Daddy cared more about the county line bar than he ever did about choir practice, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t sure I could use the leftovers of his livelihood to spread the Word of the Lord. Between you and me, I inherited his World-Famous Wax Museum of Celebrities and Other Faces before I cared about the cross, but it was God-sent nonetheless. He died right after I was well past done waitressing and, to be honest, I’d been spending way too much time doing LSD in the Alabama pines. On a particularly notable Sunday trip, Jesus came right down out of a loblolly and shook my hand. He had on a three-piece suit and a psychedelic halo made of thorns and roses. It seemed like a fortuitous coincidence at the time—that I should find God just as I was coming into the perfect ministry—but these days I know that unexpected blessings are bestowed upon the faithful and heretical both the same, and I don’t bother with trying to figure out the reasons behind God’s mysteries.
It feels worth mentioning that daddy was a pervert, among other things, and I can say that because he was my poppa, and he looked on those mannequins the way Ham looked on Noah. My momma put up with it because he left her alone, and anyway I’m pretty sure she preferred the youth pastor’s smile, a bright and loud thing that had traveled straight from a clear June day in 1972 to grace our worship and tickle her bones. She probably even saw him naked a few times, but I prefer to think of them as unconsummated because the truth comes with too many fluids. I mention all this in case you’re wondering why our stable of the wax world-famous was so damn good-looking. Daddy didn’t truck with the grotesque like those medieval torture shows at the Renaissance Faire. He wanted his wax figures pretty and handsome all the same, and I never blamed him for the preference.
Of course, with the museum next door, I grew up playing with the dimly lit displays like they were my best friends. I hid in their legs and behind their skirts and learned to smooth chinked wax with the firm and steady pressure of a well-intentioned finger. When I was real small, daddy started out with the usual saints and sinners from across the political spectrum—Nixon, Lester Maddox, and MLK—but by the time I came into my inheritance, we had a full bevy of the regular rich, famous and good-looking. Jessica Alba gestured eagerly at Marilyn Monroe, and Rihanna sipped tea with the Queen. Daddy said the child stars were too small for the price and, besides, he wasn’t that kind of pervert, so we stuck to grown-ups. It only took about four months after he died for me to figure this was my museum now and so I could rearrange everything how I wanted. Wouldn’t you know that my neighbor Earl came calling that same morning, asking if I had any work? I said “Earl, I’ve got a job for you,” and I stepped out the front door and took him over to the museum.
“Earl,” I said, “God has sent you to me because he knows I need help to fulfill his ministry here.” And Earl said, “Lord, Martha, I didn’t know you’d found Jesus,” and I said, “Earl, Jesus found me.”
So anyway, I took him inside and told him my idea, that we clear out all the piecemeal walls and really open up the space into a right good sanctuary with the figures as the congregants, and he said he sure could do it, but he wasn’t sure I could make good money with a display like that. I said, “Earl, the Lord deserves an audience 24-7.” Then he asked how much I’d pay him and I said $13.50 an hour, and he said deal. He wasn’t about to be rich, but he was about to be able to buy sale meat and I thought that was generous enough for a Christian employer like myself in south Alabama. He started the next day.
When I was a kid in the ’90s and summer travelers would stop in on their way to Florida, they’d always say something like, “Oh, well, we didn’t expect to find a place like this down here,” or “Man, what I wouldn’t give for an hour in some air conditioning!” Daddy would laugh and say you’re in the right place and smile as he took their money. Of course, we had to keep it cold inside on account of all that wax. Back then I didn’t know he was buying the new mannequins with meth money, but by the time I was an adult I reckoned it made sense. Most folks think criminality is a matter of bad morals, but daddy knew well enough that breaking the law is good business, and that’s why the cops and taxmen care so damn much when you do. At first, after he died I thought I wouldn’t need to dabble in the seedier affairs of wax museum financing, but the night the Hell’s Angels showed up was the night I realized the wax museum would never make enough to keep the Lord’s mission on track. I told George the Mike, their ostensible leader, that I’d pick up where my daddy left off, and he handed me a suitcase of good product and said he’d be back in a month. Daddy’s customer list was an open secret—to look at the guest register you’d think our town had some real wax figure enthusiasts—so I made the neighborly rounds with my lemon blueberry muffins and let everyone know they didn’t have to drive all the way to Dothan anymore. Business picked right back up and I told Earl he shouldn’t worry his pretty little head about a single thing.
With the revived income I even got me a set of grown-up Tia and Tamera Mowry’s—you know, the Sister, Sister twins—and I took it upon myself to set them up as duetting angels floating above the plyboard chancel. By Christmas, I’d made enough on the back end to buy a giant tinsel tree decorated in white and gold Chrismons. It went right up front next to the pulpit and preacher Jesus. For a minute I thought it might be weird to have grownup Jesus presiding over the nativity baby Jesus at the altar railing, but then I remembered that the Lord exists outside of such plain and worldly concerns as time and I left him as he was. Cardi B sat in the back row with one bejeweled hand raised to heaven and Donald Trump prayed in the front row with Anderson Cooper quietly beside him, one arm draped gently on the old man’s back. Earl said I had a real knack for positioning the figures and I told him it was all the Lord’s inspiration.
Now and again I’d feel a little guilty for my complementary enterprises, but then I’d give Earl a bonus and put a nice big check in the plate at First Baptist and after that, it was easy to remind myself that I wasn’t the first Christian to support my holy endeavors with a little material commerce. I had rules, you know: no sales on Sunday and regular hydrocortisone handouts for everyone. I must admit, attendance really took off after I stopped making home deliveries and just took care of everyone’s pharmaceutical needs on the holy day of rest. Sunday mornings we’d pass the collection plate and everyone would drop in their little envelopes with their offering and I’d be sure to pass out thank-you bags on their way out the door. For a while, I used brown paper sack lunch bags, but then I got festive. Yellow gift bags with pink ribbons for Easter. Red and green stockings for Christmas. Business was booming. Earl even got some help installing the pink and green neon JESUS SAVES AT THE WORLD-FAMOUS WAX MUSEUM OF CELEBRITIES AND OTHER FACES on 331 and I gave him a raise to $20 an hour.
Our congregation truly was the most integrated in the county, and on any given Sunday we had as many prayerful as statuary. Our visitors could sit next to their figure of choice and take in the old camp meeting hymns playing on the speakers: good stuff like “Love Lifted Me” and “Old Rugged Cross” and “Revive Us Again.” We even played “Church in the Wildwood” in the summer. I told Earl, “Well, if it isn’t like that old Kevin Costner movie with the baseball diamond,” and he said he preferred baseball and corny dreams but he knew not everyone went in for that kind of recreation. I said “Earl, I didn’t get into this business for recreation, but to sanctify the nations. Short of that, a few saved souls would do.” He shook his head.
I bet you’re thinking that eventually the law would come knocking, but you should know I grew up with the sheriff and he didn’t have no vendetta against my family. Most folks appreciated that we kept the town functional, and I’d be a liar if I told you I didn’t share my God-given prosperity with more than a few elected officials. Back in the day, daddy called it back-scratching and momma said it was just as well. Momma always was a quiet type, but these days she didn’t much like coming out of the house, which was just as well too. As long as I kept her cable going and the AC on, we were square. It was the best setup a tomgirl lady like myself could have lucked into. It wasn’t like I was the secretary type, and if you’ve got two brain cells you know waitressing is a helluva job. Pawing men and hard floors, heavy plates and late hours. No sir!
So, things were going great, and I mean honestly better than great, until that humid September night when Earl woke us up banging on the door.
“MARTHA!” He hollered. “MARTHA! It’s hell on Earth out here.”
I popped outta bed and grabbed my housecoat faster than a dam break. Momma stepped onto the porch in her slippers and, Lord as my witness, I’ve never seen such a look on her face. Sure enough, the museum was on fire as bright and hot as Sherman’s Atlanta. Earl had called the fire department, but one puny water cannon was no match for the whole flaming building. The blue and orange and yellow fire flicked through the windows and the roof caved in with a great echoing fall. Earl prayed and cursed, and one by one the neighbors came out to watch the spectacle. Momma clutched her nightgown and I prayed to sweet Jesus.
I wondered as I watched, with the scratchy crabgrass under my feet, if I’d brought such destruction on myself, but to be honest I was afraid, and more than a little hurt, that the Lord would let a thing like this occur. Our business might’ve been against the laws of man, but wasn’t I doing it all in the service of his Kingdom? Wasn’t I his good and faithful charge?
It took two days for the ashes to stop smoldering. By the time I surveyed the wreckage, the figures had cooled into grotesque and horrific poses, some fused with their clothing, others half-pooled and grimacing as though they had felt the flames that melted them. Baby Jesus was an ash-covered mess and preacher Jesus had lost his hands. Now amorphous and abominable, his once beautiful gown was a blackened rag and his face drooped in wretched folds and partial obliteration.
“Lord save us,” I whispered, and kicked at the darkened end of a charcoal pew. Earl startled me out of my self-pity. “Martha, I got a dumpster coming,” he said. I told him I thought that was good, I guess. We stared at the roofless walls, the collapsed everything. “This is George the Mike’s doing,” I said, and Earl said he expected that was probably right, although he didn’t know why George the Mike’d destroy his most profitable franchise. “Well,” I said, “me neither,” and got on out of there because I wasn’t about to tell him I’d been tithing some of the sales proceeds to my own bank account.
(Momma had had hip surgery and the good Lord knows there’s nothing more expensive than a hospital stay in America. George the Mike and I had never talked about the missing money but now I knew he knew. Maybe.)
Alone in my bedroom, I stared at the daylily wallpaper and tried to think of what in the hell I could do. The Lord’s book, in all its comprehensive and sustaining glory, does not have instructions on how to pay back your supplier with stolen funds you no longer have, but when I thought of it like that, I suddenly realized that I was looking to Sunday’s gospel when I should be looking to Saturday’s reruns. The truth is I already knew folks didn’t survive the underworld without making right by those they’d wronged, and I had learned this truth from the many syndicated episodes of Magnum P.I. that I had watched in the waxing endlessness of Alabama’s hottest August afternoons. As I lingered in my reverie on the sticky-fingered situations that many a criminal element had gotten themselves stuck in, the smiling and flowered visage of Magnum P.I. appeared before me like a retro-modern god. He was no neon Jesus, but he was glorious to me in my solitary cogitations, and I became certain I could get through my unfortunate circumstances—right after I capped off my alone time with a few private vibrations.
To say that my concentrated efforts cleared the air is an understatement of unholy magnitude. I dressed myself in my Sunday brightest and took my pitiful and put-upon self to the bank. Clutching a cotton printed handkerchief with teal embroidery sewn by my own mother, I sat in front of the business loan officer and told him how much it pained me to be asking for an advance on the insurance payout that was sure to come by Thanksgiving. “It’s just that we had so little in reserve,” I said, “having just repainted the sanctuary.” I wasn’t used to wearing a dress and I fidgeted a bit too much in my seat until he asked if I’d like some water to cool myself down.
“Aren’t you a lamb,” I exclaimed, and I made sure to sip rather than gulp like my momma always tried to teach me. “I suppose we can fix that up for you just as long as you give us the insurance policy as collateral,” he said. “Good thing I brought it,” I smiled, and soon he was telling me to sign here and initial there and make sure I got the date right.
Now, it’s one thing to have enough to pay a debt and entirely another to pay it. When your creditor is a hard-to-trace Hell’s Angel with retribution on his mind, the urgency of making contact is more important than almost anything, save making supper. Eager to put this task behind me, I took my pocketbook and my embroidered handkerchief and went straight to Jimmy’s Tropical Fish.
Amongst the Lord’s more wayward flock, it is no secret that tropical fish stores are excellent fronts for a whole menu of smuggled merchandise, seeing as how boxes full of imported live sea creatures can’t sit in customs for very long. This particular chlorine tank establishment was run by Victor Ramirez, a former orange picker who, rumors suggested, had been run out of Florida by an Orlando bondsman after Victor was discovered in flagrante delicto with the bondsman’s daughter. Whether this origin story was to be believed was hardly under dispute, owing to the fact that Victor’s blonde wife, Jessica, had arrived in town straight off the Florida pageant circuit two months after he set up shop, and it was she who named the establishment after the mysterious and heretofore unidentified Jimmy. As Victor was a man of reputation more than friendship, I can’t say I knew all of what he and Jessica were up to, just that they probably knew George the Mike and how to reach him.
My entering their store tripped a laser monitor that Victor had long set up to let him know he had visitors, but it was Jessica who greeted me at the counter. “Jessica,” I said, “I don’t know that we’ve ever spoken face-to-face, but I’m Martha, the owner and proprietor of the wax museum that burned down.” She shook her head with pity and came out from behind that counter with arms outstretched to give me a hug, and between you and me, she really was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. As she took me into her loving arms, I leaned against her and felt like I’d been waiting for her soft shoulder my whole life. “Oh darling,” she said, “you know we all saw what happened. I don’t know how you’re even holding yourself together.” I stepped back from her and she held my hands and I said “Jessica, the Lord has given me strength and the costume of this dress to help me get through this day, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like an absolute fool. Job himself may have known such trials, but I doubt many others could say the same.”
“Well,” she said, “if there is anything that me and Victor can do for you right now, you need only ask.”
I glanced over at a zebra-striped angelfish doing laps between the mirrored corners of his tank and said into the empty hum of tank filters that the thing was, I was hoping she could help me get in touch with George the Mike himself. She dropped my hands and went right back behind the counter like the Formica itself was a bulwark against sin and the danger of other smugglers. “What business do you have with George the Mike?” she asked and I said “It’s a matter of unpaid debts,” and she said “You best stay right where you’re standing,” before she disappeared into the back. Left alone, I liked the store much less than the plain cubicle of the loan officer’s desk. The tanks on the shelves were stacked end to end and the fish within them seemed destined to go mad from circling inside their small blue heavens.
When Jessica returned, she had Victor with her, and it was he who spoke first. “Martha, I’ve been meaning to pay you a visit myself,” he said, “and I don’t want to concern you, but the fact is I’ve got reason to believe George the Mike is the least of your problems.” I pulled my handkerchief from my pocketbook and blew my allergy-ridden nose and looked him square in the eye and said, “Victor, I knew that coming to see you was the right idea”. He then stood there and told me a new truth I could not unhear. He said: “I’ll let George the Mike know that you’ve got the money you owe him, but Martha you better watch your back. I saw Earl set that fire with my own eyes and you won’t mind me leaving out why I didn’t call the law when I seen it, but you should know, I wouldn’t trust him from here to—”
“Lord Almighty, I wish you were lying,” I interrupted him. “But between you and me, if there’s anything I believe, it’s the testimony of a man who has seen both sides of true human nature. I’m sorry, but I have got to go,” I said, and I did. I hightailed it so fast out of that parking lot that my measly Accord made skid marks that would rival the best donuts of The General Lee.
Earl, my goddamn neighbor, and employee, Earl. Quiet acceptor of direction. My steady hand at the World-Famous Wax Museum of Celebrities and Other Faces. And yet a stranger. The more I thought on it, the more I realized I knew next to nothing about who Earl was or what he wanted, or whether he even approved of how I ran things. His ham-faced smiles and easy strength were a sudden grotesquery—how could he have fooled me for so long? How could I have overlooked so great a grudge?
I pulled right up into his driveway in front of his cinderblock house (that looked little different from my own), and I banged on the side of his side door. When that garnered no answer, I opened the screen and knocked fitfully on the solid wood, only to be startled when it shifted under my forceful racket. I pushed it open and lord forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, because I walked into his house and gasped at the great emptiness I found there. He was gone, had left town, with not two dusty footprints for me to follow. And it was at that moment that I sunk to the floor and cried out like the neon Jesus himself: “My god! My god! Why have you forsaken me?”
Time passed. A year later, Victor heard that somebody had seen Earl at a meat and three in Birmingham, but they couldn’t be sure. Not long after the sheriff said he’d received an anonymous tip that Earl had moved to Atlanta. Somebody else said they were sure he’d bought a shack outside of Jackson in Butts County, Georgia. He never was caught.
After I repaid George the Mike, I told him I needed to get out of distribution to get on with my life, whatever that meant, and he said he understood. Of course, with no income and no museum, we had to take down the neon sign. The curious and faithful stopped coming and Momma and I had to invent new ways to make do. I got a job at the Waffle House and she shared her disability. We stayed alive, barely. And I remembered.
One spring evening I went back to the woods after getting my hands on some LSD, but Jesus didn’t visit me again.
Thinking back on that time now, the whole endeavor feels like a strange and brief dream. All I’ve got to show for it is a burnt foundation and the ashen cloth that once wrapped around wax baby Jesus. I guess it’s as close to a relic as any Protestant could stomach. When I feel guilty, sometimes I go out to the cemetery and leave pieces of it scattered on the gravestones for the folks our ministry hurried to Heaven. Turns out we were a little too good at sending souls to Jesus. They’re the ones I wish I could say sorry to, but also, I mean, there’s no resurrection without the fallen. Praise the Lord, but we both know not all of god’s angels have wings.