The oldest god was MAAA.
Though he didn’t think with words like ‘god’ yet. Or spirits, or entities, or monsters, or angels or demons.
MAAA was primal, elemental. MAAA was under the house. MAAA came up through the heating vents when he wanted it to. MAAA was a charcoal gray collection of shadows. MAAA hadn’t much of a body, but he was everywhere. He would scrunch up his throat to make the deep voice, the growl. He would exhale the word “MAAA” as loudly and as gratingly as he could, and whoever was dressing or feeding him would be surprised, or amused. MAAA would appear.
To invoke MAAA was delicious wiggling ecstacy. Feeling MAAA arrive was the funniest and most powerful thing in the world.
The word MAAA was simple enough that he knew how to write it. MAAA could be summoned by writing his name. He began writing MAAA on scraps of paper that he left around for his family to find. When they found one, he roared with laughter.
He lay on the braided rug in the rumpus room, staring up at the ceiling. On the ceiling, lights were square white panels with metal frames. The lights did not hang down like the lights in the dining room, or sit, independent, on tables the way the lamps did. They looked like windows.
If he lay at the right angle angle, it seemed the lights were windows in a high-walled padded room. High above him in the blank-faced windows, scientists looked down at him, studying him. The alien, captured, under observation. They discussed him in quiet tones. What was he here for? What powers did he have?
He had been somewhere else, before he was born. He remembered bright lights and adult faces swirling around him. He remembered stars. He thought that he had been in a spaceship. That he had lived in Space, before he was born.
At night, the baseball field, a block away in the park, filled up with ocean water. This allowed ships to pass through at night. Lying in bed, with his brother already asleep, he heard the boats’ low whistles and the thrum of their engines. Night was full of quiet sounds, the hiss of the heater, or if it was summer, the breathy purr of an electric fan.
His brother read to him before they went to sleep. There was a battered, coverless treasury of Disney stories they liked, with stories of Brer Rabbit and Paul Bunyan. There were the Hardy Boys, and the Three Investigators.
Peter Pan flew over the house at night. He thought that if he slept on his stomach with one leg bent, knee pointed up, that Peter Pan might recognize it as his own ‘flying pose,’ and ask him to fly with him.
Dreams were important, but often brutal. He often dreamt of Elmer, his mother’s uncle who lived with them, and his mixed-beagle dog, Tippy. Down in the basement, where the intimidating box of the furnace reigned, next to its cylindrical accomplice the water heater, there were two massive, rust-colored sinks. His mother referred to these as the washtubs. The sinks leaned out imposingly from the concrete wall. Above the sinks were sweaty pipes. The tubs were where Elmer gave Tippy his baths, running the round nozzle of a rubber hose over the miserable dog, covered in suds. Elmer (whom they only called ‘Uncle’) wore a red rubber apron over his bare chest when he did this. In the daytime, he had watched Uncle bathe Tippy many times, hoping to give comfort to the forlorn dog. But, when he dreamed about it like this, it was terrifying.
Another time he dreamed of the house at night, the downstairs. The lights were out, but some light came in from the living room windows. You could see the small dining room. In the corner was the pale blue phonograph that belonged to his oldest sister. Uncle was kneeling in front of it. He put a record on, and it started to play.
Tippy began running in great circles around the house, the way he did when they came back from a summer vacation. He could make a whole circuit of the house, using the open doors that connected the rooms. This is what Tippy did when he was very excited. As Tippy ran past Uncle and the phonograph, after doing several rounds of the house, his fur seemed to catch on the phonograph. He kept running, but all his fur peeled off, snagged in one piece like fur pajamas on the side of the record player. Tippy continued to rocket around the house, Uncle paying no attention, all red muscle and white flashes of bone.
Existing side by side with the real world that he and his family lived in was television. In summer, his Dad would lie on the bed with the window open, and he and his brother would lie there with him. They would watch Perry Mason, The Untouchables, Greyhound Derby, and Bowling for Dollars. His Dad would explain the parts of the shows he didn’t understand, especially Perry Mason and The Untouchables, which were more complicated than the funny shows like The Honeymooners. The TV set was a small, portable, not like the large console TV set in the rumpus room. It sat on a tray table.
He understood that what they saw on television were plays and that the people who appeared in them were actors just pretending to be the people in the stories. Ralph Kramden was actually a person in the real world named Jackie Gleason. There had been a real Elliot Ness (his father had told him), but the man they watched on the TV show was a real life person named Robert Stack, who was just pretending to be Elliott Ness. Still, he believed that the stories themselves were real, just as they saw them on television, in another place. Space was that place. Outer Space. He imagined the starry blackness filled with screens as big as planets, and on those giant screens, the programs played, just as they played on the thick glass screen of their tiny black and white portable TV, but in Space the stories were real and the people were not actors.
At the same time, he believed that when his parents dressed up and went out, as they sometimes did, they might run into those actors who played parts on television. It had not occurred to him that those actors might live in other cities than the one he lived in. He would ask his dad if he ever saw Jackie Gleason or Robert Stack at another table when they had been out to a restaurant with their friends the night before.
Jimmy, you left your toys all over the living room. MAAA!!! He was absolved of all responsibility. He left a folded piece of paper with the word MAAA printed in big letters on it in a box where his older brother kept his savings. He waited for him to open it. He was exhilarated at his brother’s puzzled face as he finally did and unfolded the paper. MAAA could strike anywhere. No one was safe! MAAA—thrilling but bulky and gloomy, and for all the times he was summoned, distant—was gradually replaced by a new god, Goosby. Goosby was less powerful than MAAA, but more fun. Goosby was a rascal, a slippery, fun-loving con man. A prankster. Goosby reached through the serving window that connected the rumpus room and the kitchen and turned on the water in the sink when his mother wasn’t looking. Goosby looked a lot like the Grinch. He had watched the Grinch steal Christmas on TV.
He was carried along to Church every Sunday, but it was only when he started first grade that the presentation of the Catholic worldview was injected into his consciousness in earnest. He had always been intrigued by the statue just inside the white front door, of a child, almost a baby, dressed like a king, with a crown and satin robes of red and white. In his hand was a globe—the world. It was Jesus, baby Jesus, he who hung, crucified, as a man, on the wall in the hallway. He had been made aware of ‘God,’ a vague but protective presence, but he was aware of this God in a second-hand way. God made less of an impression than MAA had, or even Goosby.
When he was sick, his mother set him up on the couch in the rumpus room, across from the big TV. If it was a cold, or the barking croupe, his mother smeared Vick’s VapoRub was on his chest. Then she pinned a dry washcloth to the inside of his pajamas, on top of the gooey Vick’s VapoRub. The TV was turned on for him. Whenever he was kept home sick from school, he could choose whatever programs he liked all day, except for those times of the afternoon when his mother’s soap operas were on. He made fun of all the characters on the soaps operas, but he learned all of their names and what they were up to.
A special thing about watching television was that he was allowed to relentlessly make fun of the adults in the shows. In comedies, they did one stupid thing after another, and he could say so, in a way he would never be allowed to make fun of real life adults. He could give them rude nicknames and, better, imitate them, and highlight the things that were stupid or annoying about them. His family was entertained by his jokes and impressions, which made it all the more satisfying.
Captain Kangaroo came on first thing in the morning. He didn’t really like Captain Kangaroo, but there was something comforting about watching it when he was under the covers breathing the thick menthol fumes of Vick’s VapoRub. Still, Captain Kangaroo was too silly and slapstick for him. The Captain always fell for Bunny Rabbit’s tricks, no matter how obvious they were. Mr. Green Jeans was alright. Mr. Green Jeans reminded him a bit of Uncle. But he was not as scary as Uncle, who was gruff and burly ,with tattoos on his forearms: a tough old tough guy who used to work in the shipyards.
He liked The Friendly Giant, but that didn’t come on till afternoon, on Channel 13, the Canadian station. Canada was very close to Detroit, just over the Ambassador Bridge.. The Friendly Giant usually played music with his puppet friends, Jerome the giraffe and Rusty the chicken.
But the best things to watch while staying home sick from school were the afternoon movies. High on Ny-Quil, a sinister green liquid cold remedy his mother would give him in a small clear plastic cup, his mind was blown by movies like Jason and the Argonauts and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Jason fighting sword-wielding skeletons, and Robin Hood winning the archery contest by splitting his opponent’s arrow in half with his own shot, dead center in the bull’s eye, though he knows winning the contest will reveal his identity and end in his capture.
Long-ignored MAAA, almost forgotten Goosby … The gang of stuffed animals, Pinky, Terry, Davy and the rest, were played with less and less as they became less alive and more stuffed with every passing day … These personages were replaced by the colorful and endless cascade of half hour doses of Green Acres, the Beverly Hillbillies, the Addams Family, Mister Ed and My Favorite Martian, Lassie, the Mouseketeers and Daniel Boone. The colorful alternate worlds—literally colorful, now that more and more shows were being broadcast in “living color,” as the announcer’s voice would intone before a show started, while an animated NBC peacock spread its colorful plumes.
Tippy was a huge presence in his mind and heart. Tippy’s kind brown eyes, and the white stripe than ran between them down to his nose; the blaze of his white chest against the honey brown fur of the rest of him; the red, studded harness on his shoulders and neck. Tippy would put his front paws up on the chair and burrow his snout behind him to try to coax him out of his chair when he wanted to play. He went from being the family dog to being his dog. Uncle had brought Tippy home one cold winter night. Tippy’s real name was Tipford Charles the Third. He had been held prisoner by an insidious group of villains called the Krone Brezheen, before being rescued by Uncle. Tippy did not like dog toys, but there was one exception. It was a sweat sock stuffed with other socks, tied in a knot at the end. Its name was Sock Doll and it was always crusty with Tippy’s dried saliva. Tippy would run at you with Sock Doll between his teeth, and push Sock Doll into you till you played Tug of War. Then he would run, shaking the doll, its two ends of Sock Doll slapping against the sides of his head.
In the middle of town there was a war memorial, with solemn bronze plaques listing all the citizens who had fought or died in the Second World War. There was a statue of a single soldier with a rifle on top of the monument. His father and all of his uncles’ names were on it. But none of them had died in the war.
Dad had been shot in the War, but he would never answer in detail when he asked him what it felt like to be shot. The most he would say is ‘it hurt like hell.’
Beneath one of the memorial’s 14 plaques was a secret door, and soldiers in tunnels beneath the monument were busy defending the country. It was the same with the altar at the church. The little gold door at the center of the marble altar, where they kept the chalice used for Communion. There were shiny tunnels and corridors behind it, and the priests crawled through them at night on their hands and knees, trying to glimpse the Holy Spirit.
He was given a pink stuffed bear. He saw the bear in his mind, falling slow motion from a great height, and landing in a box of tissue paper. He named it Pinky Cuddles. He dreamt about the bear. A personality emerged from it. Pinky was a rascal, but not so wild or disruptive as Goosby, who was starting to show up less and less. More stuffed animals followed. Davy, a yellow duck; Terry, a brainy rabbit; Bobby the bulldog. He invented all sorts of interactions between the stuffed animals, sometimes with his brother’s assistance, though his brother was clearly too old for stuffed toys.
Both men and women had penises. To make a baby, the penises were joined with a rubber tube, the type of thing adults would hide in drawers or make vague guilty references to when kids were not around. In the space between their intubated members, some sort of fluid would be exchanged. Maybe it was pee. But only the woman could become pregnant.
The whole family went to the Elmwood Casino in nearby Windsor to see a dinner show. He was still small enough to sit in a booster seat. The casino restaurant was fancy, and it had stage shows that you could watch while you ate dinner. It was a very adult sort of place, the sort of place where Jackie Gleason or Robert Stack might be sitting at the next table. If he saw one of them, he imagined they might come over to talk to his parents, and he would get to meet them. The star attraction of the night was an actress name Tessie O’Shea. She was a bosomy blonde woman who sang and told jokes. Her dress was covered with sequins. She noticed him sitting at the table, in his booster seat, just as she started a slow love song. To his amazement she came to the edge of the stage and sang it directly to him, looking into his eyes, and even brushing his cheek as she finished. His world became puffy blond hair and large blue eyes and the strong smell of perfume, and, of course, the sound of her voice so close to his face.
His oldest sister and he fought a lot. He would tease her relentlessly till he got on her nerves. She put on airs. She called his parents ‘Mother and Father,’ while to his brother and other sister, they were just Mom and Dad. She was studying Greek and Latin and would either be a nun or a teacher one day. She had a temper, and found some reason to get upset with someone on every holiday, and storm off to her room.
Still, she took him seriously. She always looked at his drawings and read his stories. She encourage him and taught him Latin words and the Greek alphabet. He had a little crush on his other sister. He liked her long blonde hair, and that, unlike his brother, she would get in trouble, and talk back to their parents.
His earliest memory of his mother: her putting blue food coloring into a white basin of water. She put a tin wind-up motorboat in it. Perhaps earlier, the long hanging fringe on a buckskin coat she wore.
Something exciting was supposed to happen on TV. Everyone was talking about a band from England called the Beatles, and they were going to be on the Ed Sullivan show. His oldest sister liked records that he made fun of, like Lemon Tree, and those high-pitched songs by the Four Seasons. It was his second oldest sister who was excited about the Beatles. They came on Ed Sullivan’s show and the whole family marveled at their long hair, Uncle tisked. But the ‘lads from Liverpool’—as Ed Sullivan called them—were fun and lively, and even his mother liked their songs. His second oldest sister bought their album, and she would listen to it on the big record player in the basement, which he had learned how to use. When no one was around, he would lie in the laundry pile in front of the washing machine and the washtubs and listen to Meet the Beatles. He wanted to be an artist, but he decided that he would be a musician and start a band as well. He wanted to be a jockey and a trick horseback rider too, and also design a zoo and build a flying machine.
He began asking for musical instruments for Christmas. An electric organ; a guitar, naturally, but odder things too from the Sears catalog, like a concertina. Once a friend of his older brother came to the house. His name was David Wasaluski, but everyone called him ‘Waz,’ and his reputation was that of the best guitar player in town. He pestered Waz to show him how to play something. Waz taught him how to plunk out the melody of ‘Wipe Out!’
But his favorite thing was drawing. Specifically, making drawings that told stories. He saw A Charlie Brown Christmas on TV. He had followed the comic strip in the newspaper every day, and now he was seeing Charlie Brown and Snoopy and the rest all come to life in a cartoon. The Charlie Brown gang reminded him of his gang of stuffed animals and the things that happened to them in his made-up scenarios. But something different was inspired by A Charlie Brown Christmas. He wanted to make a cartoon just like it. He wanted to know how drawings were made to move, and so he began to read whatever he could find on animation. The books available to him were fairly rudimentary, and some of the Disney books on how cartoons were made were still a bit too advanced for him, but the frame-by-frame ‘persistence of vision’ idea was easy to understand. He started drawing an animated Snoopy story on the big pads of paper his Dad brought home. He would trace the picture he’d just drawn, making each successive picture just slightly different than the one that came before it. He did quite a few frames, maybe a hundred, before the project was abandoned. He had no way to film the pictures, the way a real animator could do.
He was sent to a Catholic grade school. Good work was rewarded with holy cards. They had wonderfully painted pictures on them of Jesus and his mother, Mary. There were also angels, who looked like people but had halos and bird wings. Other cards depicted people who had served Jesus’ father, God, best. They were called saints. Jesus had a second, (human) father on Earth, an ordinary man named Joseph. Joseph became a saint though, and he was the inventor of little orange aspirins. He was usually depicted on Christmas holy cards, leading a donkey with Mary sitting atop it, trying to find a place for Jesus to be born. The Holy Spirit was a dove that always had gold beams shooting from him. The cards were printed so that the beams looked like real gold.
He got off to a bad start in First Grade when he signed his assignment ‘Jimmy,’ as his parents called him. Sister Rita Ann returned it and said ‘We use our proper names here, James.’ But after that, it was fine. He enjoyed school, and he could read pretty well already, thanks to watching the words go by as his brother read aloud to him before bed. Reading and writing were given a great deal of emphasis at his school, Our Lady of Lourdes; numbers and math perhaps slightly less. The story of Jesus and the foundations of the Catholic faith were clearly the most important part of the curriculum. God and Jesus were a major part of every school day. His favorite way of receiving these lessons was when they were shown filmstrips, picture stories that were projected slide by slide on a pull-down movie screen at the front of the classroom. A picture at a time, with narration from a record player, ping! when its time to go on to the next picture.
There was one series of filmstrips that particularly captivated him. It was called The Story of Cree, the Jungle Boy. Cree was born to a tribe in a jungle. They had never heard of God or Jesus. Cree lived in a world of thrilling and exotic animal gods, spirits and demons. It was enthralling, and the depictions of the beings were blazingly colored and even intimidating. Tiger gods and snake spirits! He was reminded of the citizens of his own inner world. He became less enamored of the series once Catholic missionaries showed up in Cree’s village, and began teaching them the ways of the Church.
He was actually bowled over by the whole life of Christ, though, as taught by the nuns. The sacrifice of Christ seemed profoundly heroic to him, and very moving. But there was at the same time something terrifying about Catholicism. He lay awake in bed at night, terrified by the idea of Hell. He worried about dying, and God didn’t always seem willing to protect just anyone from such a fate, if their actions warranted being sent there.
Sometimes he would be looking at a person’s face, and in a matter of seconds their face would age, rot, crumble and disintegrate, then just as quickly become normal again. Sometimes when he listened, the speaker would get stuck on the last syllable spoken, and it would repeat in a disturbing, hammering echo. “Turn to page ten of your book-ook-ook-ook-ook ook-ook …”
He did well in class. He was particularly good at commenting on the meaning of the Bible stories they read. But approval of his ideas wasn’t guaranteed. It was definitely not given by Sister Rita Ann, when he shared his intention to make an animated film about the life of Jesus and the apostles, with all of them cast as a different breed of dog. Jesus would be a beagle, like Tippy.
On Christmas, he was given an easel and paints, and he spent a lot of time making paintings that he would ‘unveil’ for his family in the living room. He was enrolled in a weekend art class. He liked the thick smell of the lumpy tempera paints and the messy excitement of an art room. The first day in class he painted faces that looked like the African masks he’d seen on a deck of cards that had one mask on each card. The teacher told his mother he was very talented and she should encourage his interest in art.
The church was right next door to the school. It was a grand, mysterious place. At its entrance was a life-sized recreation of the Virgin Mary’s visit to young Saint Bernadette. A grotto with running water from the high rocks, Bernadette looking up in prayer, Mary gazing down from a perch among the high hanging rocks. Along the sides of the Church itself ran the Stations of the Cross, as series of sculpted plaques that told the whole story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Each ‘station’ took the story further, much like the pictures in his comic books did.
He was excited by the Scholastic Book Club. Catalogues were passed out every month or so, and you would order all the books you wanted. When they arrived at the classroom, it was like Christmas, everyone opening up the books they’d ordered. His parents were big on books, so he could order as many as he wanted. His favorite books were about horses. He loved horses, even though he was a city kid. He read The Black Stallion and Golden Sovereign. He would own horses one day. He would learn trick riding, and be a jockey at the racetrack in Detroit.
Peter Pan appeared to him sometimes, an almost-invisible sparkling, in the shape of a boy. There was another Peter that lived in the attic, but this was St. Peter, in the form of a dove. He saw the white bird fly in or out from between the slats of the small attic window. He pointed the bird out to his brother one day, who said it was a pigeon, not a dove. But he knew it was a dove, and that it was St. Peter or possibly the Holy Spirit.
One day his oldest sister took him to the Cranbrook Arts Institute. It was an art school with a museum, and beautiful gardens. In the park, there was a long stretch of sidewalk where a train with a string of empty cars behind it had been painted directly onto the concrete. The idea was that kids would use chalk to draw whatever they wanted to in the train cars. He started drawing animal passengers in them, concentrating very hard. Some other kids drew with him, but they lost interest quickly and moved on. He stayed till he’d put an animal in each car. He wanted to do things like this for the rest of his life.
At home he made up puppet plays and performed them for his family. He built time machines.
The world was bigger than his house now. But his first real epiphany had happened much earlier, in the bedroom where he’d watched Perry Mason with his Dad and his brother, in the days of MAAA and Goosby. It was a vision, a sudden burst of understanding, from nowhere, that happened one night while his parents were out and he and his siblings were spending time in the bedrooms upstairs. Downstairs, Uncle sat in his chair reading the paper. The television was on. His brother watched the evening shows on the little TV, watched the stories, happening in Space, beamed down, through the sky down to earth down to River Rouge, down to the flickering gray screen where Ralph Kramden became an actor named Jackie Gleason, playing a part in a televised play. In the room his sisters shared, only ten feet away, his second oldest sister listened to pop music on a transistor radio. His oldest sister sat at her tidy wooden desk, reading. The vision, the revelation, was the interconnectedness of all things, and that this connectedness was driven by information, a swirling ball of transmissions, from newspapers, from satellites, to TV screens, from spidery radio towers to tiny turquoise radios, from authors to books to readers who in turn would write more books. It was the engine of life all around him and he was a part of it. It was the reason for being here. It throbbed with the cosmic breath of MAAA, it was fed by the pranks of Goosby. Racing greyhounds, God, Tessie O’Shea, the Beatles, Jesus, Peter Pan, vampires, monsters, angels, and Elliot Ness were all a part of it. His mind lit up with a perception that music, art, stories, and the transmission and sharing of them was the shimmering, ever-changing fuel that propelled everything. And he was a part of it. He had no words for what he suddenly understood. But he observed his brother and his sisters with a silent, beaming benevolence gotten from this revelation.
The next time he laid out on the rumpus room floor, the scientists would see the change in him from those high observation windows. The alien got it. He got what Earth was all about.
The alien had arrived, and was one of us.