anticipating the evening’s entertainment. ‘Pittsburgh and Dallas.’
I sought out some phlegm in my throat. ‘Actually, throughout the fall we do watch games from the ‘78 season, but the Super Bowl is in January so we get the game from the year before: Super Bowl XII. Broncos and Cowboys.’
‘That blows,’ she said.
‘Yeah, they always get you with the little things. It’s especially hard on a Broncos fan like Walt. Every year he writes a melancholy poem about the loss.’
‘It’s like Leaves of Ass,’ I said.
I felt a soft face rubbing against my ankle and bent down to pet Carny, my Maine Coon, whom we’d left back at The British Shoppe.
‘What took you so long?’ I asked.
‘I’m choosy,’ Carny said ‘Besides, I couldn’t remember what I got Walt last year.’ The clerk had affixed a kitty bag to Carny’s collar and I could see she’d chosen a set of drink coasters with old railway advertisements on them. Why not visit London? I recalled one as saying, and I remembered thinking it funny, given our circumstances. Why not visit Jupiter’s moons?
As the road turned we came upon three brown-and-white police cars blocking the road. A pair of blonde, booted officers poked at the overgrown grass on the Seven side with long sticks, presumably looking for evidence. Behind them, a short, older man with a tiny Stetson perched on top of his head yelped orders at the cops in the grass and at someone over a radio. Hanging from a black strap over his shoulder was a small, furry purse, Eleanor blue to match his ascot. In the back of one of the police cars, a man in a black shirt and black pants sat sullenly, head bowed, arms tied behind his back.
‘Is something going on?’ I asked the man with the purse.
He turned to confront us and I could see rubber bands running down his fat cheeks and under his chin, apparently holding his undersized hat in place. He said to us loudly, ‘Sheriff Hoover, Dis City Police Department. There’s nothing to see here.’ Then, softly: ‘Or if you want to know the truth, I think there is something to see heresomething exciting and nefarious!’
I lowered my voice to meet his whisper. ‘My name is Irving Wallace. This is Carny and my neighbor, Madalyn Murray O’Hair.’
‘Ohhh’Haaaiir’ The vowels steamed from his thin lips in a long whistle. ‘Did I used to have a file on you? In before-life? When I was with the Bureau?’
‘Probably,’ Madalyn said.
Sheriff Hoover kicked a concrete pebble with the pointed toe of his right boot. ‘Well, Miss Madalyn, if I did that, I’m sorry.’
The Sheriff’s baggy eyes dampened. ‘I’m in this treatment program for power-abusers. According to one of the steps you must apologize to every person you libeled, blackmailed, unlawfully wiretapped, placed under surveillance for political gain, or falsely imprisoned.’
‘Sounds like a lot of people,’ I said.
‘Tell me about it. And only about half of them are even down here. Although I did meet a cat who says he can get a letter to Martin Luther King ’
Madalyn looked puzzled so I quickly reminded her that while we, the damned, cannot leave Dis City to visit Circles Five, Four, Three, and so on, cats, untainted by sin, can go wherever they want.
‘Anywhere?’ Madalyn asked with a skeptical snarl. ‘You mean Carny here could just walk right into Heaven?’
Suddenly covered in filth, Carny rolled on her back to give herself an indelicate bath and replied, ‘In theory. But you have to go in on a camel and the door is only about this big.’ She held her paws apart about an inch-and-a-quarter.
‘So you’ve never been?’
‘It’s on my list,’ Carny snapped. She sounded annoyed, both with Madalyn’s sarcasm, and with the kitty bag that kept her from reaching the dirtiest fur with her tongue.
‘Sheriff Hoover,’ I said, trying to lure attention away from Carny’s impolite contortions. ‘What exactly are you looking for? Maybe we can help.’
Hoover clutched his purse and shrugged at the strap over his shoulder. ‘Sorry, Mr. Irving. This is police business. I’m not prepared to say anything at this time.’ He turned down his radio and whispered again. ‘I’m dying to tell you, honestly, I could just burst! Oh, Lordy, Lordy!’ He pointed to the man in the car. ‘We’ve caught an Antenoran!’
I gasped. The Antenorans were a mystical, Ninth-Circle cult. They had been outlawed years ago and gone underground, but were rumored to practice black magic with the goal of one day breaching the wall around Dis City. I explained this briefly and nervously to Madalyn.
‘So? What if they do?’ she asked.
‘Anarchy!’ Hoover shouted, firing spittle in every direction. ‘If they succeed, the artificial order imposed on the nine circles will collapse! Our way of life will be threatened! The Antenorans want to create a veritable Hell in Hell!’
I studied the man in the car. He didn’t look like a witch or an anarchist (although before that day, of course, I had never met an example of either). He was ungroomed. His eyes were tired. His brow bled with anxious sweat. He’d been taken young from before-life, but he’d been with us awhile and I could tell from the lines on his face and his paranoid tics that he’d spent time in the lower circles. Maybe by choice, maybe not. ‘What makes you think he’s an Antenoran?’
‘We have sources. Intelligence. Eyes and ears are everywhere,’ Hoover said. ‘His name is Baird and we’ve had him under surveillance for weeks. Today we nabbed him crossing into Circle Six and we found this in his pocket.’ Hoover handed me a piece of paper. It had a series of strange syllables on it:
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘We suspect it’s a chant or a spell,’ Hoover said. ‘Perhaps the Antenorans have finally uncovered the terrible secret they desire. The time of our doom may be nigh!’
‘Nigh? Jesus.’ Madalyn snatched the paper from my hand and started reading aloud from it. ‘Cabicoru? Bahoinsi?’
‘Ack!’ The Sheriff pressed his palms against his ears. ‘Don’t say it out loud!’
‘For crap’s sake shut your hole, Dandy Griffith,’ she said. ‘There’s no such thing as black magic. There’s a rational, scientific, explanation for everything.’ She studied the page carefully for almost two minutes, murmuring to herself while Carny paced restlessly in a tight figure-eight between my feet. Sheriff Hoover lit a long cigarette with a lighter and almost choked on it when Madalyn at last threw up her hands.
‘These aren’t chants,’ she said. ‘These are elements.’
‘Diabolical!’ Hoover squealed. ‘The Antenorans have conspired to control the weather!’
‘Don’t be an idiot,’ she said. ‘Calcium. Bismuth. Cobalt. Ruthenium They’re chemical elements.’
The Sheriff wedged his hand under his hat for a scratch. ‘What would an Antenoran want with a list of chemical elements?’
Madalyn squinted at the page again. ‘See this? At the bottom? The ‘L,’ the ‘R,’ and the ‘L?’ Left-right-left. That’s a lock combination, probably to a safe. Substitute atomic numbers for each of the elements and I bet you crack the code like a fucking cashew.’
Hoover put his hand on his hip. ‘What about the other syllables? I mean elements. And where do I find these atomic numbers?’
‘Christ, I don’t know. You owned the goddamn FBI,’ Madalyn pointed to the cops still searching in the brush. ‘Send Hell Street Blues here to the library. I’m not some Rain Man freakshow.’
I took a step forward. ‘Calcium: 20. Bismuth: 83. Cobalt: 27. Ruthenium: 44 ’ Hoover pulled an electric bill hastily from his purse and scribbled them all down on the envelope.
By the time we made it to Walt Whitman’s tri-level, the football game was over and Walt was standing on a kitchen chair, projecting the final stanza of his poem through his white bush of a beard. Thirty or so guests stood around him, balancing cheese-covered Bugles on red plastic plates, or drinking suds-less beer from the bottoms of cups which covered their noses and mouths like oxygen masks. Walt read slowly, dramatically, from a piece of paper he held steady in his left hand while his right arm made flourishes in the air with every rhyme:
Coach Miller has no answer, no decent running game,We applauded then sought out the gift table, which was already piled high with Big Ben paperweights, tea kettles, pint glasses, and ceramic Union Jacks.
Craig Morton hangs his head low, he’s been pick’d off again!
Tom Landry’s ‘Boys, so well prepar’d, behind T. Dorsett’s rush,
And how’d Stau-bach avoid the sacks of my fam’d Orange Crush?
Exult Big D, The Lom-bar-di
Is yours until next year,
One day Elway will show the way,
And Broncos fans will cheer.
‘I’m repeating myself, Madalyn, but I can’t believe how quickly you deciphered that code.’
She smiled. ‘Just remember, when you want to find a rational explanation, one will always, always, show itself.’
Walt appeared, holding Carny with one hand and nuzzling her into his giant beard. ‘Tis unfortunate you were delay’d,’ he said. ‘This must be Miss O’Hair. I am charm’d.’
‘Sorry Denver lost,’ I said. ‘We had a run in with an Antenoran!’
Madalyn winced. ‘Antenoran my ass. More like a college boy turned home invader. Walt, maybe you can talk some sense into my theist friend. He’s a little too willing to buy all this supernatural bullshit.’
Walt held up a square of rye bread slathered in creamy cheese. ‘I will say only the following, Miss Madalyn: Nothing, not God, is greater than this Chili Con Queso dip. Carrie from next door has the rec’pe if you want.’
Madalyn, Carny, and I drank lots of beer and arrived home late. Lying in bed, with Carny draped across my shins, her head pointing, as always, toward the door, I wondered aloud if there was a place for me in Madalyn’s homespun, humanist Hell.
‘Are you going to say your prayers?’ Carny asked. ‘It helps me sleep.’
I obliged: ‘Hail Mary. Lord’s Prayer. Apostles’ Creed. Act of Contrition. Act of Faith. Act of Love. Act of Hope. The Confiteor ’ The list continued, naming dozens of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Native American, and Hindu prayers.
When I came to the last one I knew, I started again.
to be continued