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Madalyn Murray O’Hair in Hell: The Secret of the Burning Canvas

In the third chapter of Madalyn’s adventures in the underworld, the lost plays of Sophocles are discovered in an art fair, possibly to be lost again! KEVIN GUILFOILE continues the saga of everyone’s favorite atheist sleuth.

One stale and suffocating Saturday morning, Madalyn Murray O’Hair and I rode the bus to a big sale of sofa-sized art at the Dis City Holiday Inn.

Madalyn had been living in Hell—in the ranch house next door to my own on Limbo Lane—for over two months, but her home remained almost unchanged from the day she moved in. The walls were still cream-colored and bare. The thin carpet in her living room appeared powdered, as if she had never vacuumed or swept. I’m certain her stove hadn’t been turned on once.

‘You need something on the walls,’ I said. ‘A little paint, maybe.’

‘Feh,’ Madalyn said.

I told her, ‘That’s a horrible attitude. In Hell, the three surest ways to get yourself on Prozac are watching Welcome Back Kotter, letting kudzu into your yard, and not painting your walls a fun color.’

‘Whatever,’ she said.

Thirty or forty stalls ringed the Cerberus Room at the Holiday Inn, with another dozen or so bisecting it to allow for pedestrian traffic in a clockwise oval. Each cubicle carried the work of three or four local artists—some professional, some not, some famous and some not. The biggest and best work hung on the temporary, particle-board walls in frames, and the smaller and mediocre canvasses were stacked on end in bins.

‘You have to be careful,’ I warned Madalyn as we started to browse. ‘A lot of this stuff is done by serial killers.’

Madalyn and I passed on scores of still-lifes and landscapes. Portraits were popular, particularly of sad clowns and happy cats. Most of it was terrible. We saw nothing Madalyn wanted to hang on her wall, and certainly nothing I’d consider putting on my own.

In a corner of the room, one cubicle featured three large landscapes in oils. The first portrayed the River of Blood, which flows in a crude loop around Circle Seven before draining down through Circle Eight and disappearing into the center of Circle Nine. Unlike the real Blood River, however, which is lined with old trees and swimming holes and is stocked each year with fresh salmon, this was the river as described in myth. History’s cruelest murderers and warmongers (who, in reality, live under electronically monitored house arrest in poorly maintained high rises about a mile from the water) were shown trapped in the rapids, eternally treading neck-deep in the boiling blood of the innocent. Along the banks, however, where legend positions the guardian minotaurs—steadfast, dutiful—the artist had substituted ordinary, every-men and -women, characters you might find in an old WPA poster, standing guard over the world’s most awful oppressors.

The second was painted in a Renaissance style and it showed a castle-like building with a white tower surrounded by seven walls, each engraved with the name of a science: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astronomy. There was a river around it like a moat, and a dozen old men in toga-like garments had been posed in various places along the walls. These were ancient poets and philosophers: Homer, Plato, Virgil, Ovid, Socrates, Seneca, Zeno, and others. A dome of white light, apparently generated by the wisdom of the men themselves, illuminated the structure and separated it from the darkness beyond. This was the Citadel of Human Reason, at least as it’s described in myth. My cat Carny, who had seen the real building only a few blocks from the gates of Hell, described it as being more like a men’s club—cards and backgammon and steam rooms and white-haired men walking around in towels.

The third canvas wasn’t a scene from Hell at all. It was ancient Athens from beneath the Parthenon, painted in a sloppy, Impressionist style—more like a half-finished art school exercise than a serious attempt.

As I was absorbing the works, I noticed a man behind us, studying the first canvas then the second, then the third, then the first. He wore leather sandals and a modern-looking tunic—tailored, cotton, and rugby-striped, with a collar. He had short, curly hair and a curly, white beard. I knew him.

‘Sophocles!’ I said.

‘What?’ he said. ‘Hi. Hello, Irving.’

I glanced at Madalyn and could tell by her stunned look that she had trouble believing I knew the Greek dramatist or that he knew me. I shivered with giddy pride at my affiliation to a great and famous man.

‘What are you doing down here in Dis City?’ I asked him.

‘Oh, well,’ Sophocles laughed. ‘You know what they say about eternity in the suburbs—I’d rather be in Pittsburgh.’

‘Philadelphia,’ I corrected. ‘Pittsburgh is pretty nice now, actually.’

‘Really?’ Sophocles said. ‘Who’d have thought?’

Madalyn knocked on my forearm. ‘Suburbs?’

Sophocles looked a bit embarrassed. ‘I know, I know. There’s a stigma attached to the ‘burbs. But I have a nice house with a big yard. Two dogs. TiVo. The schools are good. The sidewalks are nice and wide…’

Madalyn leaned toward him, hopefully. ‘So, after a few thousand years they give you a big yard and a house in the suburbs?’

I tried to explain. ‘Sophocles lives in Circle One, beyond the walls of Dis City,’ I said. ‘That’s where they put virtuous heathens like him. You, on the other hand, are a heretic. That gets you Circle Six. Uptown, Dis City. There’s no moving to the ‘burbs for us, I’m afraid.’

Madalyn was outraged. ‘You’re in Hell by mistake, Irving,’ she poked me in the chest. ‘Given that, you’re lucky you have it as good as you do. But shouldn’t I be in Circle One, with the Greeks? Virtuous heathen, heretic: What’s the difference between him and me?’

‘Sophocles never passed around an email listing the Top Ten Reasons Beer Is Better Than Jesus.’

‘Oh, right,’ she said, chuckling. ‘Goddamn technology.’

Sophocles wasn’t listening. He was still staring at the artwork. ‘Looking for a little something to hang on your walls?’ I asked.

The playwright squeezed his giant hands together, and his knuckles reported with nervous cracks. ‘No, no. I’m in quite a pickle, Irving.’

‘What’s wrong?’

‘My old lady left me last week. Her name was Nadja, and she was an artist.’ He gestured to the three paintings. ‘These are hers.’

‘They’re pretty good,’ I said. ‘The middle one especially. The one on the left is a little dark for my taste.’ One never knows if estranged lovers will be getting back together so I didn’t tell him I thought the picture of Athens looked like it had been painted with a fat man’s elbows.

‘Do you know how many plays I wrote in before-life, Irving?’

In fact, I remembered from my school days. ‘The plays of Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, Ajax, Electra, Trachiniae, and Philoctetus. That’s seven.’

Sophocles shook his head. ‘One hundred eighty. By the time you were born, though, all but those seven had been lost, including my best stuff. By the gods, how could they lose 173 plays? On the first page of every one I always wrote my name, my address, and in giant letters: DO NOT THROW OUT.’

Madalyn snickered and I chastised her with a disapproving squint.

‘I haven’t finished a single new play since I’ve been in Hell,’ Sophocles said. ‘I’ve spent every creative moment trying to recreate the ones that were gone: Antigone Goes to Camp, Dial Phi for Phonos, Stomp… For thousands of years I’ve struggled to recreate my legacy. Then, yesterday Nadja calls to tell me that she’s hidden the pages of all my rewrites behind one of these three canvasses and left instructions with the merchant to sell only one. She ordered him to destroy the remaining two.’

‘Jesus,’ Madalyn said.

‘So to rescue your life’s work, you have to guess which painting hides the pages and purchase it.’ I said. ‘That’s insane. Did she give you any clues?’

‘Nadja said only that I should pursue the greatest good. I imagine that each represents some motivation or purpose or act.’

We searched the paintings for allegory and metaphor. ‘This one’s easy,’ Sophocles said, pointing to the picture of the Citadel. ‘It represents human reason, the pinnacle of enlightenment for those without the benefit of God’s divine love.’

‘Therefore, the pinnacle of enlightenment period,’ Madalyn sneered. ‘That there’s your fucking greatest good. Case closed.’

Sophocles gave her an unsettled glance. I knew from our previous meetings, several years ago in a screenwriting class, that he disliked profanity. When it was his turn to leave comments on my work, he always redlined the curse words. ‘Don’t work blue,’ he once wrote.

‘Can you believe she painted the Citadel of Human Reason and didn’t put me in it?’ Sophocles said bitterly. ‘For crying out loud, I’m the treasurer! She’s got Virgil, Ovid, even Democritus. What a slap in the face. Anyway, I’m not sure it’s that easy. Look at my beloved Athens. The cradle of democracy. Maybe that is what Nadja meant. Perhaps, to her, equality is the greatest good.’

‘Jesus, didn’t you guys ever talk?’ Madalyn said. ‘How long had you been going out?’

‘Six weeks.’

Madalyn bobbed her head in disgust. ‘Well which is it? The only thing I know for sure is that the greatest good ain’t the picture with Hitler in it.’

I touched her elbow. ‘I’m not so sure. If you believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful, beneficent God you have to answer two significant challenges—’

‘More than two,’ Madalyn hissed.

I ignored her. ‘There’s the problem of free will and the problem of evil. If you accept an omnipotent God, you must accept that He gave us free will, even though men of free will are capable of horrible acts of treachery.’ I pointed to the evildoers in the painting. ‘If free will is a gift from God, then it must be terribly important. If you need further evidence, which you should not, ask yourself what’s the one thing God deprives all of us here in Hell? Not reason. Not democracy. Not equality. Freedom.’

Madalyn snorted. ‘Fine, yeah Irving, whatever. But this is a painting of a bunch of assholes up to their pieholes in blood. What the hell does that have to do with free will?’

I held up a finger. ‘Because, Madalyn, if evil inevitably follows from free will, maybe the greatest good of all—in fact, the very reason we exist—are the moments when good people choose to confront it. Look at the painting again. Notice the ordinary men and women along the shores of Blood River, staring down the barbarians and despots and dictators, and keeping them in check.’

‘Bullcrap,’ Madalyn said. ‘Without your God, free will is not a gift, it’s a consequence of existence. Not good or bad. You said it yourself—free men are capable of both good and evil—therefore freedom must be neutral.’ She waved at the Athens painting. ‘Equality is bullshit, too. All this crap about God-given rights. Nobody’s born with a ‘right’ to anything.’

‘Especially not rights to your money,’ I muttered.

‘I never said I didn’t like money,’ Madalyn said. ‘I just didn’t like God’s name all over it. Don’t listen to Irving’s the-illogical rambling, Sophocles. Reason is the greatest good. Human beings acting strictly according to logic, based on the best evidence.’ She chucked him on his bare arm and grinned. ‘And you’ll notice how I just proved it? With reason.’

‘Hey,’ I said. ‘You can’t claim reason is the greatest good just because you need reason to prove it.’

‘Sure I can. It’s one of those self-evident truths. Besides, you just used God to try to prove your stinking pile of an argument. I’ve been dead now for 60 days and I haven’t seen hide nor hair of God. Reason, on the other hand, has never left my side.’

Sophocles twisted a large portion of matted beard in his fist. ‘I don’t know…’

‘It’s freedom,’ I insisted.

‘Reason,’ Madalyn said.

He closed his eyes and sighed. ‘Thanks for your help, Irving. You, too Miss Madalyn.’ He walked into the cubicle, dropped a number of coins in the merchant’s hand, and removed the painting of Athens. ‘In pursuit of my art, I must follow my heart,’ he said. ‘Not my soul, not my head, where deception is bred.’

He carried the painting to an uncrowded space near three rows of folding chairs where the organizers made occasional presentations and introduced featured artists. It was quiet for the moment. Sophocles knelt on the carpet and removed a small knife from the folds of his tunic. I dropped to my knees as well and Madalyn followed, although with much difficulty and complaint. With a slow hand, Sophocles made a shallow cut in the paper that backed the massive frame.

Hundreds of pages were stacked in piles between the frame’s wooden supports. Sophocles was shaking as he reached inside and triumphantly removed two, thick handfuls of letter-sized paper.

The pages were blank. Every one.

‘Oh!’ Sophocles cried out.

I jumped to my feet and ran back to the cubicle. The merchant and the remaining two paintings were gone. Behind the stall was a metal door to the parking lot and I pushed it open. Outside, just a dozen or so yards away, a fire burned in a large, metal garbage can. The smoke was black and the air acidic. Chars floated up on an uncertain and cruel current, a wrathful funnel cloud, as the life’s work of a great man was lost for a second time.

A broad hand touched mine and held it gently. Sophocles was stoic against the heat that blew into his face. I knew the look as sadness, but not despair, and remembered a pillow I once saw in a Circle Six Hallmark. The embroidery said, ‘A depressed man in eternal Hell is a man with nothing to do tomorrow.’ I gave his chapped palm a sympathetic squeeze.

‘Christ, Sophocles,’ Madalyn said as she caught up to us and recoiled at the snapping flames. ‘What did you do to this Nadja broad?’

Sophocles paused for a long while. Nobody came to put out the fire, but someone closed the door behind us to keep out the smoke and to keep in the conditioned air.

‘My heart, my head, my soul,’ he said. ‘I think I gave her the wrong one.’