Alphabet City Coronation
“C and D. C and D.” The siren song of Alphabet City wafted through the air of the alphabet avenues. “Coke and dope.”
Ted stood with Jason at 9th Street and Avenue C, looking down toward Avenue D remembering the first time he had seen Elroy: in Boston, in the basement of a dilapidated building. He entered like a jolt of electricity and prowled, snarling in an undertone, making circuits around the front of the room. His head was bent down, eyes boring into the floor, showing filthy and unkempt hair hanging down limp and ragged but angry, electric, channeling its carrier’s rage into the tips of the strands.
He lifted his head; the room crackled with black and white static buzzing energy. His mouth roared open and shot words like bullets, spattering into the tense crowd.
“What do you want from me? Why are you here? You worthless pigs, I’ll tell you why you’re here. You’re here for me. You want to see me bleed. You want to eat my pain and you want some of your own for yourself—your own and mine too, you filthy swine.” His hand flashed and he whipped a blade across his forehead: blood seeped down into his scraggly eyebrows, red drops hanging off the hairs.
“Do you think he’ll do it?” Jason asked Ted.
“What? Kill himself on stage? If he does I bet he’ll take some people with him.”
Jason nodded slowly, pensively.
My skin is paper and this knife is my pen—He had said that, in Boston, Ted remembered. As he cut himself and the red lines blazed upon his body and began to drip.
Abruptly Cynthia appeared in view. Ragged and possibly junked-up, she was swaying slightly as if with the wind.
“What do you think about?” she queried.
“You got anything to drink? Or something else maybe?”
“I think you’re doing OK now, huh?” Jason countered.
“What do you know about it? And what business is it of yours?” Her whole body seemed to be within a turbulent sea, lurching in the foam. But then she softened, near-falling onto Jason, splayed fingers of pasty splotched hands, nails with black flecks of polish, clutching at his jacket. “Aw, I didn’t mean it. To get mad, I mean. You got anything on you, huh? Hey, just a drink or a joint or something.” She looked at him pleadingly, with a tired sad smile on her face.
“You know what I really need, though,” she continued, those eyes flickering flame across the sky, “you know that I need the man. He’s going to do it today, or so they say. If he does I want to go with him. If he doesn’t then I’ll still be with him, because we’ll both be here on earth. I can feel him, you know—I can feel his presence everywhere. And I know he feels me—I know he knows me. And so I might die today, but if I do I will be grateful and I will know my life meant something, that it had a purpose.” And she lifted her head high into nothing.
Jason said, “You know what Earl said he’d do if Elroy dies? Earl said that he’d stop touring and write. He said that Elroy’s said so many things that need recording that he could spend a year just writing them down. And then spread the word to all those who are looking for it.”
Ted replied, “He must have a good memory. Especially since I didn’t think he’d been around much until the past couple years. Though you hear people say that Earl helped him get started. But do you recognize any of the people who say that? They’re older, and they’ve got strange scars and tattoos, and some of them say they’re from where Earl and Elroy came from. Why are they appearing here in New York?”
“The streets of Manhattan will be smeared with blood and it shall be the blood of the Anointed Prophet and his Disciples! The sidewalks will be caked with gore; a rain of blood shall fall all upon the city; the sewers will be choked with the mutilated organs of the grinning dead, those who were fortunate enough to be trampled upon by the King himself in this, His Final Call to the Faithful—”
This Apostle is pacing near the Gas Station’s entrance, his stringy filthy hair swaying aside his gaunt face. His wild fire-eyes scan invisible objects and incinerate them. People stand edgily by to listen and watch: their faces conduct the electricity of the air and of the Apostle’s words while their nervous eyes and ears attend the sermon.
The Gas Station had been encrusted entirely with urban mosaic: bottlecaps and jagged multicolored glass embedded onto the ruins of the pumps and small service hut, a corroded, grimly psychedelic way station for people travelling into oblivion. Ted, Jason and Cynthia approached the Station. Crossing the final street, Cynthia unconsciously crossed herself, sloppily, then reddened. “Guess I’m still a Catholic girl,” she joked weakly; she attempted a smile but it failed and she looked away as Ted stared into the maw of the Station and thought:
The end of the line: for a decade since Elroy emerged from the region of his origin, home of the original American religious pioneers, he has been travelling an increasingly diminishing circuit. A year after he left Boston he reappeared in Jacksonville, Florida: he had been marching down the main city thoroughfare, dragging an unconscious and battered woman behind him. Triumphantly he proclaimed to the citizens that he had just emerged from an all-night session of ferocious warfare with some imperial otherworldly being who had turned the woman against him; this Being he had finally succeeded in expelling from the woman, although with some collateral damage. He had himself been injured in his struggles with the Fiend, as he was bruised and bloodied, especially about the steadily collecting and increasing mass of scar tissue that constituted his forehead.
The circuit narrowed. Up and down the east coast from Providence to South Carolina: New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore and D.C., then down to Richmond. Over to Tidewater then, Norfolk and the old pirate-haunted ports of the Carolinas. Maybe it was inevitable that he would end up here. He’s penning himself in, consolidating his borders and his powers. He’s getting older—he’s older than his age, and he’s even older than he looks. How much more blood does he have to give?
I guess we’ll find out today.
There was no stage, only a simple drum set and a microphone. A clique of people in the front-left part of the audience had begun speaking in low tones amongst themselves, and a buzz of weird energy was emerging from their group. They broke free, as if at a signal, and faded away before the one left standing in position, a tall hooded monk with burning eyes. His lips parted to show broken jagged teeth and he said, to no one and to everyone:
“This day will end in destruction and in rebirth. From violence will come peace, through death, love. I am the center of the movement and my axis today will tilt but not deviate: it will right itself and the world.”
The monk’s adherents fanned out physically and psychically; a trembling nervous-edged frenzy swept the first row and began to filter back, a fever tinted with a kind of fear that was present before the mustering of the monks but was now increasing in strength. The lead monk scanned the room slowly and then, appearing satisfied with the growing fervor and apprehension, looked towards the front of the room.
The drummer appeared. Totally naked, and with a glassy alien look to his face, he moved as though he were already drumming, the beats on the skins syncopating with every motion of his body, which seemed covered in oil, as it somehow glistened, his ropey muscles looping underneath the sheen. He sat on his stool and without a pause began to drum a slow and tense, hypnotic pattern.
The effect on the room was instantaneous—it was as though the whole crowd had become a transmitter, plugged into the power generated in the room. Cynthia at once swooned into the crowd, allowing herself to be subsumed within it, and I’m right there with them thought Ted maybe I’m still in control of myself but only barely—I’m riding the crest of the wave so I can see but it’s a dangerous spot he felt himself surging forward, being pushed by the swarm massed behind him. He looked at Jason; Jason’s lips were parted and there was foam at the sides of them he’s gone too Ted thought with some surprise I guess he wanted to go but I’m going to hold on and see my way through this with open eyes—
Elroy emerged from shadows, taking his place at the front of the microphone. The audience tensed up tightly and then released its energy shudderingly toward the man in front of them. He received it, devoured it, and returned:
“I am the errant son of a demented god! I am Elroy! I am Le Roy! I am the King!”
The crowd howled: “Deliver! Deliver it! Deliver us!”
“Oh, I am here to provide deliverance! I’m here for you today, today and forever after! On this my last day on your earth I will give myself to you fully! Now scream for it! I want to hear you scream!”
And the crowd obliged. The barren walls echoed mightily with the shouts of the demons pent-up within. Ted saw Jason’s mouth now wide open and roaring, his eyes squinting tightly against Elroy’s aura. Cynthia was moaning like an animal, propped up on her feet by a small band of men who had gathered behind her, pushing and prodding at her. Their fingers pressed and grasped her all over and she reclined into a cataclysm of soft violence.
I am alone Ted thought. Alone with the King. He stared at Elroy’s face, though he could not bring himself to look into his eyes. A spiked beard curved up the sides of his mouth without culminating in a moustache: his upper lip was raw and bare and it bristled and shook with a rage only partially given vent by the words flowing from it. Above his ragged eyebrows that mass of scar tissue constituting a forehead gave way to a bald, bruised head lined with deep cryptic scars. His aura shone brightly, burning through the room, emanating directly from those eyes Ted could not quite bear to look at. But he knew they were red, and signified blood.
“And to you I will be like a river!” Elroy roared. “Yes, a river of myself delivered unto you, through you, upon you! I shall wash myself all over you, and you shall be cleansed with my being, and it will be good. This is how I shall take my leave of this world. And this is how you will deliver yourselves unto the Promised Land, upon an ocean of my blood. So feel it, brothers and sisters! Feel me!” His head stretched itself out so far that it seemed detached from his body.
“Don’t be afraid of pain, my brethren. Embrace it! There is no pain at my level—there is only depth of experience. What you think of as pain I know to be the revealing of truth, the shedding of layers of skin. Cut it all away!”
The crowd had merged into one rapturous body around Ted, enveloping him. He felt himself the sole individual enclosed tightly within a uniform ball, a warm sickly sticky mass. His eyes shifted to Jason—entranced and oblivious to all else with his mouth open and tongue lolling, given up fully to the Mass and its Deliverer—then Cynthia, now fully enveloped by her supporters, incorporated into them, their tentacles grasping and gathering.
Elroy’s head recoiled onto his body then he reared back and hurled out a magnificent roar, an immense sound that burst forth from his chest to fill those of the crowd. As his cry began to die out—taking on new life within the bodies of his followers—with a gnarled arm he ripped off his flimsy shirt and hurled it into the crowd. The sleeves helicoptered the shirt over Ted’s head into the crowd and as he saw hands reach out and snatch it he had another flashback, so powerful that for an instant he shut his eyes and was not in the Gas Station, not in New York at all, but Wisconsin I think somewhere open and pure standing in front of a bone-white piece of statuary I could see the open ground all around, solemn and quiet and grey like the shirt it spread out from the shirt all over the landscape the man wearing it had black-rimmed hollow eyes. The shirt had Elroy’s face on the front with a terrifying grin and the eyes were white spots like twin burning stars.
Ted opened his eyes to see a thick red cross carved into Elroy’s chest. In front of his stunned eyes the lurid cross brightened, as though a light switch had been flicked on within, and it began to bleed. The river in his speech called itself forth from his body, from the emblazoned cross, and blood spilled forth from all points and flooded Ted’s eyes: through a red film he saw Elroy writhe on the floor and the front row carving him with knives, slashing and hacking, with crimson gouts spurting from his horizontal body, a bloody geyser. And then everyone disappeared and Ted was alone with Elroy, above him somehow, staring down at his abused torso and into those eyes that burned through him and Ted gasped because for a moment he thought he saw—
No it’s nothing a hallucination. The drumming poured staccato into his brain. Elroy’s cross was dull red again but in his hand was a scalpel. With a sickening grin he twirled it in his hand and then paused, the instrument poised delicately just to the side of his nipple. It hovered there for a moment, and he yelled, “The Last Communion is at hand!” then struck into his flesh and scraped the blade directly across his chest. A seething new lash joined the old healed ones. The brightness of the newly unearthed blood seemed to stain Ted’s eyes, and he blinked rapidly, to make sure that what he saw was real.
Elroy ripped the blade down vertically now, completing the sign of the cross. And it did shine anew, Ted saw, the bright red cross blazed upon its dull template. And Elroy shouted, “This is my blood: drink it like wine!” The monks in the front, who had tightened their hold on the head of the audience, cordoned the rest off while four of their number stepped to Elroy. They formed their own cross with two positioned at the nipples to suck at the slashed corners while the other two went to the center, one upright with his head bowed onto Elroy’s chest and the other crouching, half under the upper monk’s legs, to lick at the drippings trickling down towards the Gas Station floor.
Elroy’s eyes rolled back in brutal ecstasy. Then, at a low moan from him, the four monks stepped back to form a spearhead, supported by the powerful base of the front-line monks.
He stretched out his left arm. “And this is my flesh: you will devour it!” As he finished his command the scalpel slid down the arm; it bumped and sliced, jagging its way to the wrist, where it left off its work bleeding and spent. The nearest monk pounced upon Elroy’s arm and, seizing a dangling piece of skin with his teeth, tore it off and with it reared off into the shadows.
“I am the son of God and I am the son of man! Whatsoever you seek you shall find here with me now! My body is your temple; feed upon it now and forever after!”
The monks broke and re-formed their line as a narrow, guarded passageway leading directly to Elroy. And now a parade of believers dashed through, one at a time in quick succession, each attempting to hurl themselves upon the King, whose bloody arm thrust each heavily aside with the mechanization of ritual.
And then at some signal the line stopped, the monks closed ranks, and Elroy stepped back into the shadows, reemerging a moment later with a shining curved sword. The crowd squirmed and squealed; one of the monks raised his hand in the air and began to circle it in a fist above his head. The other monks soon followed suit, and the front line became a chain of circling fists in the air, the drumbeats snaking around the rhythmic orbits.
Elroy gazed intently at the hypnotic circles, then shut his eyes and seemed to briefly fall into a reverie. But a moment later his eyes sprang open and he joined the music: his fist clenching the sword it swung up and above his head, and then around, in a savage looping orbit.
The first sacrifice burst through the line in a blaze of fury—a form fully covered in a black cloak, that with its cohorts had only appeared on the scene a minute ago, groping around the guarded gap in the line. Now, through the gap reopened by the monks, the cloaked thing burst forth upon Elroy: the King with a vicious snarl and a bloody gleam in his eye seized his proselyte and without a pause in its swirling he lowered the blade and in its inexorable orbit it sliced the hooded head from the body.
The sword still circled, with a glimmer of crimson now dripping from the blade. Elroy with a rough motion tossed the body behind him; it fell with a dull thud and immediately a second squad of monks surrounded it and carried it off, one detaching briefly from the group to retrieve the head.
Oh god they’ve killed someone haven’t they? And who are those people he looked at the shrouded figures, three or four more of them straining at the backs of the monk-line they came from nowhere. He watched entranced as another black-hooded figure ran to its lopping death, then another. Then, as the last shrouded acolyte met his god Ted saw something that sent his head sinking down like lead onto his shoulders: Jason, foaming, wild-eyed, grasping at the shoulders of the monks guarding the line.
He’s lost; he’s gone. But will he be taken? His eyes and body strained forward against the monks in unconscious emulation of his friend, trying to focus on Jason, who continued to push against the backs of the monks. And then something happened: four monks presented themselves around Jason, he wildly gesticulating above their hooded heads. They closed in on him inexorably, forming a tight square. Ted saw a glint of steel within the fist of the monk nearest him. That glint disappeared into the center of the square, where Jason stood, and now staggered, the square tightening to collect him. Several more thrusts into the square’s center followed, and Jason writhed in pain. As the quartet began to smuggle him away Ted saw Jason’s head poke out for a minute, eyes screaming around the room. They shot through Ted’s without recognition and blared across the first few rows then went dull, like a lightbulb turned off. Ted watched him being carried out of the crowd. They didn’t kill him, of course—what sense would that make? After all he was trying to die, whether or not he fully comprehended it. Right? They couldn’t have—wouldn’t have—killed him, like that? His knees felt weak and something near his groin coalesced into a rubbery mass like a racquetball, slick and queasy.
Sick and nauseous he turned back to the front, where Elroy’s face bore a weathered expression of strange joy, some kind of emotion that Ted knew he had never felt himself. An unfamiliar variety of envy struck him in a pang.
The scimitar whirled like a helicopter blade over Elroy’s head. Glinting puddles of blood decorated the floor at his feet; trails were smeared across the room where the decapitated bodies had been dragged. Elroy’s chest burned bright and ragged, its crimson glory still dripping down towards his groin. His mouth shone red, the dull yellow teeth inside filmed with blood.
A whiskey bottle appeared in his hand; he drank deeply and then smashed it on his skull. As the brown liquid anointed him, he dragged the jagged remains of the bottle across his forehead, ripping open the scar tissue above his eyebrows.
“I am Religion!” he screamed with the fresh bright blood dripping down into his eyes. “I am your father; I am your church; I am your Christ; and you will die when I say you will die, and so will I.” The drumming continued as it had throughout, though with his spoken words they picked up in tempo and heat. “These deaths today are holy ones, and will revert onto the sacrificers great glory in their lives, both the one on this earth finished so magnificently at this spot, and the life they have now embarked upon, the life immediately following death, the life eternal in full grace and glory that is theirs even as we speak. I shall be joining them soon in triumph, waving a bloody sword!
“However—a last word to the faithful, to the followers gathered here today in New York City, this veritable belly of the Beast. My death is but a movement—the closing movement of one phase and the opening movement of another. For I may yet walk among you, or seem to, in the time to come. Yes, my death here is a passing onto a new phase of existence, and as such I welcome it with arms outstretched.” He here stretched out his left arm and dropped the jagged whiskey bottle. The right arm still cycled with the sword, and blood now caked his entire forehead, coloring his brows and filming his eyes completely.
“And so goodbye to you, though we shall meet again!” Suddenly Ted could see Earl in the corner, his bone-white skin gleaming in the dark, his jet-black moustache covering up his mouth. He sensed also a change in the formation of the monks; the line stiffened with purpose and spread out slightly to either side; pairs of acolytes broke off on either end to face Elroy from the side walls.
From them poured thick, bulging clouds of smoke, then piercing the clouds came fireworks in screaming streams of colors. Explosions became the principal sound in the room, underpinned by the still-steady drumming. Elroy was now obscured by a dense haze of smoke laced with colored sparks; his bloody grin and red-filmed eyes stared through it into the crowd and beyond, into eternity. The sword sliced through the air and smoke. Then he let loose a chilling banshee yell, cast at a higher range than the explosions or the drums, so that it was heard as though above them, like a screaming rocket shooting down from the air atop a chaotic battlefield. The sword’s orbit lowered and slanted: three final loops came increasingly closer to the smoky space below the bloody orifices and then—
The scream was abruptly cut off as Elroy’s head tumbled into the smoke.
Outside the Station but still within the gates, Ted stared at the sky: he had forgotten it was daytime, and the sun shot directly into his eyes, slathering his vision with yellow static. He stumbled to a side and coaxed his eyesight back gradually; when the shapes of things reappeared to him from underneath their sunlit bath he saw that the crowd, most of whom had already poured out of the gates he still stood behind, were all stumbling forward like dead–eyed sheep.
They don’t look like they’ve found their god—but you never know. You never know what they’ll do when they get home. Or later, when they’ve had some time. To recover. To think. He cast an eye out for Jason. They wouldn’t let him do it. Why? Was it real at all? Would he have spoiled the illusion? The trick? And who were these masked monks? Where did they come from?
Cynthia appeared: semi-enveloped still within a pack of men, her face was smeared with some unknown substance, the poor hints of makeup she had had on subsumed with it so that her whole face looked as though it had been wiped into an obscene distortion of itself. A sick, woozy leer was plastered in red across the lower part; out of it leaked as they passed by, “We’re going to get—high.” The illicit sentence seemed to ooze from her whole being and the last word was pronounced with a derisive sneer, as though it were a general rebuke. The queasy, rubbery feeling rolled up again in the depths of Ted’s belly as he watched her slide away with the pack.
And then, as the last few spectators emerged his nose picked up something in the air, something that he had detected earlier but at such a low level as to be within his subconscious, stored unexamined. It was the odor of gas. Perhaps Ted had accepted it unconsciously earlier as a remnant from the place’s past life: a faint aura that hovered spectrally about the space. But now the ghost materialized, and exploded:
“The gas station’s on fire!” someone shouted.
Ted gripped the cryptic mosaic tiles of the gas station barricades. The fire’s forked tongue licked around the nearest wall. Ted stared hypnotized at the greedy flames: rooted to the spot, his eyes were sucked in by the crackling red carnage.
Earl emerged from within the inferno, and for a moment Ted saw into the depths of the man who stood before him. The vision nearly unmoored him; he wavered on his feet and stumbled slightly as a grey wave filmed his eyes. When he regained his balance, his eyes anchored on the ivory white skin in front of him: Earl’s face held no secrets now, just cold efficiency and a brutal overseer’s stare into the abyss.
Earl’s gaze shifted: his eyes met Ted’s, and in that instant Ted felt himself the uncomprehending recipient of a string of code, a link on a chain of information channeled from Earl’s eyes to his own.
Choking, Ted turned around, wrenching himself away from the heat and fury of the gas station and its overlord, and passed through the gateway. He made his way slowly through the streets, staring oddly at random objects, and then halted in front of one of them, a battered telephone covered with crude graffiti. He stared blankly at this for a moment, and then a piece of the code was deciphered in his head, for his facial expression altered, into the dawning of a knowing, dangerous smile.
Now I’ve got religion he thought as his smile widened to encompass all the earth.