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Vol. 4, No. 3

Camera Obscura
by Lee Durkee

~

At eight, I send everyone home except Kaba, Chico, and Freddie. Kaba's one table departs, but instead of locking up, I pause at the specials board to correct the spelling of shepard's pie. While I'm doing this, I see a red van, or the illusion of a red van, flash through the white window. A minute later the front door blows open, and in walk three priests. Old priest, middle priest, baby priest. They must have come across on the last ferry because the old man is wearing a name tag from the Adirondack Hilton. My legs turn to water, but I manage to ask "Smoking or no, gents?"Then I lead them to the porch, a secluded room with its own bay window usually revealing the lake but tonight made an hourglass of snow. I take their drink order, light the table candle. Kaba glowers at me as I emerge, but I tell her to go on home, I'll handle it.
    Back behind the bar, I mix three perfect bourbon manhattans straight up before shooting a jigger of Bushmills.
    "Hey, I thought you never touched the stuff?" Joe objects, but I pretend not to hear him. I tray up the drinks, reenter the porch.
    "So what's up at the Hilton, gents?" I bray, feeling the warm whiskey slithering down my armpits. Both the bishop and Paul frown at my congeniality, but the eldest LaTulippe, who is entirely bald with cauliflower ears, and whose name is also Paul, joins his long fingers and smiles up at me as the bearer of good bourbon and announces they have just attended a meeting of the House of Bishops.
    "Of course my son here is the only bona fide bishop in the clan. The rest of us were smuggled in. Quite illegally. And quite an honor. Some of the finest minds in the church--"
    "In the world," the bishop interjects.
    I look at them, at their rings and collars and cloaks, and the part of me not filled with hatred is humbled and heartbroken.
    Playing it dumb, I ask, "You gentlemen Catholic?"
    "Episcopal," the old man replies happily.
    I nod and tell them the next round's on the house. "Used to be a Prod myself. Lapsed, I'm afraid." I recite the specials and ask how the roads are holding up. The old man separates his beak from the manhattan to state, "A pure nightmare. We'd planned on making Boston."
    "We need to make Boston," insists Paul, whom I refuse to look at, even though I know he won't recognize me. It's not just my beard or the hair cropped short or the tiny octagonal spectacles I wear now . . . no, it's that I've had this dream too many times, and he never recognizes me until it's too late.
    The bishop folds one eye shut and inquires if there is perhaps a reasonably priced inn on the island. He has a fleshed-out nose and dark wings beneath his eyes. Of the three, only he has a full head of hair, black and high-banged. He resembles Johnny Cash, even down to the black suit and quarterback hands. Turning my hand into a phone, I ask how many rooms they'll need.
    The bishop decides one room will do, but the old man says, "Make that two rooms. I've listened to these two bicker for the last hundred miles--I'll not listen to it all night. You'll be sick of us in no time. Mark my words."
    Returning to the bar, I find Freddie perched on a stool and watching hockey. (Dishwashers are not allowed out front, much less allowed to change the TV channel to hockey.) Joe is gone but his keys and glasses are beside his pint. I glance at the men's room, then swivel Freddie around. At first he appears stricken, closer to frightened than I ever imagined seeing him, but by the time I've steepled my hands between us his face has recovered, stoic and annoyed. I whisper that I need to buy some LSD. "I'm not joking. Can you help me out or can you help me out?"
    "One condition," he says, raising a finger.
    I close my hand around the finger, squeeze it.
    "You're outta here," I bribe him. "Don't even mop."
    After shooting yet another jigger, I pour a sixteen count of Jack into a shaker, then drop in the six squares of LSD. "I am sorry, old man," I lament, "but the sins of the son . . ." I swirl the shaker around, nest it on ice . . . again I check the men's room door. I suspect Joe is in there scribbling my life story onto toilet paper, turning me into a vampire or a ghost or God only knows what . . .
    "We cannot make the same mistake the Vatican made!" Paul trumpets from inside the porch. "We are not a goddess cult!"
    I flip open my order pad just as Paul rests his monstrous hands on the table. Suddenly I can't breathe. It's the old man who notices and asks if I'm okay. I bulge my eyes, force a swallowing smile. "I apologize," I say. "Frog in my throat."
    They all order prime rib, medium. "Another round, Bishop?" I inquire, and he makes a bored twirling motion with a ringed finger. I am turning to exit when Paul asks about the rooms.
    "Lines are all haywire," I tell him. "But I'm still at it."
    "Don't you let rooms here?" The old man removes his cherry and sets it on the cocktail napkin. "Your sign outside said 'inn.'"
    "We used to, sir. Got a bit of the bad rep, I'm afraid." I turn my fingers into spiders. "What with our ghosts."
    Each LaTulippe lifts an eyebrow, the left one, and the old man recalls, "Oh yes, the menu did mention something about ghosts, didn't it?"
    "I'll take two ghosts, medium well," the bishop says.
    "I like mine still bloody," quips Paul.
    I allow myself a smirk and a quick glance at Paul. His receding hairline has accentuated the caveman forehead. Most men look smarter bald, not Paul. Meanwhile, the old man, hands clasped sideways, is asking what vintage of ghost we have here. With a wink, I suggest that if they're still interested then I'll tell them all about our ghosts after the meal. "Wouldn't want to spoil your appetites."
    I return with the drinks and serve up the poison with a "Cheers, gents!"
    En route to the kitchen, I change the temperatures on their primes from medium to rare. As I slap the duplicate under the heat lamp, Chico asks what took me so long.
    "Hell is empty," I tell him. "And all the devils are here."
    Their argument concerns a mural to be painted inside a new cathedral. Paul and the bishop bicker in theatrical voices while I bide my entrance holding a basket of rolls and three salads. When Paul caws, "We need the cross up there--Calvary!" I whisk into the room, the Bushmills creating an ice-skate effect, and serve out the salads and announce, "The Shroud of Turin!"
    A shell-shocked pause, then Paul frowns and says, "Excuse me?"
    "The Shroud of Turin," I repeat, faithfully. "How come you don't hang a big picture of that inside your church?"
    They stare blinking and squinting up at me, as if I am something tremulously invoked. Finally the old man admits, "I'm not sure we . . . follow."
    So I cross my arms and I ask them a simple question. I ask them which artist, in their learned opinion, has created our most haunting portrait of Christ.
    Paul, torn between wanting to be rude and knowing the answer to a question, hesitates, then blurts out, "Michael Angelo, obviously."
    "Michelangelo?" I say, letting my disgust show.
    The bishop responds, "An Italian fellow. Painted a chapel once. Perhaps you've heard of him?"
    "Aye, Mick Angelo." I pretend to bulk up my physique. "Christ as professional wrestler." I am about to further disparage Paul's choice when the bishop interjects, "Perhaps if in the depths of your scholarship you could locate us some freshly ground pepper?"
    "Certainly." I fetch the tall wooden grinder, and, after slavishly rotating it over each salad, I ask can I bring them anything else.
    "Leonardo," reflects the old man. "His Last Supper."
    I stare from him around the table.
    "He begs to differ," the bishop anticipates, chewing. "The waiter disagrees with your selection, Father."
    "Bartender," I correct, then I laugh a brayish laugh that makes everyone uncomfortable. "But it's an interesting choice. What with Leonardo being a heretic."
    "Heretic?" the old man repeats. "Leonardo?"
    So I explain that Leonardo belonged to an alchemist church, a church that agrees with the Dead Sea Scrolls in its conviction that John the Baptist, not Jesus, was the true Messiah. Tucking the pepper grinder under my arm, I add, "Which might explain why Leonardo painted himself into The Last Supper as Saint Thaddaus, the disciple bathed in light and most turned away from Christ."
    Paul clears his throat. The bishop blows into his manhattan as if teasing a candle flame. But the old man, who obviously enjoys indulging me, observes, "Now let me get this straight, you're suggesting the Turin shroud is . . . ?"
    "A work of art," I say. "Unparalleled."
    "But the shroud is a fraud!" The bishop coughs into his napkin. "They carbon-dated it. It's from the fifteenth century."
    "The Renaissance," I agree. "But it's not a true relic--and I think we all agree it isn't--then what else could it be but art?"
    "An attempt to deceive," retorts the bishop.
    "Disegno," I counter, albeit smugly, and wait.
    The bishop smiles wearily before conceding, "I suppose we have to ask."
    "Disegno, the illusion of three dimensions upon the one-dimensional plane. The task and foundation of all art, according to your friend Leonardo."
    "Your point being?"
    "Art is always an attempt to deceive."
    "Nevertheless, the shroud is a hoax."
    "No, sir," I tell the bishop. "The shroud is a photograph."
    This revelation is met with a backfire of laughter, even the old man joins in. And so I begin to describe the camera obscura. My hands forming a series of angles, I detail how you build a large box, one that allows in no light whatsoever. Then you drag the box into bright sunlight, crawl inside it, and puncture one wall: instantly, an inverted image of the outside world is projected inside the box and onto the far wall. "The first movie theater, really. Invented during the Renaissance."
    Paul is studying the space between my hands as if I have created a lasting structure there. (My first hint the LSD is taking effect.) But the bishop still sounds coherent enough as he points out, "Yes, but you can't take photographs with a camera obscura."
    "No, sir, you couldn't do much of anything with a camera obscura. Because, as soon as it was invented, the church declared it satanic. Meaning its inventor had to work underground. First he plugged a lens into the hole, an obvious thing to do. Next he lacquered a canvas screen with lemon juice or egg white. Finally, after exposing an image, he simply heated the canvas over fire. Like a child does with invisible ink. Presto. The shroud." Saying this, I notice the table candle has gone out. I find my matches and relight it. Holding the lit match, I add, "The interesting question becomes not so much who invented the camera obscura--we know this for a fact--but whose photograph is it on the shroud that pilgrims have fallen down and worshipped for centuries now as the true face of God?"
    I blow out the match--quite pleased with myself.
    "And I suppose you feel it necessary to solve this riddle before we are to be served our supper?"
    I grin, make a widening gesture. "A hint, Bishop. A self-portrait done by an artist accused by the church of necromancy."
    Paul and the old man both reach for a roll. Their hands collide, and the old man's recoils. Resting his fingers in the wicker basket, Paul says, "Necromancy?"
    "Black magic," replies the old man, grinning wildly at things indeterminate, a piece of lettuce stuck to his chin.
    "Black magic using corpses," I specify, then rub my own chin until the old man's hand levitates to brush away the lettuce.
    The bishop announces he can bring this discussion to a humane closure. "This mysterious inventor of yours, are we still discussing Leonardo?"
    I flick at something under my nose until the bishop mimics the gesture, then I ask the bishop if he's ever seen a portrait of Leonardo. And I assure him, "The face on the shroud, they could be twins."
    The bishop, appearing more bored than ever, takes his cherry by the stem and stirs his bourbon with it. He places the cherry in his mouth, sucks it dry, then returns it to the drink. Finally he complains, "Not to delay our food any longer, but have you ever asked yourself why da Vinci would care to accomplish such a thing?"
    "Oldest motive in the world, sir. After all, the church had tried Leonardo twice, both times very publicly. First for necromancy, then for sodomy. What greater revenge than to transform yourself into the god of your enemy?"
    And, with that, I skate for the kitchen.

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