Nancy Lane's surreal story about a man with a strange obsession over a Marvin Gaye diorama.
The rent's not bad for the studio apartment within walking distance of work and near all the essentials. For Vincent, age thirty, the essentials are the market across the street and the two cheap eating places anchoring the ends of the tree-lined block. He buys a bottle of Sangria and a box of wheat thins every other night, adding toothpaste, soap, cereal, milk or other items of daily living as needed. On shopping nights, he stops in for Salisbury steak or meatloaf at the Fine Time Cafe. On alternate nights he dines on pulled pork or grilled tilapia at the New Penny Kitchen.
Vincent pushes the start button on the cassette player next to the diorama under the bell jar. His third glass of Sangria is full and at hand. The plateful of crackers is half empty or half full, depending on Vincent's frame of mind after fielding customer service calls all day at work.
Saturday and Sunday activities are less stressful: washing clothes in the building laundry room, scouring the bathroom and kitchen, watching old Western movies on TV or having lunch at his sister's house. The bus ride to Angela's house is a welcome diversion.
Vincent, feeling mellow after two glasses of wine, rests his chin on the table as he sits forward in his chair. He waits as the tape crackles in the cassette player. A few popping noises precede the beginning of the recorded voices.
Sometimes the movement in the diorama does not start immediately, and the figurines finally move after a few lines of the dialogue have passed. "Damn it, what's wrong?" Vincent scowls when that happens. He worries the tape may eventually break or the wooden figurines may some night stop moving, never to move again. But tonight, to his delight, the Marvins are moving inside the diorama in sync with the tape.
Marvin Gaye gets up from the miniature sofa and steps toward Marvin Goldman, seated in a plastic chair at a plastic table in the middle of the clear plastic room. Vincent smiles to himself. He loves watching the Marvins, especially at the start when his wine glass is full.
Goldman says, "Hey, brother, you know my wife was one of your hundred fans."
Gaye pulls another plastic chair away from the plastic table and sits down. "Smarty. Millions of fans, maybe billions if you throw in the departed, not just those on Earth now."
"Tell me this," says Goldman, "how come you don't look at all like the Marvin Gaye I remember from the album covers?"
Gaye smiles and winks. "Hey, man, I create what you see. Doesn't have to be exact. No way can I redo myself handsome as I was on Earth. You know, 'Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing'." Gaye stares piercingly at Goldman. Vincent loves this part. His eleventh-grade classmate had to explain it to Vincent when he wrote it. But Vincent owned it after that, as if he had thought of it himself.
Goldman doesn't react to the song title pun. That's what tickles Vincent, what doesn't happen. That classmate, the boy from India, was so clever.
Goldman asks, "Marvin, can I ask you about things I was told at Orientation?"
Gaye bobs his head in agreement. "Sure, Marvin. Consider me your mentor. You newbies aren't used to the spirit world. You'll take to Afterlife like a fish to water, but you ain't there yet."
Goldman asks, "Can I create physical things like you do?"
Gaye replies, "Bro', your powers will come gradually. If you tried it now, you'd screw up. Make a monkey that looks part like a fish and part like a hammer."
Goldman pushes his chair away from the table, rises and takes a few steps toward a window cut out of the plastic wall. He paces in front of the window. "At Orientation they said everybody comes here. It's not Heaven or Hell, it's just Afterlife. So was John Lennon right?"
Vincent's glass is now half empty. His chin presses harder on the table. As the Marvins speak and move at eye level, Vincent tries to focus his attention because he believes this next part is what earned him and his project buddies the A-plus from Mrs. Emmons.
Gaye laughs, throwing his head back. "All you newbies expect judgment, Heaven or Hell. You know who asks about Hitler the most?"
Goldman replies, "Jews would be my guess."
Gaye shakes his head. "No, Catholics. When I say Hitler's here, they believe they've gone to Hell. Immediately they ask about Mother Theresa and then look relieved and confused when I say she's here, too."
Goldman stops pacing and sits back in his chair at the table. "I thought I would go to a good place. I was good on Earth. I took care of my wife and son, gave generously to the Temple, and did business honestly. What about you?"
Vincent rouses himself after a momentary slip into sleep. His glass is empty, and he moves it across the table. The next words that arise from the hissing tape assure him he didn't miss a thing.
Gaye says, "Lots of stuff happened in my life: rags to riches to rags. Easier to be good poor. Too many temptations on the rich side. Hey, man, you grew up poor in L.A., right?"
Vincent mouths the words he knows by heart to keep himself awake.
Goldman says, "Yeah. My folks came to East L.A. from Lithuania. We were poor Jews. At nineteen I started a restaurant supply business with my uncle. We worked hard and made a lot of money."
Gaye asks, "So what was it like growing up in Los Angeles?"
Goldman replies, "In school, Jewish kids were discriminated against, called names. My clothes weren't so good, and I was made fun of."
Gaye stands up, pushing his chair away from the table. Then he sits down at a distance from Goldman. "Whew! Sounds like my school days in D.C. Crazy tough."
Goldman looks away from Gaye, as if seeing past times in front of him. "School can be tough and humiliating. I remember a field trip to the La Brea Tar Pits. I loved that place."
"So what went wrong?" Gaye asks.
Goldman, still looking aside, replies, "On the way back, we stopped at a pizza parlor for lunch. We were all supposed to chip in a dollar. But I didn't have it."
Gaye asks, "Whad'ya do?"
Goldman answers, "I sweated and stammered. Made a big fuss, told the teacher I was allergic to pizza and I'd vomit just at the smell of it."
Gaye asks, "Did she believe you?"
"Maybe. She let me wait outside on a bench. When the other kids came out, they said mean things to me. You know how I got even?"
Gaye shakes his head.
"When I got rich, I bought that pizza parlor and gave it to my nephew."
Vincent hears his cell phone ring but ignores it. He lifts his head and moves it side to side before returning his chin to the table top. He glances up at the clock on the wall. It's almost eleven. Only his mother would phone this late.
Gaye is tapping his fist on his knee. "Money sure enough changes things on Earth. I bought my mom a house in L.A. Didn't figure at the time I would get killed in it."
Goldman now turns to face Gaye. "I'm almost positive I saw you in L.A. in the early eighties. I was driving on Vermont and saw you at a bus stop. I'm thinking, yeah right; Marvin Gaye wouldn't be at a bus stop in L.A."
Vincent perks up, knowing another song title pun is coming.
"Bet you thought, 'Ain't That Peculiar?'"
Vincent smiles as the little wooden Goldman says, "Yeah, I assumed you lived in Detroit, driving a Bentley or Rolls."
Gaye looks exasperated. "'Mercy Mercy Me'. Don't you remember any of my songs?"
"Oh, now I get it. My wife knew all your songs. I listened too. We have a lot in common. Both named Marvin, both grew up with discrimination. Both went from poor to rich. Both died in L.A."
Gaye asks, "How did you die?"
"Heart attack. I was only sixty-five. But then again, you were only what, forty-something?" says Goldman.
Gaye looks upward instead of making eye contact with Goldman. "One day shy of my forty-fifth birthday when my father shot me."
Goldman asks, "Did you forgive your father?"
"Immediately," Gaye replies. "I died before getting to the hospital. I felt surrounded by so much love I wished my father had shot me sooner. I loved him. Still do."
Vincent's head is turned sideways on the dinette table. He still listens to the cassette tape although he's not viewing the action in the diorama.
Vincent's diorama is not the original, not the one which earned him an A-plus in eleventh grade English class. Mrs. Emmons, the teacher, asked her twenty-four students to divide into eight teams of three.
Nobody really wanted to team with Vincent, who was considered a low achiever. Others did not want to team with the strange class nerd or with the boy from India whose name no one knew how to pronounce. Vincent, the nerd and the boy from India became the dream team, their project received the highest grade in the class.
The boy from India wrote the script. The nerd created the scenes on cloth transparencies, with lights shining through the cloths to produce the images. He scientifically architected the diorama so the scenes were viewed at a distance through an aperture.
The boy from India and the nerd recorded the dialogue. Mrs. Emmons insisted on keeping the diorama. She set it up in the school library, where students took turns looking into the aperture as the tape played and the special lighting source rotated.
Vincent paid the nerd twenty dollars for a copy of the cassette tape. Years later, Vincent obsessed about the diorama, guessing it would be the only stellar achievement of his life. Angela helped Vincent recreate the diorama using doll-house furniture and a clear plastic box to use for the room walls. She helped Vincent find two wooden figurines and a bell jar at a craft store.
In the original diorama, the nerd had created a blurred image to represent the third Marvin because Marvin Gaye Sr. was not actually supposed to be seen, according to the boy from India's view of afterlife stages. Vincent made a cutout on parchment paper to represent the third Marvin and put the cutout in one of the plastic chairs at the plastic table.
Vincent lifts his head and straightens in his chair. There is only a little bit left of the performance. He believes he will be able to stay awake as he always does.
Goldman remarks, "Sweet Afterlife. I'm glad there is no judgment here. Your father gets to be here with you instead of going to Hell for murdering you."
Gaye responds quickly, "C'mon, we could have been in Hell together. I never murdered anyone, but I sinned too."
He continues, "April 1,'84 was when he shot me. My father was here after he died on Earth, and now he has gone further," Gaye proclaims.
"What do you mean, 'further'?" Goldman asks.
"He's gone to the next stage," Gaye replies. "He's in the world beyond this one. In Orientation they told you that Afterlife is just the first stage of eternity."
"I didn't understand that part," says Goldman.
Gaye pauses before speaking. "Few newbies do. But it's real important you understand 'What's Going On'."
Vincent, now almost asleep, smiles at hearing yet another song title pun.
Goldman asks, "What is going on?"
Gaye speaks again, "It's a wonderful world here. But there are worlds beyond. No one here in the Afterlife knows for sure what lies ahead."
Goldman asks, "So Lennon may have been wrong?"
Gaye speaks last, "John Lennon scared me spitless when he was offed. I got bodyguards, bought my father a gun. Yeah, Lennon had us imagine no Heaven or Hell. But 'I'll Be Doggone' if I know even now."
Bang! The upstairs tenant arrives home at his usual time and slams his door. Vincent sits up quickly, presses the rewind button on the cassette player and places the cotton cover over the bell jar. He undresses and then falls into bed. The Sangria bottle and box of wheat thins sit empty on the kitchen counter. Tomorrow night will be shopping night and dinner at Fine Time Café.