Cable News

I have to take a break here in my gospel according to Saint Timothy. Yes, I’m a Saint, after death, of course, which hasn’t taken place at this point in time on the present tape. The reason I’m taking a break now is the Six o’Clock News is about to go on. I’m afraid I’ve become addicted to cable news ever since this complete stranger, Chester W. Claypoole (‘Call me Chet’), arrived one day with a television set which he proceeded to rig up in my bungalow just back of the cathedral. I’m Bishop of Macedonia, as you will know in time if you are not lucky enough to be in time already.


On the Road with St Paul

As a Greek boy, I was spotlessly clean. In fact, the second I hit town, any town, I was off to the baths not only for fun and frolic but for oil and pumice stone, too. Naturally, next to godliness, Saint hated cleanliness – in laypersons, that is. For Saint there was only the One God who had sent his only Son to be crucified and resurrected and then while the rest of us hang around waiting for the end of the world (now slightly overdue according to Saint’s original timetable), those who had been associates of our Lord would teach the others how to live in a state of purity – no sex mostly until He comes back and everyone has to appear in court where the good are routed up to Heaven and the rest down to Hell and so on. It’s really and truly a wonderful religion, cash-flow-wise, and I say this now from the heart.

Saint worked the circuit like there was no tomorrow, preaching, collecting money, and putting together what was, frankly, the greatest mailing list ever assembled by anyone in the Roman world. Saint had converts everywhere – donors, too. By the time we hit Rome Saint had his own bank – of the Holy Ghost, he used to giggle because, like the Ghost, you had to have faith before you could see where the money was. Saint also invented the numbered account as well as instalment-paying. Although Moses is credited with the invention of double entry book-keeping, Saint developed so many new wrinkles in accounting that the Roman Internal Revenue service was still trying to untangle them at the time of the fall of same, if that movie with Alec Guinness is to be trusted.

Our first night in Philippi, we visited the old battlefield. There was all the usual tourist-trap stuff except for a meeting of the Brutus Good Name Society in a big hall close to the Ferris wheel. Needless to say, Saint decided then and there to put on a show, using as an excuse his lifelong admiration for Brutus, the bastard son of Julius Caesar who helped stab his Dad to death in the theatre of Pompey at Rome where I saw my first Asiatic burlesque show – and I don’t mean Asiatic Minor. This was Major. With yellow girls. A dream. Anyway, a hundred years ago, Brutus was killed in a big battle here by Marc Antony; and they are both now tourist attractions.

Draughty hall. Full of smoke from cheap resin torches. Wooden stage. Statue of Brutus. Maybe a hundred men. Apple-knockers mostly. A few women. Your average Macedonian yokels. Heavy smell. Garlic.

‘May I say a few words, Mr Chairperson?’ Saint is all simpers and smiles. ‘I’m Saul of Tarsus. But also Paul, citizen of Rome.’ This always gets a rise in the boondocks where citizens of Rome are pretty thin on the ground. ‘I too am an admirer of Brutus, who fell on this very battlefield, a martyr to man’s never-ending struggle to preserve slavery.’

The chairperson, a one-eyed rustic, then gives Saint the green light and he’s off and running and in no time he is hitting his stride and I unpack the collection plates.

Saint was not tall, contrary to legend. He was maybe five feet at the most, like Jesus, but where Jesus was enormously fat with this serious hormonal problem – the so-called parable about the loaves and fishes was just the fantasy of somebody who could never get enough to eat – Paul’s body was thin and carpeted with short black hairs like a spider except for the big head which was bald. All he had going for him, was this beautiful speaking voice like the Sunday Hour of Power and Prayer man my wife’s so taken with. And of course how Saint could lie! I’ve never known anyone who could make things up so quickly and so plausibly when he was really wired, and wired he was that night in Philippi, preaching to all those Brutus fans.

After a series of truly inspired improvised anecdotes about Brutus, stories never heard before or since because Saint had never had the occasion to make them up before, he segues smoothly into his Road to Damascus routine and I will say this: as often as I heard this particular rap – 10,000 times? I never got tired of it. There was something God-given as we Greeks say – charismatic to you – in Saint’s delivery. Also the Yellow Brick Road story was never the same twice. I used to think that Saint’s creative changes would be confusing to our flaks – particularly Mark who has to keep feeding his processor with the ‘true’ Jesus story in competition with Saint’s recollections of Jesus, whom he never met except as a sort of ghost on the road to Damascus, but Mark says that the different versions are actually very helpful to him as he puts together the True Story of the Good News that Jesus brought all the world about the end of the world, to be later added to by Saint (‘Call me Sol’) Paul in his correspondence to yours truly, Timothy, among others. But Mark – or Saint Mark as he’ll be promoted to unless the TV people are giving me the runaround, says that Saint’s stories don’t have to make sense because he, Mark, is redoing the whole story anyway. I wonder if Chet has got in touch with Mark, who is still alive I’m told, not that that makes any difference if we’re all on tapes and Chet can just do a fast rewind to where Mark is alive and writing his Gospel. What, I wonder, does Chet really want?

It’s interesting how everyone connected with this circus has his own axe to grind which is why, I suppose, I’m grinding mine right now. For instance, I think that suppressing Jesus’s weight problem gives us a distorted view of his psychology which was itself distorted – if not pretty peculiar. There are also other aspects of His mission to the soon-to-be late great planet earth that have been completely omitted by Mark and the others, not to mention the key fact which is becoming more and more obvious – Jesus isn’t coming back any time soon, and if there is to be a Judgement Day, it’s going to happen way in the future, on cable television probably – at least that’s my hunch.

Saint’s Philippi version of how he was converted to Christianity (which he hadn’t yet invented!) was particularly vivid as he described seeing the ghost of our founder on the eastbound Jerusalem–Damascus freeway. T had been a persecutor, my friends. Yea! Of Brutus. Nay! I mean Jesus. But then is not each the same in that he was persecuted for his goodness by a vile humanity?’ Saint could make even a slip of the tongue become like a clashing cymbal. ‘I had been hired by Mossad, the dreaded secret service apparatus of the Roman Palestinian-Zionist Lobby. I had been ordered to spy on all those who wished to make their peace with God who had sent them his only Son – the only Daughter is for later, for Judgement Day – to show mankind the road to Heaven. So there I was. A hot day. Palm trees. A mirage shivering in the middle distance. A camel. A pyramid. Your average Middle Eastern landscape as viewed from the freeway. Complete with burning bush. Suddenly. HE. WAS. THERE.’

In that silent smoky hall you could have heard a pin drop or the loosest foreskin slide back. ‘Wide as he was tall, Jesus waddled toward me.’ To live audiences, Saint often let this sort of detail slip out. But in his writing, never. ‘That face. Those luminous eyes hidden somewhere in all that golden fat. The ineffable smile like the first slice from a honeydew melon. Oh, delight! He held up a hand, a tiny starfish cunningly fashioned of lard. He spoke, his voice so high, so shrill that only the odd canine ever got the whole message, hence the need for interpretation and self-consciousness – in short, mega-fiction.’ Saint could make even literary theory sing when he wanted to and he wanted to that night at Philippi. ‘”Why,” shrilled the Son of the One God, “dost thou persecuteth me-th?”’ Saint always went ye-olde whenever he quoted Our Saviour. But saviour from what? This has never occurred to me before, and I’m a bishop. Sin, I suppose. But we’ve all given up on that, if the truth were known. Certainly Jesus wasn’t going to save us from Judgement Day or from Hell either since he’s part of the Whole Judicial Process, I suppose he intends to get his friends and fund-raisers off. I must give some real thought to this little loose end of our generally well-knit by now doctrine of Christianity.

Anyway, the folks ate up the ye-olde stuff. They also liked the fact that our Saviour, at least according to Saint, never said anything that your Aunt Minerva wouldn’t have said after a long day of in-depth shopping so they always liked it when Saint dressed up the act a bit, by throwing in miracles and recipes and grooming hints galore.

Folks really like miracles and this is the age of them, too. Real ones, I mean. Like television. Naturally, we’ve been known to rig a miracle or two. Like raising from the dead someone who’s actually alive but painted green and so on. But there is simply no way of explaining Chet’s visit to me, and all the other strange people who’ve been monitoring us.

When I used to discuss these creepy visitors with Saint, he’d clam up. I bring up the subject now because the first one I ever saw – knew that I saw, that is – was that night at Philippi. I now know that Saint had more dealings with them than he ever let on: ‘Angels in disguise,’ he’d mutter. My own current hunch is that those peculiar visitors back then – now, too – were – and are – on the prowl for commercial franchises to our product, which means getting in on the ground floor of this definitely upmarket growth-oriented religion we’ve been inventing which is firmly based on the absolutely true word of the One God in his three sections, each suitable for worship taken in part or as a whole and guaranteed to dress up any residence or soul tastefully.

Saint played that Macedonian audience like a twelve-string lute in the hands of a love-mad Lesbian Islander. ‘The hand, the hand! That was the proof. Because in the centre of each palm there was this hole where He had been tacked to the cross by a nail. I knew then that it was HIM – HE.’ Saint always adjusted his grammar to the audience and never the audience to the grammar. But then we saints are born knowing all the tricks of the trade, including the halo. Even so, Saint had one trick that nobody else has ever mastered. When you go into all that genealogy of how J.C. is descended from King David and so on the result is not only boring but absolutely mystifying for a civilian audience that doesn’t know the difference between a Jew and a Chinaman. So how did Saint get through the dull parts? He invented, all by himself, with no professional guidance of any kind, tap-dancing.

Saint had these copper cleats attached to the soles of his sandals. When he started with the ‘begats’, he would start dancing, back and forth across the stage, the taps preceding and succeeding each begat and then, grand finale, a tap between the ‘be’ and the ‘gat’ until by the time he gets past the begats Abendigo to HIM, he was like a simian bow-legged Astaire who my wife adores on the TV. Personally, I wouldn’t put Saint in Astaire’s class but he was certainly every bit as good as Dan Dailey, which is high praise.

Well, Saint had those Macedonian yokels clapping their hands and tapping their toes as he gave out with the message, Hallelujah! ‘The form of this world is a’changin. It’s all a’gonna end real soon. Them’s who worship false gods, are in for eternal torment. But us’n’ll be saved. And that’s a promise. If’n you follow Him. ‘Cause with Him–He–Hi-Ho! the law of Moses got itself crossed-out. Crossed-out! That’s the Good News, folks!’

Usually Saint didn’t do Moses-bashing with the goyim on the ground that they wouldn’t know what he was talking about. But once he was launched on one of his raps, you never knew what was going to come out. Anyway, that hot muggy day night in Philippi, by the time he came to the ‘And now a pair of young brothers in the Lord will pass among you with their collection plates and some literature which is absolutely gratis for an obel’ ending, I knew that we had started up yet another church because that’s how we did it back then. First a hell-fire sermon from Saint. Then the collection. Then names and addresses for our master Rolodex. Then Saint would take appointments for baptisms and so on. Finally, before skipping town, he’d appoint some deacons and deaconesses and lo! and behold the First Pauline Church of Philippi would open its doors for business.


Angels in Disguise

As Silas and I made our way through that re wed-up crowd, accepting donations with the faraway smile Saint had taught us, I noticed a strange little woman, wearing a black costume that I did not recognize at the time. Since Chet’s arrival at my bungalow with the television, I’ve since learned a lot about the different costumes in the TV part of the world. But in those days everybody just wore his tunic and maybe his cloak or toga on top of that and that was about it for the guys. The gals wore these wrap-arounds.

The lady in the black non-wrap-around was my very first ‘angel in disguise’.

She was watching us with an expression that was pretty much beyond rapt. She had, I realize now, just channelled in from the TV world. At this point in Saint’s history, he had been in touch with these visitors for some time, although he preferred not to talk about them to us. One of the few times he ever opened up on the subject was when we were in Rome and I was shacked up with a rich widow called Flavia on the Aventine. Saint was in a state of deep depression over a lot of things, including the widow and my having told him that my hyacinthine golden curls and blue forget-me-not eyes were now strictly out of bounds as far as he was concerned, ass-wise.

We were at breakfast. In a loggia. View of cemetery across Tiber. View of Tiber. Lot of barges from Ostia. Stacked with amphorae. Sun like a round hot… thing. In the sky. Blue sky. Blue – Saint started in on how blue he was and how unhappy his life had been and how, worst of all, he was a phoney because he’d never bothered to meet Jesus before he died. ‘There I was in Tarsus. Practically next door to Jerusalem. Go see Jesus? You kidding? No time. Sorry. Too busy. Well, I was busy putting out a line of ready-made tents but what really kept my nose to the grindstone was my undercover work for Mossad. Yes, darling, I was an agent of the dreaded secret service of the Roman Palestinian-Zionist Lobby. I was one of their numerous hit men, Call me Sol. My code name. I set up Stephen to be hit. And, baby, he was hit. Just like we got Count Bernadotte. Pow! I also had orders to keep an eye on subversive self-hating Jews like Jesus. But did I? No. Too boring, I thought. Too many losers to check out. Then He meets me on the freeway after He died. Oh, I could kick myself. Just about everybody and his brother in Greater Israel had heard Him, seen Him. You know, Timmy, it is my personal educated guess that, so far, to date, in this frame of time, more than one million have personally checked Him out and that’s just a fraction of all those outside the frame who’ll keep on coming and coming, wanting tickets, cost no object, for the crucifixion scene at Golgotha, the grand finale, in every version – and I wasn’t there, ever. To date, that is.’

My head was spinning. ‘A million who were where? Not people. There aren’t that many people in Greater Jerusalem even if you count the Arabs.’

Saint realized that he had blundered. He batted his eyelids at me, an old trick when he was about to lie or change the subject. But I didn’t let up. So finally he said, ‘Well, I meant… you know, the kibitzers. The monitors like the one we saw that night at Philippi. Remember her?’

So sitting there in the loggia of Flavia’s attractive if somewhat bitter better home and garden on the Aventine Hill, I suddenly remembered what had happened back then, which I now record.


Saint, Silas and I were at the back of the hall behind the stage with no one around and only a couple of smoky torches for light. Silas and I were busy counting the money while Saint was copying out names to put in the Rolodex.

Suddenly, like out of nowhere, the strange little woman reappears. She clutches at Saint’s arm. ‘I saw you at Lystra.’ She had no accent at all, to my ear anyway. Yet she was certainly not Greek. ‘I saw you heal the man with the crippled foot.’

‘I know.’ Saint was very calm. ‘I saw you, too. Sit down, Madam. Timmy, give her your seat.’

‘I’ll stand.’ She stared at Saint, eyes like inflamed egg yolks. ‘Wherever you heal with faith, there I am. Or try to be. It isn’t always easy to get through.’

‘Where there’s a will there’s a way – as He said.’ Saint’s lack of curiosity about who she was – not to mention from where – should have clued me in that he was on to what I came to think of as the phantom phoney folks. After Philippi, there were a lot of them, particularly on important occasions. Odd. I haven’t seen one for years now except for Chet. No, that isn’t quite true.

Last month, I met one who was doing a study of Saint’s correspondence. He tracked me down in the New Star Baths across from the proconsul’s palace. He was very nervous and wore what I now know from the television were glasses and a hearing aid. ‘I can’t believe it,’ he kept saying. We were in the tepidarium, never crowded at that hour. He was holding a folder in one hand. ‘What have you got there?’ I asked.

‘New versions of Saint Paul’s letters to Timothy. You… you… you must be Timothy.’ Like a shepherd the man was aquake with awe while his hearing aid buzzed at me like a locust announcing a plague of same.

I took the letters from him. They had been typed up in Greek like the newspapers you see on television. I recognized some of our correspondence, with all of Saint’s complaining and advising. Then I came across a very peculiar letter where Saint recalls his activities with Mossad and some of the early anti-Christian plots that he had been a part of, including arson at a certain well-known hostelry in downtown Jerusalem. ‘He never wrote me about this,’ I said. ‘And besides, that was long before he saw the Light.’

‘Are you sure, Saint Timothy?’ The man gave me the chills, even in the tepidarium.

‘I should know what he wrote me even when sometimes he didn’t bother to mail it but had it copied and spread around the churches.’

‘But our computer analysis, always correct, with a four per cent margin of error, clearly shows that this was written by Saint Paul . . .’

Then the man was gone as quickly as he had arrived from nowhere. He will be back. I’m sure of that. Why?

Now – back to Philippi and the little lady in black who said, ‘Do you not agree with me, Saint Paul, that illness is simply a manifestation of a weakening of mind?’

‘All things are contained within the single mind of the One True God in his three aspects.’ Saint could dispense this sort of absolutely seamless theology while taking apart and reassembling a complex Rolodex machine, which is exactly what he was doing. He was a lousy tent-maker but when it came to any office equipment that involved paying customers, he had digital dexterity in spades.

‘I study you every chance I get,’ she said. ‘Which is not as often as I’d like because I must make myself ill first, which goes against my whole nature, a perversion really, of mind itself. But I have no choice. That is why I deliberately fill up on Welsh rarebit, which I detest. Then I sleep and dream, horrid dreams of olden times filled with hideous people and ghastly smells,’ she was staring with revulsion at Saint’s tunic. Time to burn it, I duly noted. ‘Then suddenly I am in the Holy Land, where I behold you in the act of healing through Right Thinking, and it is worth the rumbling bowels, the acid indigestion, the horrendous hangover next day because, in addition to Welsh rarebit, let me confess that I imbibe gin neat or even, sometimes, as now, a gin daisy, a tasty cocktail if one were not, as I am, temperance.’

‘So, drunk out of your skull, Madam, you are transported to me, here in the olden, golden times. I am flattered. What is a gin daisy?’

‘Three parts gin to one part Cointreau, and a maraschino cherry. Oh, it is vile.’

I realize now that this was my first significant encounter with one of the kibitzers, as Saint called them. When I asked him why they should want to… to kibitz, he would change the subject. He did warn me not to take anything they said seriously. This was easy since during our travels we must have met every freak in the world and they were all a kind of blur to us. Besides, who listened? After all, we were, to be blunt, in show business and there was a lot of classy competition in those days, particularly when it came to miracles, the heaviest part of anybody’s act.

The lady in black had seen our Lord only the one time when he raised Lazarus from the dead. ‘Oh, I had to be there for that caper. Because it proved my point perfectly. You see, Lazarus was not dead because there is no death. As death is bad and God is good, and if God is everything and everything is God, then death cannot exist.’ Well, I’ve heard dumber arguments, and in our own church, too.

‘Madam, Lazarus was dead as a mackerel.’ Saint was smooth, fingers busy with the Rolodex.

‘No. He may have looked to you like the proverbial mackerel but that was only his appearance. There is the appearance of death as there is the appearance of evil but these appearances are inside the viewer when he has been thinking wrong thoughts, negative thoughts, though they don’t exist outside, where God . . .’

‘Three parts of gin to one of vermouth?’

‘Cointreau. I’m getting a headache now, and I’ll soon be taking the channel-boat home. So I must be quick. I had no time at Lystra to ask you if you don’t agree that it’s all in the mind? Bad living, bad thoughts, death, illness . . .’

‘Mind is God. God is mind, of course, dear lady, of course. But to be mackerel-defunct is the exact opposite of being merry-grig funct and so . . .’

The lady clapped her hands, eyes aswim with tears. ‘You agree! I knew you would. I’ve based so much of my work in the lab on this higher knowledge that I am eager for your scientific validation. You see, I am, through God, a scientific healer not of souls but of minds. I am, I like to think, as strictly scientific in my approach as He was that day with the mackerel named Lazarus. Because, dangerously overweight or not . . .’

‘Lazarus.’

‘Jesus. Our Lord. Such a pity. The first of all doctors and healers cannot heal himself. Fat as a butterball. Bad colour. Short of breath. Naturally, he was obliged to live as a human being. But why gorge on codfish cakes? Scrod? Boiled beef, baked beans, Indian pudding?’

‘Dishes not native to Palestine, I fear . . .’

‘Scrapple. Whatever . . .’

‘Halvah was a weakness of our Lord. A kilo of mashed beans with olive oil was also a favourite – usually as a pre-sermon snack. Give him the carbohydrates and he’d let the proteins go. Naturally, he was a martyr to flatulence. Even after he was dead when we met on the . . .’

‘I know the story.’ She cut Saint short. ‘There is no death. It is all in the mind.’ She gave a loud belch; turned pink with embarrassment. ‘Oh, dear. Forgive me. The Welsh rarebit is repeating.’

‘I had not finished,’ said Saint mildly. ‘Let me tell you His own words to me on the freeway. Although a ghost, he looked just as he did in life except for a certain tendency to let the light shine through him. “How,” he asked me, “can I, at this weight, be a convincing Holy Ghost?” Well, I took the bull by the horns and said, “Look, there’s been talk of splitting you up into three parts – dad, son, ghost. Now if you were to be in the three sections . . .”‘

The lady gave a terrible cry. ‘I hate this! I’m nauseated. Presently I shall be nauseous as well. Three parts . . .’

‘Of gin to one of Cointreau. You’ve told me twice now. Anyway, I told Jesus, straight from the shoulder, that although this new doctrine was only on the drawing board, for his own peace of mind he could still go off to Gaza to this fat-farm, run by an old pal of mine from Mossad, Ben Hur. You remember him? How he beat the Roman in the chariot race by cheating? Well, he’s now in the fat-farm business and, get this! health food, too. Ben swears that a gramme of marinated locusts and dried goat-dung a day . . .’

The lady gave an eldritch scream. ‘My card,’ she added, opening her reticule and withdrawing a calling card, which Saint took just as she vanished with the mournful words, ‘Oh, my head!’

‘I’ll bet she has a hangover to end all hangovers. Cointreau with gin is a killer.’

‘What’s her name?’ Silas was moderately interested.

‘Mary Baker Eddy,’ Saint read from the card. ‘She’s pastor of the Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, wherever that is.’

‘Spain,’ said Silas, who had travelled quite a lot. ‘Is this the same Christ as ours?’

‘I doubt it. But I do think we’re in for a lot of copyright infringements.’

Automatically Paul put her name on the Rolodex. As he used to say, you never know who’s got the money. ‘It’s tough trying to hang on to a trademark. James-brother-of-our-Lord even went so far as to hire this smart Jew lawyer in Rome who specializes in copyright cases but, so far, all he’s been able to do is collect a large fee every quarter. James-brother-of-our-Lord is a schmuck because the problem is not how do you copyright the word Christ, which you can’t, but the cross as logo, which you can. Of course Pauline Christianity might be easier to copyright but,’ Saint whinnied happily, ‘that would be sacrilege, wouldn’t it?’

Silas and I then jumped him, tore off his tunic, and burned it by the Ferris wheel. Then we dumped the howling Saint into a nearby river.

Thus it was that we established the church at Philippi, in the presence of Mary Baker Eddy of Boston, Spain.

 

© Gore Vidal, 1990

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