I GOT A CALL from a friend I sometimes used to see at his house, a three-story structure with vacant rooms and esoteric statuary where we drank beer sharing views on politics, art, and the world perhaps two or three times a year. A self-described dilettante, he had no family, and lived alone.
A friend, he said, whom he had not seen in years, was having a gallery showing at the university. The man was a genius, my friend assured. If I would be willing to attend the gallery showing, wherein would be displayed but a smattering of the results of this reclusive and entirely self-taught artist’s stunning genius, not only would I be intrigued, and inspired, I would also be granted an introduction with the artist himself. Were we to, perhaps on a subsequent weekend night, pay a visit to his home, I would find contained therein the true gems of his lifetime’s labor. For while the university served a certain purpose, the emissaries thereof lacked the expertise to properly discern the artist’s phenomenal skill.
Adding further to the inducement, my friend assured me that the artist had it in his power to reveal certain fantastic facts which he himself, or so was solemnly asserted, had actually experienced. On this additional enticement I was sufficiently intrigued, and subsequently consented to attend.
Indeed, at the gallery showing I was quite impressed. I had not expected to be inspired, as my friend so gamely asserted, for I knew of his habitual hyperbole. He could see a soup can with a feather on top standing on a pedestal with a placard labeled “Night” and extol wonders if it meant discrediting whatever he was chiefly attacking. But here I was looking at pieces of actual sculpture, fine pieces resembling fanciful half-formed creatures and a lot of ancient Egyptian-looking work. A low mumble pervaded as people milled with paper cups and bits of cheese.
Eventually we spoke, the artist and I. It had been hard to find a moment, so busily had he been engaged in receiving salutations and congratulations from the murmuring throng. My friend had introduced us. The artist, it seemed, had recognized my name in connection with my friend’s recent suggestion that I, as a writer, might be able to help him in regard to a certain project which he was unable to complete on his own, due to the artist’s—and this was a bit of a shock to me—complete illiteracy.
Our meeting was brief. But in that time I took down his phone number and assured him I would call. As to a potential collaboration, I made no promises. Indeed, had no interest. Still, given what my friend had said, I was curious to hear any and all of the strange tales concerning similar interests which he was supposedly not averse to sharing.
Not long thereafter I went to the artist’s house. This was not easily done, for as an illiterate he was unable to provide adequate directions. I had been instructed to turn at the corner where the red-haired woman once lived, travel past four or five of the big trees, turn at the place where there is a stick—he didn’t know left from right—and look for the wooden crow. I was expecting to see something prominent possibly resembling a three-dimensional raven. Turned out it was just a piece of plywood on a fence behind a truck with something painted on it that looked like a small cartoon duck.
I apologized for being a few minutes late, stepping through a small gated area lined with a profusion of roses and various other flowers hidden from general view. The house was small and hard to see behind a wide array of organic growth. He led me inside his home.
Immediately on entering I had the impression that every square inch of the artist’s gloom-shrouded abode was occupied with the accumulation of his life’s work. Shelves were stuffed with heads of women.
Almost everything in sight was an intricate product of his labor. There were dolls, large and small, meticulously arranged. Lamps with smiling wooden animal bases. Unframed paintings filled the spaces on the walls between the curtained windows. Behind the lamps and dolls, innumerable objects went on private display and remained.
There are those whose homes bear the mark of the intentionally grotesque, those who keep oddities and peculiar things in view with an awareness of the offbeat. The fascination with the fantastic is genuine, yet there is an underlying sense of humor.
Such here was not the case. When I saw a rendering of an infant’s head, which the artist had painted as best he could by copying a picture perhaps from a magazine, placed unframed inside a larger rendering of a shark’s open mouth—again, an obvious copy—I saw there was not a shred of morbid humor to be had. He called the piece, with his tattered vestiges of a Southern drawl, “The Baby,” and said it in such a way that I could only raise my eyebrows and nod by way of reply.
Privately I was reminded that the artist had recently enjoyed more than one evening of glad-handing culturally-minded well-wishers eager to associate themselves with the man of the hour whose self-taught genius adorned the university art gallery. Outwardly I raised my eyebrows and nodded some more while he showed me his large collection of Black Mammies.
Dozens of ceramic figurines which he kept cluttered in his kitchen, all coal-black, red-lipped, wide-eyed stereotypes of black women taken from the Hattie McDaniel mold. Salt shakers, toothpick holders, cookie jars where you lift off the smiling black head and reach down inside the body to grab a gnosh. All depicting only that one racist stereotype. A stack of business cards situated in this shrine boasted two black children feeding on a large slice of watermelon.
When I inquired as to some sort of explanation for these bizarre racist knickknacks, the artist replied, being illiterate, “Raisin?”
Apparently that was one word he had never heard in his life. I tried to explain it to him, but he understood none of the words necessary for even the most rudimentary explanation.
Around that time I was regaled with the Jesus paintings. This came as no surprise. I noticed his black velvet Elvis when I first walked in the door, and felt his Jesus paintings were in no way out of step with his black velvet John Wayne shaking hands with Dale Earnhardt, either.
I had seen the artist’s deadly serious montage of vampire Marilyn Monroe heads. He told me that the head of Marilyn Monroe visited him one night and was angry about her portrayal in the media. And I had seen his Civil War series, bits of which I recognized lifted from famous shots, in spite of his vehemently asserting no, he had been taken back in time by a dead soldier to a battlefield where he could see and hear and smell everything. “He’s not a ghost!” the artist exclaimed. “He’s my friend!” But it wasn’t until the artist broke out the photo albums that I saw the reason why I had specifically made my journey.
Had there not been the promise of a firsthand account of alien abduction, I’m sure I never would have gone to the gallery show in the first place. The artist had supposed that, on being told before meeting me that I was a writer, I would be the one to put into words the alien abduction experience he had for so long tried to convey through his art. I made no promise whatsoever, and never hinted the slightest interest in ghost writing. My only interest, which I made clear, was in hearing his story over a beer, and I reminded him of this while cracking a freshie. The artist didn’t drink.
The first photo album was prefaced with some sort of material which his sister had typed for him years prior, when she was still alive. The bulk of the material inside consisted of very realistic-looking photographs of what the artist called the Clown People.
He said that he had met them as a child. He called them that because they reminded him of circus dwarfs wearing white make-up. To him, they were just funny little people.
I looked at the photographs and saw diminutive, silvery-white, bulb-headed beings with large black almond-shaped eyes wearing jet black jumpsuits. He said they came into his house one night and took him away in a disk-shaped craft floating outside nearby and flew away with him.
He said they took him to another world, where aliens were in huge spaceships hovering over the land with wavering hoses ten miles long that sucked up the factories in great swirling clouds of filth and busted metal. Most of this could not be heard, being too far away from where they left him, he said, and generally drowned by the noises of great masses of regular, human-looking people. At any rate, they let him keep his camera.
Toward gigantic loading bays they trod, according to a couple of the pictures.
One of the pictures was of a wide-eyed woman apparently pleading with an alien. The artist said she was begging to pay the alien to let her go. Still another photo showed what looked like a sinister, bulb-headed monstrosity wielding an ominously glowing bright red whip. He said these whips snaked in the hands of the aliens from all sides at all times, lightning-fast and seemingly limitless in length. In the black almond eyes of the bulb-headed overseers no pity could be found. Even rocks boldly thrown flew wildly away, and to the hands that threw flicked hot whips that cauterized at the wrist.
The artist barely had time to wonder why he should have to find himself in such a time and place. All of the people were herded toward one of the aliens who stood on top of a big rock. This was the point where the human herd was split into two groups, apparently based on the expressionless judgment of the diminutive figure which loomed. One group went to one side—he didn’t know what to call it, but it was the left side that he indicated—to a grassy expanse stretching along the gently winding river, shining in the sun. No pushing, no shoving. No screaming or yelling. Most of the people in that group held hands, and children rode on the shoulders of their parents. The other group, however, was funneled away to the other side—the right--where great space ships waited with gaping apertures receiving the guests helped in with whips.
Again, the artist had no idea why he had been deposited in this place and time. I asked him what was his reaction on finding himself getting funneled away toward the place with the whips, and he replied in his ethereal, faintly Blanche DuBois-ish drawl, “Well, I trudged up them grim loadin’ bay steps with the herd, multitudes driven into a line that stretched inside the huge space ship and wound around forever and ever. Why, it took the rest of the afternoon before I even found a seat.”
“Do tell,” I said.
“What a sorry sight it was to see so many of them poor people not be able to make the cut and go off to the place of happiness and peace, although at that time I did not fully realize my own situation as such. I’ll never forget, when the ship had filled to maximum capacity, the sound of them big bay doors when they slammed shut.
“Inside the space ship the guards were mean. They didn’t look like the little white Clown People, and they didn’t act like them, either.
“‘Back in your seats, human dogs!’ That’s about all they ever even said. Long dark rows of prisoners stretched away into the shadows. From the bowed heads of everybody else in there with me come these low moans, and there wasn’t no light at all, just a dim gray gloom. After a while, this floatin’, glowin’ ball appeared with a face inside which spoke to us.”
“Sounds like Madame Leota from the Haunted Mansion ride,” I said, absentmindedly observing the line of Marilyn Monroe heads he kept on a shelf.
“I don’t know about that, but this woman’s head was mean. She had a mean voice and she told us about how to use the TVs we all had under our seats.”
“Yessir. I reached underneath the seat I was on and found, sure enough, just like the woman’s head said, a little button. I pushed it, and that released a drawer up underneath the seat, and that was where I found a sort of TV screen that folded out and a pair of them old-lookin’ headphones inside.”
“Yessir. Earth bein’ a dot in the distance, there also apparently bein’ no sort of meal provided, there wasn’t really much to do but check out the show.”
“What did you see?”
“Well, near as I could tell, them people who went to the good side sure was enjoyin’ a whole lot of fun. Oh my. You never saw such a time. Folks standin’ around the barbeque with all kinds of food. I could see on the screen that the sun had just begun to kiss the horizon, and I could see the golden glow it cast that glanced and glinted off of skin. Gulls by threes hovered in shapes of mmm. I always remembered my mama told me that three birds flyin’ in a row makes the yummy sound, mmm. Have you ever noticed that? Well, for them it was the end of the first day of the world bein’ saved. It was a real positive vibe, I suppose you’d say, and the people was happy enjoyin’ good times. That was the main sense I got. Then the screen went blank.
“I looked around, wonderin’ if I had a dud monitor or somethin’, but when I saw other people doing the same thing, I realized that was all that our captors wanted us prisoners to see, so I folded up the TV on its retractable arm and stuffed it with them headphones back underneath the seat."
“Then what happened?”
“Well, apparently we was all supposed to pick up our seat cushion and wear it like a backpack. I went ahead and put mine on, slippin’ my arms through these thin slits in it, like fish gills, and then it fit right up against me just fine. I could feel the weight of the patty-like cushion, as though it were a livin’ thing.
“The next thing I knew, the whole floor fell away revealin’ a huge chute into which all the screamin’ people fell. In order to prevent prisoners from avoidin’ the chute by hangin’ on to some part of the ship, the ship’s insides had a current of energy that made so you couldn’t touch it. This was how, when the ship had passed through a worm hole and reached a blue planet in a parallel universe, everybody on XK deck got dumped miles over the surface of a strange alien world, contact with the atmosphere causin’ the patty-cushions worn like backpacks to inflate into giant saggin’ bubbles that bobbed about in weird winds as floatin’ they dispersed.
“Driftin’ along through clouds so thick I could barely see myself, I felt the constant fear of suddenly smashin’ into somethin’, a sharp mountain top maybe or the top of some building, and this went on for quite awhile, oh my, body helplessly danglin’ through space and time, no control, all confusion, just in an absolute state of constant fear. How had this happened to me? My whole life everything seemed normal compared to this.
“Just when I started getting used to the clouds, suddenly they went away. Now I saw below my feet this whole great big huge long mountain stretch way way down below me. I tell you, I was so scared. I was never more scared in my entire life. I had my hands on them straps so tight, I was scared they’d break.
“Then I seen below my feet a green hillside dotted with what looked like some sort of houses, maybe. The patty-like thing on my back, which had self-inflated like a blow fish to the size of a humpback whale, started lettin’ loose its air, so that the deflatin’ bag went down to the ground, and that ground came up awful fast with a sort of whoosh noise at the last second that surprised me as I struggled to hit the slight grade (it had looked so flat to me from above) sideways at a run. After draggin’ the deflated bag across the grass a little bit, I managed to slip out of the straps and stopped to catch my breath.”
“So this was now the second new planet you were taken to?”
“Yessir. My feet hurt from the landing, and I was so hungry, I can’t even tell you.”
“What did you do?”
“Well, I seen there was these trees. They was only just a little ways over, and I could see there was a group of people over there lookin' at me. Only one of them was tall, and all the rest was small. The tall one was shining white-like, white, and real graceful. The little ones was all darker, and I could see as I got closer that only the little ones had hair. That was why they all looked darker, because they all had long brown hair and trim brown beards. The little brown-haired people wore robes, but the tall graceful one didn't have no hair or robes at all. I could see they was all lookin' at me as I got closer. And believe me, I don't know how I even managed, but I went toward these strangers in the hope they might be kind to me. The tall one had great big dark eyes and a bitty little mouth. He was the boss, and he looked at me while the rest all come over with their arms out and surrounded me like little children."
"They had brown hair, and brown beards," I said, "and they wore robes?"
"Yessir. To me they looked just like little Jesuses."
Suddenly, a shadow seemed to fall upon the cloistered room.
"Joking? No sir! I would never, ever joke of such a thing."
He looked and sounded hurt.
"Well you don't have to get upset," I said, perceiving his increasing heart rate. "It's just hard to buy you went to a world where a bunch of little. Jesuses jumped you. That's all I'm saying."
"Oh really?" he said. "Then tell me, sir, how you can explain what I am about to show you."
The guy got up.
"Listen, man..." I didn't know what to say. He looked like he was about to cry. Like he was about to go postal.
"I would like for you," he said, controlling himself as best he could, I guess, "to please come with me right now down to my basement. I have something I want to show you, sir."
I half-expected this honored artist to lead me down nitre-encrusted steps to ancient catacombs. The waxen heads of women he had constructed stared lifeless as we passed. Push come to shove, I knew I could shove the guy into anything I wanted and splash him like a water balloon. I followed him down.
His basement was filled with even more artsy crap.
"Wow, you've really been busy," I said, checking out all the waxy body parts hanging here and there and left in callous heaps.
"Sir," the artist said, "I have taken you into my home. I have shared with you what is dearest to me. And you disrespect me with your joking eyes. You think you're so smart. And maybe you know some things, and maybe you don't. But one thing I know you don't know, I know what I seen. You were too busy bein' rude to let me finish before. Them little Jesuses--"
I knew he was going to break down, and he sure enough did.
"Them little Jesuses," he said, crying, "they were so precious to me, I kept one!"
Tearing cloth from a table I swear I hadn't even noticed, the artist revealed what had to be his greatest creation. The tiny mummified Jesus was three or four feet tall. Growing up, we had a neighbor next door with a framed picture of Jesus on the wall when you walked in the house, and this little guy looked exactly like that, almost. The mummification was very apparent, what with the dark, dried skin and overall withered aspect pervading its diminutive form.
The exposed body emitted a scent. You could smell it. Everything about it, right down to the pores, screamed total reality. I have no idea how he got the body. The artist never told me that. I wasn't there much longer afterwards. I had to get out.
When I got back home, I felt in need of a long hot shower to wash the visit away.
I know you don't believe. Why would you? Sometimes I can hardly believe it myself. I still have a hard time imagining that he created his greatest creation all on his own. It did look completely real. Different from his wax heads. That tiny mummy Jesus looked real as hell. The thing was, the guy kept up his gigs all around town for years after that. I would see him every once in a while in the town library, showing off his wondrous work. More of his Egyptian-looking stuff, usually, certainly never the mini-Jesus mummy.
And at such times we would share a little moment together. Right there in front of people. Poor innocent people, all unknowing.