By Maria Kelson
“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
Holyholyholy Wow….This was a trip to read! The pacing was perfect! I felt like I was watching a video filmed in time-lapse interrupted by brief moments of slow-mo, which served to disorient me, make me question what was really real (or, rather, sacred).
This piece takes the reader on a fast, wild ride through a gamut of emotions. Your a poet and a flash fiction writer extraordinaire. You left me wanting more. Well done, Maria.
Thank you, Chris!
Incredible, insightful writing, Maria. I hung on every word, and your message! Your poetry backgrounds shines even in your flash fiction. Well done.
Thanks so much, bellwriter!!
Thank you, Jamie! The spectacular, trippy poem that launched this for me is called “Spare a Traveler Some?” by Lauren Hilger, and it originally appeared in May on thenervousbreakdown.com. ( Let’s see if links work in this box: http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/lhilger/2016/05/spare-a-traveler-some/ )
I appreciate the read, muchisimo.
Love came and woke an entire hive of bees. Love it! Great story, Maria!
Pity the poor readers who have to read these vanity pieces and then question their own ability to understand them……..
Hey, mujer. Nice. I miss you. This piece had heart.
Juliana, think about submitting a piece here to FFM!
I haven’t had the pleasure of taking two days to consume a piece like this in a very long time. I feel like life is on 1.5x and getting faster. But this made me slow way down.
I am sad at the smashing of empty chocolate cocks and that everything is holy and that she never got to laugh. I am thrilled at her defiance. I laughed, a lot, at “Thinky Theater” and Retaeht and my own dictionary, which I kept near me.
Thank you for making me keep the dictionary close. If I multiplied Baudrillard by Shrek, I would not have found more layers.
Baudrillard by Shrek! Now that’s some math I’d love to do! Thank you very much for this feedback.
Interesting and multi-layered. I loved the flow of the prose, and your poetic background is obvious from the writing. I love being challenged when I read and you made me think. Definitely a story for me to come back to and reflect on.
I appreciate this response! Thank you, David!
What an incredible story! As I do with your poetry, Maria, I will be revisiting it many times, taking away more each time.
You are such an amazing writer, Maria!
<3 = Pointing to my own medusa locks, brittle and kinked, I uttered one word: “Holy.”
I appreciate the kind comment, Cynthia, & the section you chose for your pull-quote tells me we have a bond… 🙂
I feel like a bottle of pop that got shook up and opened. What a fun blast of fizz and ideas!
Well, effervescent Peg, great response! I send two liters of thanks.
Maria, you have successfully blended poetry and fiction into a crazy psychedelic ride.
Funny you should say that. This was me trying to play it straight, structurally, and pull back on the psychedelia. Guess one writer’s straight is another’s reader’s crazy! Thanks for reading, and for the feedback about the po’/fic frapp. And I shall call it: “Ficetry.” No. “Potion.”
So funny and well done, Maria. So many favorite and memorable lines, but this one really stuck with me: “Then love came and woke an entire hive of bees inside me.” Thanks for this!
So glad there were some laughs and lines that lingered. Much obliged!
Fantastic. Such a unique and funny voice from the main character. I want her to tell me stories all the time. I really felt for Frank near the end, but I got there without you getting into meladrama, because you filtered it through her non-mooshy perspective. Excellent. And then, to top it all off, the final show ends up being a poingant twist on laughing at things, by instead implying that everything is holy. This kind of idea would normally make me dreck, but the way it implies a softening of the main character made it not just pallatable, but heartening. Good work.
“Heartening.” A reader-response star I could wish upon, and steer toward, over the course of a life’s work. Thank you for these reactions.