Here they come, marching into American sunlight. They are grouped in twos, eternal boy-girl, stepping out of the runway beyond the fence in left-centre field. The music draws them across the grass, dozens, hundreds, already too many to count. They assemble themselves so tightly, crossing the vast arc of the outfield, that the effect is one of transformation. From a series of linked couples they become one continuous wave, larger all the time, covering the open spaces in navy and white.
Karen’s daddy, watching from the grandstand, can’t help thinking this is the point. They’re one body now, an undifferentiated mass, and this makes him uneasy. He focuses his binoculars on a young woman, another, still another. So many columns set so closely. He has never seen anything like this or ever imagined it could happen. He hasn’t come here for the spectacle but it is starting to astonish him. They’re in the thousands now, approaching division strength, and the old seemly tear-jerk music begins to sound sardonic. Wife Maureen is sitting next to him. She is bold and bright today, wearing candy colours to offset the damp she feels in her heart. Rodge understands completely. They had almost no warning. Grabbed a flight, got a hotel, took the subway, passed through the metal-detector and here they are, trying to comprehend. Rodge is not unequipped for the rude turns of normal fraught experience. He’s got a degree and a business and a tax attorney and a cardiologist and a mutual fund and whole life and major medical. But do the assurances always apply? There is a strangeness down there that he never thought he’d see in a ballpark. They take a time-honoured event and repeat it, repeat it, repeat it until something new enters the world.
Look at the girl in the front row, about twenty couples in from the left. He adjusts the eyepiece lever and zooms to max power, hoping to see her features through the bridal veil.
There are still more couples coming out of the runway and folding into the crowd, although crowd is not the right word. He doesn’t know what to call them. He imagines they are uniformly smiling, showing the face they squeeze out with the toothpaste every morning. The bridegrooms in identical blue suits, the brides in lace and satin gowns. Maureen looks around at the people in the stands. Parents are easy enough to spot and there are curiosity-seekers scattered about, ordinary slouchers and loiterers, others deeper in the mystery, dark-eyed and separate, secretly alert, people who seem to be wearing everything they own, layered and mounded in garments with missing parts, city nomads more strange to her than herdsmen in the Sahel, who at least turn up on the documentary channel. There is no admission fee and gangs of boys roam the far reaches, setting off firecrackers that carry a robust acoustical wallop, barrel bombs and ash cans booming along the concrete ramps and sending people into self-protective spasms. Maureen concentrates on the parents and other relatives, some of the women done up touchingly in best dress and white corsage, staring dead-eyed out of tinted faces. She reports to Rodge that there’s a lot of looking back and forth. Nobody knows how to feel and they’re checking around for hints. Rodge stays fixed to his binoculars. Six thousand five hundred couples and their daughter is down there somewhere about to marry a man she met two days ago. He’s either Japanese or Korean. Rodge didn’t get it straight. And he knows about eight words of English. He and Karen spoke through an interpreter, who taught them how to say Hello, it is Tuesday, here is my passport. Fifteen minutes in a bare room and they’re chain-linked for life.
He works his glasses across the mass, the crowd, the movement, the membership, the flock, the following. It would make him feel a little better if he could find her.
‘You know what it’s as though?’ Maureen says.
‘Let me concentrate.’
‘It’s as though they designed this to the maximum degree of let the relatives squirm.’
‘We can do our moaning at the hotel.’
‘I’m simply stating.’
‘I did suggest, did I not, that you stay at home.’
‘How could I not come? What’s my excuse?’
‘I see a lot of faces that don’t look American. They send them out in missionary teams. Maybe they think we’ve sunk to the status of less-developed country. They’re here to show us the way and the light.’
‘And make sharp investments. After, can we take in a play?’
‘Let me look, OK. I want to find her.’
‘We’re here. We may as well avail ourselves.’
‘It’s hard for the mind to conceive. Thirteen thousand people.’
‘What are you going to do when you find her?’
‘Who the hell thought it up? What does it mean?’
‘What are you going to do when you find her? Wave goodbye?’
‘I just need to know she’s here,’ Rodge says. ‘I want to document it, OK.’
‘Because that’s what it is. If it hasn’t been goodbye up to this point, it certainly is now.’
‘Hey, Maureen? Shut up.’
From the bandstand at home plate the Mendelssohn march carries a stadium echo, with lost notes drifting back from the recesses between tiers. Flags and bunting everywhere. The blessed couples face the infield, where their true father, Master Moon, stands in three dimensions. He looks down at them from a railed pulpit that rides above a platform of silver and crimson. He wears a white silk robe and a high crown figured with stylized irises. They know him at molecular level. He lives in them like chains of matter that determine who they are. This is a man of chunky build who saw Jesus on a mountainside. He spent nine years praying and wept so long and hard his tears formed puddles and soaked through the floor and dripped into the room below and filtered through the foundation of the house into the earth. The couples know there are things he must leave unsaid, words whose planetary impact no one could bear. He is the messianic secret, ordinary-looking, his skin a weathered bronze. When the Communists sent him to a labour camp the other inmates knew who he was because they’d dreamed about him before he got there. He gave away half his food but never grew weak. He worked seventeen hours a day in the mines but always found time to pray, to keep his body clean and tuck in his shirt. The blessed couples eat kiddie food and use baby names because they feel so small in his presence. This is a man who lived in a hut made of US Army ration tins and now he is here, in American light, come to lead them to the end of human history.
The brides and grooms exchange rings and vows and many people in the grandstand are taking pictures, standing in the aisles and crowding the rails, whole families snapping anxiously, trying to shape a response or organize a memory, trying to neutralize the event, drain it of eeriness and power. Master chants the ritual in Korean. The couples file past the platform and he sprinkles water on their heads. Rodge sees the brides lift their veils and he zooms in urgently, feeling at the same moment a growing distance from events, a sorriness of spirit. But he watches and muses. When the Old God leaves the world, what happens to all the unexpended faith? He looks at each sweet face, round face, long, wrong, darkish, plain. They are a nation, he supposes, founded on the principle of easy belief. A unit fuelled by credulousness. They speak a half language, a set of ready-made terms and empty repetitions. All things, the sum of the knowable, everything true, it all comes down to a few simple formulas copied and memorized and passed on. And here is the drama of mechanical routine played out with living figures. It knocks him back in awe, the loss of scale and intimacy, the way love and sex are multiplied out, the numbers and shaped crowd. This really scares him, a mass of people turned into a sculptured object. It is like a toy with 13,000 parts, just tootling along, an innocent and menacing thing. He keeps the glasses trained, feeling a slight desperation now, a need to find her and remind himself who she is. Healthy, intelligent, twenty-one, serious-sided, possessed of a selfness, a teeming soul, nuance and shadow, grids of pinpoint singularities they will never drill out of her. Or so he hopes and prays, wondering about the power of their own massed prayer. When the Old God goes, they pray to flies and bottle tops. The terrible thing is they follow the man because he gives them what they need. He answers their yearning, unburdens them of free will and independent thought. See how happy they look.
A round the great stadium the tenement barrens stretch, miles of delirium, men sitting in tipped-back chairs against the walls of hollow buildings, sofas burning in the lots, and there is a sense these chanting thousands have, wincing in the sun, that the future is pressing in, collapsing toward them, that they are everywhere surrounded by signs of the fated landscape and human struggle of the Last Days, and here in the middle of their columned body, lank-haired and up close, stands Karen Janney, holding a cluster of starry jasmine and thinking of the blood-storm to come. She is waiting to file past Master and sees him with the single floating eye of the crowd, inseparable from her own apparatus of vision but sharper-sighted, able to perceive more deeply. She feels intact, rayed with well-being. They all feel the same, young people from fifty countries, immunized against the language of self. They’re forgetting who they are under their clothes, leaving behind all the small banes and body woes, the day-long list of sore gums and sweaty nape and need to pee, ancient rumbles in the gut, momentary chills and tics, the fungoid dampness between the toes, the deep spasm near the shoulder blade that’s charged with mortal reckoning. All gone now. They stand and chant, fortified by the blood of numbers.
Karen glances over at Kim Jo Pak, soft-eyed and plump in his nice new suit and boxy shoes, husband-for-eternity.
She knows her flesh parents are in the stands somewhere. Knows what they’re saying, sees the gestures and expressions. Dad trying to use old college logic to make sense of it all. Mom wearing the haunted stare that means she was put on earth strictly to suffer. They’re all around us, parents in the thousands, afraid of our intensity. This is what frightens them. We really believe. They bring us up to believe but when we show them true belief they call out psychiatrists and police. We know who God is. This makes us crazy in the world.
Karen’s mind-stream sometimes slows down, veering into sets of whole words. They take a funny snub-nosed form, the rudimentary English spoken by some of the Master’s chief assistants.
They have God once-week. Do not understand. Must sacrifice together. Build with hands God’s home on earth.
Karen says to Kim, ‘This is where the Yankees play.’
He nods and smiles, blankly. Nothing about him strikes her so forcefully as his hair, which is shiny and fine and ink-black, with a Sunday comics look. It is the thing that makes him real to her.
‘Baseball,’ she says, using the word to sum up a hundred happy abstractions, themes that flare to life in the crowd shout and diamond symmetry, in the details of a dusty slide. The word has resonance if you’re American, a sense of shared heart and untranslatable lore. But she only means to suggest the democratic clamour, a history of sweat and play on sun-dazed afternoons, an openness of form that makes the game a kind of welcome-to-my-country.
The other word is cult. How they love to use it against us. Gives them the false term they need to define us as eerie-eyed children. And how they hate our willingness to work and struggle. They want to snatch us back to the land of lawns. That we are willing to live on the road, sleep on the floor, crowd into vans and drive all night, fund-raising, serving Master. That our true father is a foreigner and non-white. How they silently despise. They keep our rooms ready. They have our names on their lips. But we’re a lifetime away, weeping through hours of fist-pounding prayer.
World in pieces. It is shock of shocks. But there is plan. Pali-pali. Bring hurry-up time to all man.
She does not dream any more except about Master. They all dream about him. They see him in visions. He stands in the room with them when his three-dimensional body is thousands of miles away. They talk about him and weep. The tears roll down their faces and form puddles on the floor and drip into the room below. He is part of the structure of their protein. He lifts them out of ordinary strips of space and time and then shows them the blessedness of lives devoted to the ordinary, to work, prayer and obedience.
Rodge offers the binoculars to Maureen. She shakes her head firmly. It is like looking for the body of a loved one after a typhoon.
Balloons in clusters rise by the thousands, sailing past the rim of the upper deck. Karen lifts her veil and passes below the pulpit, which is rimmed on three sides by bullet-proof panels. She feels the blast of Master’s being, the solar force of a charismatic soul. Never so close before. He sprinkles mist from a holy bottle in her face. She sees Kim move his lips, following Master’s chant word for word. She’s close enough to the grandstand to see people crowding the rails, standing everywhere to take pictures. Did she ever think she’d find herself in a stadium in New York, photographed by thousands of people? There may be as many people taking pictures as there are brides and grooms. One of them for every one of us. Clickety-click. The thought makes the couples a little giddy. They feel that space is contagious. They’re here but also there, already in the albums and slide projectors, filling picture frames with their microcosmic bodies, the minikin selves they are trying to become.
They veer back to the outfield grass to resume formation. There are folk troupes near both dugouts dancing to gongs and drums. Karen fades into the thousands, the columned mass. She feels the metre of their breathing. They’re a world family now, each marriage a channel to salvation. Master chooses every mate, seeing in a vision how backgrounds and characters match. It is a mandate from heaven, preordained, each person put here to meet the perfect other. Forty days of separation before they’re alone in a room, allowed to touch and love. Or longer. Or years if Master sees the need. Take cold showers. It is this rigour that draws the strong. Their self-control cuts deep against the age, against the private ciphers, the systems of isolated craving. Husband and wife agree to live in different countries, doing missionary work, extending the breadth of the body common. Satan hates cold showers.
The crowd-eye hangs brightly above them like the triangle eye on a dollar bill.
A firecracker goes off, another M-80 banging out of an exit ramp with a hard flat impact that drives people’s heads into their torsos. Maureen looks battle-stunned. There are lines of boys wending through empty rows high in the upper deck, some of them only ten or twelve years old, moving with the princely swagger of famous street felons. She decides she doesn’t see them.
‘I’ll tell you this,’ Rodge says. ‘I fully intend to examine this organization. Hit the libraries, get on the phone, contact parents, truly delve. You hear about support groups that people call for all kinds of things.’
‘We need support. I grant you that. But you’re light years too late.’
‘I think we ought to change our flight as soon as we get back to the hotel and then check out and get going.’
‘They’ll charge us for the room for tonight anyway. We may as well get tickets to something.’
‘The sooner we get started on this.’
‘Raring to go. Oh boy. What fun.’
‘I want to read everything I can get my hands on. Only did some skimming but that’s because I didn’t know she was involved in something so grandiose. We ought to get some hotline numbers and see who’s out there that we can talk to.’
‘You sound like one of those people, you know, when they get struck down by some rare disease they learn every inch of material they can find in the medical books and phone up doctors on three continents and hunt day and night for people with the same awful thing.’
‘Makes good sense, Maureen.’
‘They fly to Houston to see the top man. The top man is always in Houston.’
‘What’s wrong with learning everything you can?’
‘You don’t have to enjoy it.’
‘It’s not a question of enjoy it. It’s our responsibility to Karen.’
‘Where is she by the way?’
‘I fully intend.’
‘You were scanning so duteously. What, bored already?’
A wind springs up, causing veils to rustle and lift. Couples cry out, surprised, caught in a sudden lightsome glide, a buoyancy. They remember they are kids, mostly, and not altogether done with infections of glee. They have a shared past after all. Karen thinks of all those nights she slept in a van or crowded room, rising at five for prayer condition, then into the streets with her flower team. There was a girl named June who felt she was shrinking, falling back to child size. They called her Junette. Her hands could not grip the midget bars of soap in the motel toilets of America. This did not seem unreasonable to the rest of the team. She was only seeing what was really there, the slinking shape of eternity beneath the paint layers and glutamates of physical earth.
All those lost landscapes. Nights downtown, live nude shows in cinder-block bunkers, slums with their dumpster garbage. All those depopulated streets in subdivisions at the edge of Metroplex, waist-high trees and fresh tar smoking in the driveways and nice-size rattlers that cozy out of the rocks behind the last split-level. Karen worked to make the $400-a-day standard, peddling mainly bud roses and sweet williams. Just dream-walking into places and dashing out. Rows of neat homes in crashing rain. People drooped over tables at 5 a.m. at casinos in the desert. Progressive Slot Jackpots. Welcome Teamsters. She fasted on liquids for a week, then fell upon a stack of Big Macs. Through revolving doors into hotel lobbies and department stores until security came scurrying with their walkie-talkies and beepers and combat magnums.
They prayed kneeling with hands crossed at forehead, bowed deep, folded like unborn young.
In the van everything mattered, every word counted, sometimes fifteen, sixteen sisters packed in tight, singing you are my sunshine, row row row, chanting their monetary goal. Satan owns the fallen world.
She stacked bundles of baby yellows in groups of seven, the number-symbol of perfection. There were times when she not only thought in broken English but spoke aloud in the voices of the workshops and training sessions, lecturing the sisters in the van, pressing them to sell, make the goal, grab the cash, and they didn’t know whether to be inspired by the uncanny mimicry or report her for disrespect.
Junette was a whirlwind of awe. Everything was too much for her, too large and living. The sisters prayed with her and wept. Water rocked in the flower buckets. They had twenty-one-day selling contests, three hours’ sleep. When a sister ran off, they holy-salted the clothes she’d left behind. They chanted: We’re the greatest, there’s no doubt; heavenly father, we’ll sell out.
After midnight in some bar in that winter stillness called the inner city. God’s own lonely call. Buy a carnation, sir. Karen welcomed the chance to walk among the lower-downs, the sort of legions of the night. She slipped into semi-trance, detached and martyrish, passing through those bare-looking storefronts, the air jangly with other-mindedness. A number of dug-in drinkers bought a flower or two, men with long flat fingers and pearly nails, awake to the novelty, or hat-wearing men with looks of high scruple, staring hard at the rain-slickered girl. What new harassment they pushing in off the street? An old hoocher told her funny things, a line of sweat sitting on his upper lip. She got the bum’s rush fairly often. Don’t be so subjective, sir. Then scanned the street for another weary saloon.
Team leader said: Gotta get goin’, kids. Pali-pali.
In the van every truth was magnified, everything they said and did separated them from the misery jig going on out there. They looked through the windows and saw the faces of fallen-world people. It totalized their attachment to true father. Pray all night at times, all of them, chanting, shouting out, leaping up from prayer stance, lovely moaning prayers to Master, oh please, oh yes, huddled in motel room in nowhere part of Denver.
Karen said to them: ‘Which you like to sleep, five hour or four?’
She said: ‘Which you like to sleep, four hour or three?’
She said: ‘Which you like to sleep, three hour or none?’
In the van every rule counted double, every sister was subject to routine scrutiny in the way she dressed, prayed, brushed her hair, brushed her teeth. They knew there was only one way to leave the van without risking the horror of lifetime drift and guilt. Follow the wrist-slashing fad. Or walk out a high-rise window. It’s better to enter grey space than disappoint Master.
Team leader said: Pre-think your total day. Then jump it, jump it, jump it.
Oatmeal and water. Bread and jelly. Row row row your boat. Karen said to them: Lose sleep, it is for sins. Lose weight, it is for sins. Lose hair, lose nail off finger, lose whole hand, whole arm, it go on scale to stand against sins.
The man in Indiana who ate the rose she sold him.
Racing through malls at sundown to reach the daily goal. Blitzing the coin laundries and bus terminals. Door to door in police dog projects, saying the money’s for drug centres ma’am. Junette kidnapped by her parents in Skokie, Illinois. Scotch-taping limp flowers to make them half-way saleable. Crazy weather on the plains. Falling asleep at meals, heavy-eyed, dozing on the toilet, sneaking some Zs, catching forty winks, nodding off, hitting the hay, crashing where you can, flaked-out, dead to the world, sleep like a top, like a log, desperate for some shut-eye, some sack time, anything for beddy-bye, a cat nap, a snooze, a minute with the sandman. Prayer condition helped them jump it to the limit, got the sorry blood pounding. Aware of all the nego media, which multiplied a ton of doubt for less-committed sisters. Doing the hokey-pokey. Coldest winter in these parts since they started keeping records. Chanting the monetary goal.
Team leader said: Gotta hurry hurry hurry. Pali-pali, kids.
Rodge sits there in his rumpled sport coat, pockets crammed with traveller’s cheques, credit cards and subway maps, and he looks through the precision glasses, and looks and looks, and all he sees is repetition and despair. They are chanting again, one word this time, over and over, and he can’t tell if it is English or some other known language or some football holler from heaven. No sign of Karen. He puts down the binoculars. People are still taking pictures. He half expects the chanting mass of bodies to rise in the air, all 13,000 ascending slowly to the height of the stadium roof, lifted by the picture-taking, the forming of aura, radiant brides clutching their bouquets, grooms showing sunny teeth. A smoke bomb sails out of the bleachers, releasing a trail of Day-Glo fog.
Master leads the chant, Mansei, ten thousand years of victory. The blessed couples move their lips in unison, matching the echo of his amplified voice. There is stark awareness in their faces, a near pain of rapt adoration. He is Lord of the Second Advent, the unriddling of many ills. His voice leads them out past love and joy, past the beauty of their mission, out past miracles and surrendered self. There is something in the chant, the fact of chanting, the being-one, that transports them with its power. Their voices grow in intensity. They are carried on the sound, the soar and fall. The chant becomes the boundaries of the world. They see their Master frozen in his whiteness against the patches and shadows, the towering sweep of the stadium. He raises his arms and the chant grows louder and the young arms rise. He leads them out past religion and history, thousands weeping now, all arms high. They are gripped by the force of a longing. They know at once, they feel it, all of them together, a longing deep in time, running in the earthly blood. This is what people have wanted since consciousness became corrupt. The chant brings the End Time closer. The chant is the End Time. They feel the power of the human voice, the power of a single word repeated as it moves them deeper into oneness. They chant for world-shattering rapture, for the truth of prophecies and astonishments. They chant for new life, peace eternal, the end of soul-lonely pain. Someone on the bandstand beats a massive drum. They chant for one language, one word, for the time when names are lost.
Karen, strangely, is daydreaming. It will take some getting used to, a husband named Kim. She has known girls named Kim since she was a squirt in a sunsuit. Quite a few really. Kimberleys and plain Kims. Look at his hair gleaming in the sun. My husband, weird as it sounds. They will pray together, whole-skinned, and memorize every word of Master’s teaching.
The thousands stand and chant. Around them in the world, people ride escalators going up and sneak secret glances at the faces coming down. People dangle tea bags over hot water in white cups. Cars run silently on the autobahns, streaks of painted light. People sit at desks and stare at office walls. They smell their shirts and drop them in the hamper. People bind themselves into numbered seats and fly across time zones and high cirrus and deep night, knowing there is something they’ve forgotten to do.
The future belongs to crowds.