“If you laugh at some sacred object, you change it.”
When I saw this line on my fave experimental poetry website, I knew I had to test it. See how far it ran.
Back then I had a stage manager named Frank. He was a White Christian Male. I liked keeping a few on staff of my Retaeht Experimental Theater Company for diversity. I mean, experimental theater? With hard-core Christians? Now that’s multi-culti.
Frank was a problem solver. So I brought him our biggest one: We needed to boost revenue and grants during our next season, or else risk dinner theater.
“People will pay $10 to laugh their asses off at a crucifix,” I said.
“Nix,” said Frank.
But what is the point of being lord of a tiny empire, an Artistic Mussolini, if you can’t Muss?
“If You Laugh at Some Sacred Object” opened big. Sold out four weeks straight.
Company actors who didn’t conscientiously object kicked off the crack-ups on a stage arranged like the front a chapel. They led audience members up to join in, one by one, until everyone who wanted to be on stage was up there giggling.
Problem was, I fell in love with one of them. The Christians, I mean.
All his impassioned talk of His Love. How precious I was to Him.
Serious meth for the middle-aged professional woman’s soul.
When the cross got old, we went niche.
Had BDSMers laugh at their whips.
GenXers guffawed at their phones.
School administrators’ bellies shook like bowls full of jelly at student performance data.
All the while: Me loving Frank with heat harsh as moonshine from a hog barrel.
“Who’s Afraid of Old-Timey Farm Similes?” was one of our best-received pieces, back when I first started Retaeht. We won awards for that one.
But by the time I brought Frank on (the way old hay brings on colic) I was six years past that acclaim. Desperate for new recognition. Some mark of distinction.
Ambition pulled a band of pressure across the entire back of my skull.
Aside from that, I had pretty much lost the ability to feel, before Frank showed up. Which was finfinefine. There was so much to do besides feel. Think, for example. One of my favorites.
Then love came and woke an entire hive of bees inside me.
The swarm moved, sang, set up shop, humped its queen, and shoved royal jelly into the mouths of blind larva blanched with slime. I felt all of this.
I thought maybe I was losing some focus.
Anyway, the problem with my problem was that my problem was married.
After I took his ring finger in my mouth. Pulled off his wedding band with my teeth. And spat it out beside the hotel bed. Etc.
After all that.
It was time to laugh at love. Or so I thought.
There were some big grantmakers coming. The Fund for Thinky Theater and The Art in Your Face Foundation were sending program managers from The City to consider funding our next season. Word of #IYLASSO had reached their ears over the virtual transom and they wanted to check us out.
We had a troupe meeting to consider possible sacred objects for our love bit. Someone brought a chocolate cock, explaining, “It has caramel in it.” Someone else brought a pair of chocolate wedding doves.
“Ha ha! Ha!” I made Bonham-Carter madcap sounds that were not laughs.
Frank, not laughing either, picked up the cock and said all we’d done so far had been a mélange of mediocre jokes and unsurprising commentary. The only time we’d tried laughing at a truly sacred object had been the crucifix, and even that was just an idol so ha ha on us.
He was ticked because I cut him off a week before. Too much moosh. I wanted my ambition headaches back.
Frank went on, saying fools and cowards know how to laugh. “But truly brave artists risk depth of meaning. And lasting impact!”
He smashed the cock on our conference table and it broke into a few concave pieces. Turned out the thing was hollow. After a few hungry swipes, the troupe left no sign it had ever existed.
I didn’t like the cut of Frank’s gibberish about laughter not being impactful.
Once upon a time, I had feathered one of my own soft ears across the hollow of his throat while he was laughing. And the easy, sweet molasses of this man’s joy had filled me through.
But he had a point about risking depth of meaning. And he hadn’t mentioned Rhymes-with-Beezus once in his rant, so.
That’s where the seeds for our longest-running show were sown.
It was a one-woman called “Footnote to Howl,” after the postscript to Ginsberg’s famous poem. It was set in the bottom of a drained public pool. On opening night, the two funders stood at the edge like a pair of nuts dangling off a calf in a castration chute.
I climbed down a silver ladder and dropped into the deep end.
I looked up at Frank’s wife, standing next to him, her ionically straightened blond hair incandescent with afternoon light.
Pointing to my own medusa locks, brittle and kinked, I uttered one word: “Holy.”
Pointed to a security guy’s shoelace.
Then to some guy’s hat. Then to the program in my hand. Then to Frank’s wife’s hair. Another lady’s crotch. A book. The grass under Frank’s feet. A mosquito. A chain link. A solitude of cars in a lot.
“Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy. Holy.”
I kept going.
Lips. Beggar. Sprinkler. Dirt. Sky.
When I got done naming everything in sight “Holy,” I turned to the funders and waved a naked hand before them, saying “This, ladies and gentlemen, is just the beginning.”
Note: The first line of the story is taken from a poem called “Spare a Traveler Some?” by Lauren Hilger
Maria Kelson’s poetry collections (published as “Maria Melendez” with University of Arizona Press) have been finalists for the PEN Center USA Literary Award, the International Latino Book Award, and the Colorado Book Award. Her writing appears in Poetry magazine, Ms. Magazine, and elsewhere. Her mystery novel-in-progress won the Eleanor Taylor Bland Award for crime fiction writers of color from Sisters in Crime. She teaches literature and writing at Pueblo Community College in southern Colorado.