Plague Serial 5
Real geese and giant plastic geese with people pedaling away inside them populate the surface of Lake Watauga, an artificial pond created for the 1897 Tennessee state exposition to accompany the replica Parthenon. We stop at a kiosk to purchase bread and grain pellets to throw at the aquatic wildlife.
But first, a quick visit to the Shrine of the Bandshell (as marked on the park map), the remnant of the original bandstand built for the exposition, now incorporated into the new complex and home to a colony of feral cats. The “Temple of the Clam,” as the Vulvanteer sisters call it, is actually a giant concrete clamshell with a small stage inside, set into a hillside shaded by giant oak trees and overlooking a bowl-shaped lawn where audiences have not sat for nearly a century.
A sleepy company of furry yellow beings sits atop the crumbling façade, while glinting green eyes peer out of the darkness in the deepest recess of the old stage. Monsieur M completes a round of genuflections, either to the landmark or to the cats, and then nods us on toward feeding time. As he slowly strolls away pleased as Pertwee and making notes in a little brown book, I regard the place we are departing with a tiny shiver of sinister.
Making our way toward the water we pass a sister of the order who pretends not to notice us, but we know that she does. The sisters maintain a sparse but constant presence here at the Parthenon. Though they are generally quiet and reserved, they are easily identifiable by their massively shoulder-padded garb and obscenely Moe Howard-y haircuts. Less Bene Gesserit, more flame-broiled grits, the Vulvanteers have a particular power over the city’s policymakers and administrators that is little understood by the general populace. The order is known to take great pride in knocking down any politician that dares glorify the pre-revolutionary era. And they put on a hell of a raffle.
By the lake, a young boy with a toy guitar strums out nylon noise in clockwork circles with Pete Townshend aggression, one mother attempting to readjust his new red cowboy hat and push his new cowboy boots back on, while the other mother stares into space surreptitiously completing a small bit of office work while her wife is distracted.
“So what exactly are we here to accomplish? You seem interested in more than just taking a few tourist snaps,” I ask, sprinkling a tight handful of goose food over the pond’s edge and glancing at the parcel of groceries tucked under my guest’s arm.
“You tell me, why am I here in this city at all? Surely there must be some higher purpose to all of this? Maybe to re-establish my temple here alongside the Parthenon, to have access to a worthy group of worshippers for eternity— or at least until the next revolution — for I am, indeed, the actual Greek God of mockery and satyr of satire?” says Monsieur M, not laughing.
“Who do you think I am, Terrance Dicks? I don’t have the literary prowess to pull that off,” I say, releasing another fusillade of feed toward our disinterested diners.
“You don’t have the literary prowess to pull this off, and yet here we are,” says Monsieur M, taking a bite out of a slice of white bread and tossing the remainder into the water.
We ascend the steps and pass through the massive iron doors of the Parthenon, our vision swinging from the vaulted roof down into the western gallery, where a thick crowd is gathered, many wearing blonde wigs, each person bearing an armful of small offerings and consumer product sacrifices.
“You had to choose someone, so why pick on me? Why Monsieur M and not Mary Boone or Mayakovsky or Gregory Crewdson or Vivienne Westwood or Anna de Noailles or Capability Brown or Guy Debord or Bibi Andersson or Brian Eno or La Camilla or Mark Rothko or Seaya Sadier or Isaac Babel or Blixa Bargeld or Great Uncle Bulgaria? What exactly have I done to deserve this?”
A procession of visitors slowly winds around either side of a large partition, so we get in line and follow along, matching the trudging pace of those ahead of us. Blocky former friezes and architraves entertain the eyes along the pathway, hewn to depict our citizenry among the gods of both Greek Antiquity and American Country Music.
“Can you imagine me and Mark Rothko running about Nashville having a little adventure? ‘Hot Eeyore on Eeyore Moping-Around Action!’ No. Also, most of those people are quite dead. Anyway, don’t take it so personally; you’re just the magnifying glass I’m using to go around and set little fires.”
Finally, there is another sharp turn past another partition, and we are there in the main hall where, as every eye is drawn upward to the god-sized, glowing vision of Saint Dolly Parton the Athenian, her gigantic blond curls gilded in gold leaf reflecting a low light with preternatural intensity, her eyes aglow while she regards those she protects, her enormous shield and spear engraved with the words εννέα έως πέντε, all voices suddenly fall silent in awe…all except for that of Monsieur M.
“Little fires?” repeats Monsieur M, insulted, taking in the absurd majesty of the room in one circling gaze and then fixing that gaze back on me.
A middle-aged man in full Dolly drag and carrying a “Chick-fil-A Mega Meal for a Month Kit” gives us a nasty look and cuts in line ahead of us, his pink converse high tops with 3-inch stacked heels screeching against the tiled floor. All offerings made here are used by the sisters to feed those red-state refugees who have fled their economically and ecologically collapsed former homes to find their fortunes in the free state of Cumberland among the revolutionaries.
“I will always love you, Carlene Davis!” booms giant shiny Dolly as another offering is accepted and a believer hopefully receives whatever it is they have come seeking.
“Where is Dolly? The real one?” asks Monsieur M incredulously.
I take a tiny breath and whisper “She’s been dead for three years and you already know this.”
“What’s that?” starts Monsieur M, winding up for the pitch, dropping each syllable like an incantation, “DOLLY is SLEEPING on the HILL?”
“Unhh,” says the crusty security guard standing next to us, reacting with sudden horror — “nuh uh..noooo…”
“Dolly is sleeping on the hill,” repeats a nearby supplicant, plaintively. “On the hill” utters an elderly woman, followed by another, then another. “She’s sleepin’ on the hill!” moans a grandmother, setting off her daughter as well, whose small children now begin to wail from their two-kid stroller.
“You mean…DOLLY’S DEAD?” shouts Monsieur M with glee, staring straight at me.
“Nooo! She’s gone!” hollers a corn-fed denizen, slamming his jars of salsa to the floor as tears fill his eyes. Now a slow rumble of intonations begins; “Dolly” they breathe louder and louder, “on the HEEEL” some moan slowly, which is when the wailing starts, immediately followed by actual screaming as the mosh pit of mourning unleashes itself fully in the center of the temple floor.
As the gnashing, wailing, and flailing grows, nearly every occupant tearing at their own clothes and that of others, a red-band warning holodisplays itself in my direct line of sight: Warning — Evacuate this Space — Mass Hyper-Mourning Event at Parthenon, Sedative-Based Mitigation in 3…2…1…
And with that, clouds of nebulized cannabinoids explode out of heretofore unseen vents, forced at negative pressure into the lungs of everyone in the great hall. Pulling up our fashion filtration collars over our noses, we sprint toward the opposite wall dodging boxes of toaster pastries, jars of pickled okra, airborne waves of diet cola, and the deadly elbows of wide country people hustling out their grief in odd cabbage-patch like gyrations until the pharma-grade neural-neutralizing gasses knock them onto their wide country asses.
“To the labyrinth!” bellows Monsieur M, still clenching a pie and a can of beans.