Truthfully, over the next few days I didn’t think about the statue at all. It simply sat there, sealed in its box atop my coffee table. I went about my business, reading over papers from a class I was teaching that summer, going on walks, doing research for a book I intended to write. A week passed. I’d been so successful at pushing the accursed statue from my mind that I’d practically forgotten it even existed.
And then Sheila came to visit me.
Sheila Danvers, blonde and brilliant and beautiful in a way that wasn’t immediately obvious. She was confident, the child of divorce, of a father that taught her to be tough and mother that taught her that men could be led around by their penises. She was a professor of anthropology at the university, and although we did not teach in the same departments, we had enough intellectual interests in common that we quickly became acquainted with each other and came to enjoy each other’s company. In more ways than one.
Oh, God… Sheila…
She’d spent the summer abroad, had been in the jungles of South America studying a culture whose name I couldn’t pronounce. I had missed her dearly. She’d returned to the States to little fanfare, had taken a few days to settle back into the rhythm of her normal life, before deciding to see me. I’d given her a key to my apartment some months before, when we’d first began enjoying each other’s company, and I came home one day from a trip to the grocery store to find her lying back on my sofa reading a book, her shoeless feet propped up on its arm, a bottle of beer on the floor beside her. I didn’t even notice her at first. I went straight into the kitchen and jumped when she shouted out gleefully, “Howdy, stranger!” I turned, and there she was, grinning impishly and looking like she’d been waiting an hour to startle me so.
I returned the grin, set down the groceries, and walked over to kiss her. “Howdy yourself. How was your trip?” She regaled me with stories of walking through the jungles, fighting with insects, cataloging mythologies in languages that less than a hundred people still spoke. I listened as best I could. I admit that my attention tended to wander to less academic thoughts. It had, after all, been months since I’d seen her. For my part, I told her about teaching classes, working on a book about the heyoka of the Lakota peoples, attending Joseph’s funeral. We were, at that point, reclining on my bed, her hand stroking my chest, my fingers entwined in her hair.
“That’s pretty weird that his family would invite you, don’t you think? That he’d even request that you’d be there. I mean… what a head trip, you know?” She sat up, looked me in the eyes. “Are you okay?”
I nodded. “I’m fine. Really. It’s… unfortunate that he’s gone. Tragic. But we really weren’t very close at all.” I paused. “And if you think that’s weird, you ought to see the sculpture he left me.”
“He left you something in his will?”
“Something like that. He’d made a sculpture, mentioned in the note he left for his parents that he wanted me to have it. I think they invited me more so they could just give it to me and be done with it rather than out of respect for his wishes.” This thought played across my mind for a few moments. “In fact, if they had seen the sculpture themselves, it wouldn’t surprise me that they’d want to be rid of the thing.”
“Too many bad memories.”
I turned, looked her square in the face. “It’s fucking hideous. I dare say it’s in poor taste, really.”
Something in my delivery made her laugh. “You think it’s hideous? Mr. ‘Pueblo Clowns Drinking Urine is Just as Dignified as the Catholic Sacrament of Communion?’”
I snorted. “Why don’t you come look at it then? See if it doesn’t repulse you.”
We got up and walked to my living room, where Joseph’s sculpture still sat in its cardboard prison. I made Sheila close her eyes and sit on the couch as I set the thing before her. When she saw it, she gasped.
“That… that’s really something.” I laughed. She shot me a disapproving look, then picked up the sculpture and began turning it over in her hands, examining it in closer detail. “What the Hell is this thing supposed to be?”
“It was his god,” I said. “He wrote me a letter, said that he wanted to believe in something, but he thought all the religions he knew of, all the gods he knew of, were jokes. So he made his own.”
Something between confusion and disgust and pity crossed Sheila’s face, rendering her for just a moment as protean as the monstrosity she held before her. “And this was what he came up with? God… that poor kid…” She held it up to me. “What do you think?”
I rattled off the influences I saw. Buddha, Janus, various tricksters. An entire menagerie of faiths distilled into a single debased totem. I knew it wasn’t she meant, but it was all I had to offer. I asked her what she thought. She was silent for a long while.
“I think mine are nicer.”
We both laughed at that.
* * *
The next morning, out of nowhere, Sheila announced that we should throw a party. “A small one,” she said. “A sort of, ‘Welcome Back, Sheila!’-type thing. But not really. I’m not going to throw a party in my own honor. That’d be egotistical. I just want to see everyone.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” I said. I hadn’t really interacted with my fellow professors over the summer. There were enough close to our own age to make such a gathering viable, thirty-somethings who were either to devoted to academia to start families, or else capable of finding sitters on short notice since they often had to attend faculty functions. And even the older members of our faculty could enjoy themselves after a few drinks. “When should we throw this party?”
“Tonight,” Sheila said with a grin. I frowned. I already knew where she was going with this.
“Here, I assume.”
She batted her eyelashes at me, a gesture deliberately chosen for its obviousness. Sheila was nothing if not playful.
I loved that about her.
“Please?” she said, drawing out the vowels. She switched tactics, began pouting. “My apartment’s no good for parties! It’s too small!”
I shook my head, smiled. Her mother was nothing if not right, after all. “Fine, fine.”
“Just a small gathering. Just a few people, just to say hi and see how everyone’s doing.”
I stuck my tongue out at her. “I already said fine.”
She returned the gesture. A short while later, she was getting ready to return to her own home, to run some errands and gather a few things before the evening’s festivities. There were some difficulties in locating her keys, though. In fact, it took us nearly an hour to find the damn things before I noticed them, inside the refrigerator of all places.
In retrospect, I suppose that’s where it all began. So simple, so innocuous. A joke so subtle, there was no way to tell if it was even intentional. After all, improbable as it may have been, one of us could have put them in there, perhaps while putting away the groceries I have purchased. But we hadn’t.
I am almost certain that we hadn’t. No, no, I am certain. I swear, neither of us put those keys in there. We couldn’t have.
In any case, she returned to her apartment and I went back out to the store to purchase refreshments and snacks and additional alcohol. Some eight hours later, the party was beginning, the guests arriving. There were chips, there was dip, there was beer in the fridge and wine on the counter and liquor squirreled away in the cabinets. We’d laid out napkins, bought little plastic cups, and even set up a tray of meat and cheeses and crackers (pre-made at the grocery store, of course. There was only so much I was willing to do for guests attending a party I hadn’t planned on throwing.) Sheila and I were running to and fro around my apartment, making sure everything was in order.
It was her idea to set up the sculpture. It was her, not me.
“Come on,” she said. “It’s so ugly, you can’t leave it hidden in a box in the back of your closet. It’ll give people something to talk about it.”
I shook my head. “It’s repulsive. I don’t want it out. What if people think I actually like it?”
“So what? If anyone asks, you can just tell them that it was a gift from a student who passed away and you left it out in his memory. That ought to shut them up.”
I protested, but as so often happened, she got her way. Men and their penises and all that. There was no time to discuss it, anyway. The doorbell rang in the middle of our debate, and we had no choice but to leave it where it was and play the part of good hosts.
To be fair, the party started out small, as Sheila had promised. Professors Howard and Phillips and their spouses, Professor Campbell, Professor Auguste. We sat around discussing our summers, trading stories. As the alcohol flowed a bit more freely, the stories changed from the classes we were teaching that summer to classes we had taught in the past, to classes we ourselves had taken when we were PhD students, or even undergrads. Things went downhill from there. More guests arrived, bearing gifts with them. A younger crowd slowly began to filter in, PhD students invited by God only knows which of the professors. Someone started playing music, and by 11:30, those who had responsibilities to attend to were gone and those who had avoided all responsibilities outside of their field of study were drunk enough to be dancing sloppily and carefree in front of their peers.
I will admit that I was among that number.
There was something liberating about it, truthfully. We were young enough, and the atmosphere was welcoming, and for a brief moment those of us were married and those of us who were too young to even think about marriage were all the same. People were sharing jokes and stories, laughing, making plans for after the party was over, sneaking off early to do whatever their liberated heart and their alcohol-saturated brains told them was right.
That may have been the last time I was truly happy.
That may have been the last time I will ever be happy.
Sheila had been right about the sculpture. It was so ugly, so inescapable that conversation inevitably drifted towards it, no matter how briefly. As I moved about the room, refilling drinks and slipping napkins under unattended cups, I heard people discussing it. The gregarious were given a subject on which to demonstrate their craft, and the shy were given a subject so obvious that even they could maintain a conversation about it. Mind you, no one wished to speak about the sculpture for very long. There were, quite simply, more pleasant subjects to discuss.
But its presence was felt all around the apartment, and more than once I noticed someone who happened to gaze upon it while dancing or conversing with someone else. They locked up, suddenly and completely, a possum playing dead in front of a superior predator, a bird paralyzed before a bobbing and weaving serpent. To a man, they stood stock still for a few seconds before shaking their head and resuming whatever they had been doing with a deliberate enthusiasm. The sculpture presided over the entire gathering like… like Joseph had been in class. Vaguely amused. Vaguely disgusted. Feeling a smug sense of superiority, I suppose.
I myself, by my fifth drink, was spending more time staring at it than was socially acceptable.
It was Kara Powers who shook me from my reverie. She was in the kitchen at the time, and she was screaming as though she’d been grievously wounded.
She was slicing limes for gin and tonics. She had sliced clear through her left index finger. She held it before her for a moment, stared at it in wonder. The wound spurted blood with every beat of her heart. The finger from the first knuckle up sat on the counter, a mute and abandoned child. And her scream. God. It hit a register usually reserved for the calling of dogs. The entire party ground to a halt, and for a moment, all we could do was stare in wonder.
Sheila acted first, throwing a towel over the wound and clamping her fist around it, guiding her to the bathroom. We all began moving then. One of our number called 911. Another packed the severed digit in ice. Someone stopped the music. The party was well and truly over, the crowd suddenly, painfully sober.
But not I.
I watched as everyone scuttled about like ants in a disturbed nest. And then I turned to look at the sculpture, so arrogant, so hideous. Its belly seemed to stick out farther, its head thrown back. Its eyes were narrowed, its mouths more open. The blood of my friends had been spilled in my very kitchen, was still fresh, was still warm, and this horrible figure, a figure that had been constructed from my own lessons, was laughing uproariously at the fact.
All around me, chaos reigned, and I stood completely still, wondering at this hunk of clay and resin.