“The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way…
He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards.”
—Elizabeth Bishop, “The Man-Moth”
When Madison woke up, he wondered if he had been committed to a mental institution or a hospital. The room around him was empty of any personal possessions, and the bare white walls reflected a harsh light. As he moved his hand to shield his eyes, he felt the scratchy surface of the mattress on his cheek. The nakedness of the mattress alarmed him. Things must be pretty bad, he thought, if they’ve taken away my sheets so I can’t strangle myself with them. He turned over to put the light source at his back, and his eyes fell on his two duffel bags. This is when the previous night came back to him. He remembered driving his truck along a mountain road, two radio stations switching in and out seamlessly as he followed the road in its meanderings from the west side of the mountains to the east side and back and back again. He remembered arriving here, at his rental property, and collapsing on the bed, too tired to look around.
The bedroom door pushed open easily, confirming that the he was not being held against his will in an institution of any kind, and he padded into the kitchen. He opened the cabinets and the refrigerator and only managed to rustle up a jar of pickles. He put one in his mouth and sucked on it as he took his first real look around the place. Immediately, the house displeased him. The realtor had told him that it was a parsonage—the church next door was renting the house out since their pastor had died and they had no use of it for the time being—and it had all the earmarks of puritan austerity. The walls and cabinetry were an ascetic shade of white, and the constellations of nail holes in the walls seemed vigilant; he felt the gaze of the family ancestors whose portraits must have hung there. The house seemed flimsy and impromptu; all its walls leaned at oblique angles like something from a pop-up book. He walked from room to room, making an inspection. Some furniture had been left behind: a kitchen table and chairs, a lamp, a ratty wingback chair, a double bed. He wandered back into the bedroom to see if it contained anything besides the bed. It didn’t, and the sight of the thin mattress made him shudder; his mind leapt to all the pleasureless, procreative intercourse that must have taken place in that very spot.
He unpacked his duffel bags onto the bed and then, remembering that there was no dresser, decided to keep his clothes in the kitchen cabinets. He derived a strange sense of pleasure from seeing his socks fanned out on a lazy susan, his underwear rolled into a breadbox. Then he went to the living room with his lease and sat in the wingback chair. The lease contained some oddities. The church was willing to rent the property cheap, but it had some stipulations: it wanted the renter, since he would be so close, to take responsibility for signing out the cemetery key to visitors. Also, the renter was expected to keep the parking lot and sidewalks clear in the event of a snowstorm. This was not a problem for Madison; he doubted he’d be there much more than a month, and he’d definitely be gone by winter. Finally, the terms of the lease would be immediately void in the event that a new pastor was hired or fornicating was witnessed on the premises.
The fornication clause did not bother Madison; he’d had his share of it, and it hadn’t panned out so well. The fornication was only one in a series of events that had erased his former life. The first of these events was the accident.
Before the accident, Madison had thought of himself as basically a good guy, the kind of guy you could count on to step up in case of an emergency. In fact, he thought of himself as living a good life in general. True, several times a year he was overcome by a crippling yet abstract sense of guilt that made him crawl into bed and hide his face beneath the pillow, but he usually managed to talk himself out of these episodes by reassuring himself that, whatever wrongs he may have committed, he’d always had good intentions and had never acted with malice. As it turned out, the guilt he had felt before was nothing compared to the guilt he felt after the accident.
It happened as Madison walked down the street from the pancake house to his painting job. In the early morning, the empty streets reminded him of hospital corridors. As he approached the absolute center of town, he paused to admire the statue in the raised garden at the center of the roundabout. The statue was of Molly Pitcher, a local Revolutionary War hero, who had brought water to her husband in battle and, when he was shot, had taken over his cannon. At the statue’s feet was an overturned water pitcher, alongside the dying husband. The statue itself was rather mannish, the sleeves rolled up over massive forearms, the fist raised. For years, Madison had assumed that the statue was of Paul Bunyan, though now he was not sure why.
Through the triangle of Molly Pitcher’s raised arm, he glimpsed the commuter bus. He had never ridden it himself, but he knew that it collected janitors and maids from the working-class suburbs and took them into the city where they worked at hotels. The bus caught his attention as it weaved down the empty street. As it followed the roundabout, it grazed the raised garden’s retaining wall, and, suddenly, the bus was on its side.
Madison stared. From his position two blocks away, the muted shriek of metal on asphalt seemed too small for the event. He thought of the sound of his neighbor driving with one hand out the window, pulling his metal trashcan down the driveway. It was a sound so familiar that it had incorporated itself into his dreams. The sound of the bus crash, too, was like something from a dream. He was not yet sure that anything had happened. The bus on its side in the street looked as out of place as a giant sea mammal. He was disinclined to believe it was anything but a hallucination.
In the still morning, the bus hissed and creaked. A small fire flickered to life at the front of it, and even two blocks away Madison took a step back. A handful of people came out of the diner on the other side of the roundabout. A woman in a smock with napkins flying from the pocket had her phone pressed to her ear while two men in white shirts and aprons ran toward the bus and disappeared behind it.
Madison did not think about the maids on the bus. He did not think about them dressed in their identical pastel jumpers and white shoes, their bodies tangled with each other. What he thought about was how it would have been so much better if he had stayed in the restaurant. He imagined himself sliding into a vinyl-covered booth with both hands around a coffee cup that was a cross between a mug and a bowl. He imagined the vapors drifting up to steam his face, all the creases and frown lines melting away until he wore his boyhood face.
He turned around and walked back to the pancake house, where he ordered another stack.
In the months that followed, Madison was amazed and appalled by his former delusions of his own goodness. He tried to finish his house-painting job, but the house was so near the scene of the accident that it destroyed his focus; he spilled a five-gallon bucket of paint on an ugly but priceless rug and got himself fired. He tried to open his own painting business, but he’d worded his help-wanted ad poorly, and all his applicants turned out to be art students at the local college. He interviewed a few of them anyway, but none of them seemed right. Their eyes darted restlessly around the diner where he interviewed them in a way that made him think they wouldn’t have the mental stamina to paint entire dormitories a shade called “Arizona white.” Shelly was the exception. Even as she drank her black coffee, she kept her eyes locked on Madison. It unnerved him. He cleared his throat. “What are you majoring in?” he asked, though he had asked none of the other applicants about their studies.
“Child psychology,” she said and started to chew a flap of dry skin on her lip.
“That sounds nice,” he said. He imagined a class of child psychology majors to be something like a confederation of babysitters.
“You must be joking,” Shelly said. She put down her mug and thrust her hand across the table. A crescent of red teeth marks perforated the meat of her palm. “I’m interning in a psychiatrist’s office. One of the little fuckers bit me.”
Madison looked at her palm until she folded her long, unpainted nails over it and put her hand below the table.
“Do you have any experience?” he asked. “With painting. I mean, I’m not sure why you’re interested in this job. It’s really boring. Honestly.”
Shelly broke her gaze on him for the first time to look past him to the street. “Is that your van out there?” she asked, nodding to Madison’s vehicle, which was parked at a meter in front of the diner.
Madison turned to look at it even though he knew it was there. He turned back to Shelly. “Yes.”
“Go clear out the back, and we’ll have sex in it.”
He hired her. They proceeded to make love in a number of locations, including clients’ homes, which proved problematic when Dean Avery, having some extra time over his lunch break, decided to see how the painting was coming along. Instead of a fresh coat of buttermilk beige, he found Madison and Shelley entwined on his late wife’s favorite chaise longue.
All this happened in the two weeks after the accident, and, once Shelly left him, the full magnitude of his failure to help the accident victims struck him. He stayed in his house and lay in bed for hours at a time because he could not get up. This, he thought, is what it must be like to be put into an iron lung. He kept the TV on at low volume for weeks, watching for news of the accident. He scanned the papers and kept a growing collage of clippings on the wall by his bed.
“What is this?” his wife asked. “This looks like a serial killer’s lair. It’s creepy.” She fingered a clipping about the reconstruction of the retaining wall around Molly Pitcher and gave him a moment to answer, but he remained silent. “Take it down,” she said. “And don’t leave a gummy residue on the walls.”
He took it down, but he did not get better. He taped the clippings up again in the basement and moved a mattress from the guest room down there.
At first, Lydia would come down and sit on the mattress with him and smooth his hair. “You know,” she would say. “No one died in that accident. Everyone came out just fine. You should go talk to someone about this.”
“I’m talking to you.”
“I mean someone professional.”
Eventually Lydia stopped visiting the basement. She occasionally opened the door and thrust her head in to ask if he needed anything from the store. Sometimes Madison heard her talking on the phone in the kitchen, and she would stop, lean down to the vent, and shout, “Your mother says hello.”
On a morning in early November, a letter from Dean Avery arrived at the house, and Lydia read through it at the kitchen table. Avery’s threats and ranting were dense and euphemistic, but the letter was enough to give Lydia a vision of erotic massages performed with paint rollers on a dead woman’s furniture. She got up from the table, walked over to the corner, and slipped the letter through the vent.
The winter passed, and in the spring Madison decided that he would move. Lydia had already left him. No divorce papers were signed, but, since Thanksgiving, she had gone to stay with her sister. He chose a realtor at random from the phone book. He gave a realtor with three first names—David Joe Michaels—what he considered to be broad specifications: cheap, rural, small. These specifications turned up one rental property in the realtor’s area. This is how he found himself in south-central Pennsylvania—a land populated by deer statues and eagles painted on satellite dishes—settling into Fishdale, a town consisting of a fish hatchery, a tanning parlor, and a church. He figured that with the money leftover from selling the house he’d be able to hang out for a few months without needing to work.
On his first day in Fishdale, he didn’t accomplish much. By the time he had organized his pants over the pantry hooks and sat down to reread his lease, it was growing dark. He must have awoken much later than he thought and wasn’t very tired, but he decided to sleep anyway. He pulled a set of sheets down from the cupboards above his oven and went into the bedroom. There, on his wiry conjugal mattress, perched a moth. Its eyespots startled him with their human depth and an emotion he identified as kindred hopelessness. The moth walked across the mattress, circled the overhead light, and eventually disappeared inside its translucent cover. Madison could see its dim outline as it fluttered inside the light, but try as he might, he could not remove the cover.
Thirty years had passed since the last time he had observed a moth. His eighth-grade science teacher, who went by “the Moth Man” more than he went by Larry Zerwoski, had taken Madison and his male classmates on a moth-collecting trip in the Blue Mountains. They had tied bed sheets to the trees and then had trained lights on the sheets; they had slept all day and spent all night watching the sheets for moths and other creatures. Madison had been unimpressed. The other boys had been interested in setting up the lamps and generators and exploring the campsite, but Madison had spent his time in the tent with a chess set. This changed on the day he wandered into the woods to dig a cat hole and found a moth clinging to the chest of his shirt. He arrived back in camp swinging the trowel kit, and the Moth Man had called attention to him.
“Look what Madison found,” he said, and the other boys put down the sticks they were whittling and rushed over. “It’s an Io moth.”
The boys crowded to see but quickly lost interest. “It looks like a dead leaf,” one said.
“A dead leaf! Appearances, my boy.” The Moth Man pursed his lips and blew gently on the moth. Madison felt the older man’s breath tickle his neck, and its caffeinated scent seemed to clear his mind. The moth fanned its wings, revealing black eyespots ringed in yellow, black, and red. While Madison gazed at it, the Moth Man told the story of Io, the beautiful priestess Zeus had desired and turned into a heifer to protect her from his jealous wife. Madison wasn’t paying attention; he gazed into the moth’s big, baleful eyespots and fell in love.
Now, as a forty-three-year-old man, he grabbed his white sheets and marched into the yard to drape them over the clothesline. A lamp from the living room was requisitioned and trained on the sheets. He positioned the wingback nearby, retrieved a half-full cup of tepid coffee from his truck, and sat down to wait.
The first to come were the smoky tetanolitas, their wings folded like charred paper against the sheet. Then came the small-eyed sphinxes and the gypsy moths. Madison looked out at his new town for the first time. Driving there, he couldn’t have failed to notice that he was in the mountains, but only now did he realize how high up he was and that the parsonage and church perched on the top of a bald hill. To the west the church stood dark. To the east, the cemetery covered the hillside. To the north, the fields rolled down into a country lane and then turned back up into another hill. To the south lay corn and a cattle pasture. At the base of the valley, the creek and the train tracks ran parallel, and another fold of mountains rose in the distance. He could see all this by the light of the moon, except the stream and the tracks, which he sketched in from the memory of his drive in.
The absence of light in the valley startled him. Here and there a weak pinprick of light shone, but for the most part there was nothing. He wondered how the illuminated, blazing white sheets on his hilltop must look to people in the valley. They must have thought it was the second coming.
Madison quickly learned that moths were not the only things drawn to his hilltop. The local addicts and homeless came to the parsonage for help and assumed that the man who answered the door was a minister. The first time someone called him “Reverend,” Madison snorted. He had never heard anything so implausible.
Madison’s moth collecting had become a habit. He spent the days in bed and came out at night to switch on his lamp and wait. The knocks at the door usually came around mid-afternoon. He answered the door sleepy and foggy-brained, and, after initially expecting him to be a minister, more than one of the addicts wondered if Madison wasn’t an addict himself. All of them asked for money: for food, for rent, for child support, for car payments, for work supplies. Madison said no. If they seemed hungry, he relocked the door, rummaged through the kitchen, and came back with some leftovers, a pickle, or a handful of saltines, the kind of foods that accumulate when one only shops in convenience stores. And then he locked the door again. Eventually, he stopped answering. His conversations with several of them led him to believe that the late reverend had been sympathetic to their cause to the point of running a makeshift shelter out of the parsonage’s living room.
Madison had no intention of turning his living room into a shelter. Instead, he turned it into a moth sanctuary. He couldn’t bring himself to kill any of the moths he found, so he moved the perfect specimens to his living room, where they clustered in the darkened corners of the bare walls.
After three weeks, Madison had worn all the clothing he had brought for a second and third time. The parsonage did not come equipped with a washer, nor did he have a tub or any sort of basin. He tried washing clothes one piece at a time in his shallow kitchen sink but soon grew frustrated. He decided to see what the church had to offer, and on Monday—a day he thought most likely for a church to be empty and its ministers and deacons to be at home at rest—he crossed the parking lot. Though he hadn’t been out in daylight for weeks, he decided to go to the church in the morning so that his clothes could spend the day drying in the sun. At the front of the sanctuary, the perfect vessel presented itself: a baptismal font as big as a hot tub. He dumped his clothes in and knelt on the platform surrounding it, stirring the clothes with the handle of the acolyte’s processional torch. It occurred to him that this was the first time he had ever been on his knees in a church.
As a child, he hadn’t belonged to a religious family. Other children went away to church camps in the summer while Madison worked on his father’s construction sites. Lydia, on the other hand, was from a Pentecostal church. As a teenager she had been devout and evangelical, but now she was disillusioned. Religious tensions often boiled over in her infrequent phone conversations with her family. Her father would respond to a misfortune in Lydia’s life by calling it the “movement of the spirit,” and Lydia would scream, “Bowel movement of the spirit!” and hang up.
It struck Madison that he missed Lydia. The parsonage didn’t have a phone, and he hadn’t called her since he had arrived in Fishdale. During their earlier phone conversations, he had thought he felt her softening towards him; her demands for a divorce were less strident than when she had moved out.
Madison liked this church. The morning light poured in through the sanctuary windows, and he could now see what he hadn’t seen at night: the lush greens and golds of the farm country unrolling before him, the distant blue haze of pine-forested mountains. He watched a herd of cows meander through the trees in the creek bed.
Madison nearly fell into the font. A man in a floral smock with a scarf knotted around his head gamboled down the aisle. Madison stood, wiped his hands on his trousers, and walked down the steps to the main floor of the sanctuary. “Good morning,” he said. “This”—he gestured behind him at the clothes—“will be out of your way in no time.”
The man leaned into the baptismal. “A little housekeeping, I see. That’s what brings me here, too. I don’t like to let things sit. I come first thing Mondays otherwise the stains get set on the toilet bowls and the mice come for the communion crumbs.” He smiled at Madison. “I’m Jim. You?”
“Madison,” he said.
“You need to see the pastor? Because we’re between pastors right now, but I can call a deacon.”
“No,” said Madison. “I’ve actually just moved in. Into the parsonage. Haven’t found a laundromat yet.”
“We wondered what type we’d get to move into that drafty old thing. Where in these contingent forty-eight are you from?” Jim asked.
Madison opened his mouth to correct him but stopped. “Contingent forty-eight” had a ring to it. It made him imagine the states appearing together out of some sort of fortunate happenstance. He said, “Philly.”
“Oh, man,” said Jim. “My wife’s out there right now. You gotta wife? Kids?”
“Nope,” said Madison.
Jim scratched under his headscarf. “That’s too bad. Must get pretty quiet up on this hill at night. Me and you’s going to have to go around together sometime. I know all the nightspots.”
Madison smiled weakly. “Is there a telephone in here by any chance?”
Jim walked him out of the sanctuary and into the lobby where he unlocked the office. “No calls to France or anything, okay?” he said and left.
Madison dialed and waited for Lydia. It rang twice, and then a man answered, “Hello?”
“May I speak to Lydia, please?”
“Nobody here named Lydia.”
Madison hung up. He had dialed his home phone by accident. The man must have been the new owner. He tried to think of his sister-in-law’s number, but it wouldn’t come to him. He closed the office door and returned to the sanctuary to wring out his clothes.
Madison finished hanging his laundry around noon. He sat on the floor in his darkened living room to watch the moths moving on the walls and then crawled into bed. While he waited for sleep, he thought about what he would have said if had had gotten Lydia on the phone. He had no idea. Perhaps it was best that she hadn’t answered.
In the evening, he woke up, shuffled into the kitchen to grab a pop tart, and went into the living room. The floor of the living room was completely bare since he had moved the wingback and the lamp outside, so it surprised him to trip over a large mound on the floor. The mound was Jim.
“Oh, hey,” Jim said. He was no longer wearing the apron and headscarf, just jeans and a white t-shirt so translucent that Madison could see the gray-green outline of his tattoos through it. “This is a hot set up you have here. You really should sleep out here with all these bugs.”
Madison looked toward the door and the windows, trying to grasp how Jim had entered.
Jim noticed this. “Hey, man, don’t worry. I got a key. Pastor Bob gave it to me. I mean, I was over here so much anyway that it only made sense.”
“You clean the parsonage too?” Madison asked, confused.
“No, this was before I was a janitor. Pastor Bob cleaned me up, and then he got me this job. The pay is terrible, but there are perks. I got keys to everything in the church, and there are snacks in the basement fridge.”
“What do you mean, he cleaned you up?”
“I was into some terrible stuff. I sort of misled you by saying my wife’s in Philly. She’s only my girlfriend, and she’s in a lady prison out there for dealing.”
Madison took a moment to absorb this and felt a moth land on his cheek. Jim remained sprawled on the floor, letting a rosy maple moth climb around and around his fingers. “So why are you here?” Madison asked.
“After you left, I thought, ‘What did that guy mean, he couldn’t find a laundromat? He’s got a washer in his own house.’ Come on, man,” Jim jumped up from the floor. He walked into the hall and opened what Madison had assumed was a closet but which now proved to be a basement door. Jim jumped down the steps in two leaps and walked around the basement like a salesman in a showroom. Madison surveyed the corroded water heater, the ping-pong table without a net, and the washing machine.
“Come on,” Jim said, leaning against the washing machine. “Let’s see this baby work. Throw something in here.” He slapped the top of the machine for emphasis and threw open its glass door.
“I just washed all my clothes today,” Madison said.
“You couldn’t have washed what you have on. Throw it in.”
Madison humored him by removing a sock and putting it in. Jim adjusted the temperature settings and set the machine to “Wash,” and they both sat to watch the single sock go around.
Jim became a frequent visitor during Madison’s moth collecting. Madison didn’t invite him, but he didn’t mind that he came. In a way, he looked forward to it. He didn’t know much about moths, but he knew enough to impress Jim.
Jim pointed to the sheet and asked, “What’s that? Some kind of bird?”
Madison moved closer to inspect it, its wings the shade of spearmint gum. He let it crawl onto his fingers and walked it over to Jim. “It’s a Luna moth…they’re not the biggest moths out there, but they’re pretty close.”
“That is not a moth,” Jim said. “That is a small aircraft.”
“Put out your hand,” said Madison, slowly extending the moth to him.
Jim flinched slightly. “I don’t want it to bite me. Think of the fang marks a thing like that could leave. I’d have to get more tattoos.”
“Why?” Madison asked.
“Didn’t I tell you, man? I positioned these tats to cover some monkey bites. As a kid, I had this asstard neighbor with a deranged chimp.” He lifted his shirt to his neck and pointed to the portrait inked on his chest. “This is my Uncle Raymond. Died in a plant explosion. You can still see the bite marks in his hair.”
Madison peered at the puckered and swirled grayish skin and then offered the Luna moth to Jim again. “Luna moths don’t have fangs,” he said. “They don’t even have mouths.”
“Get out. How do they eat then, Einstein?”
“They don’t eat. Don’t need to. They only live for a week.”
Jim was quiet for a moment and then said, “I was gonna say that’s impossible, but I guess it’s kind of like being on meth. When you’re hopped up on meth you can go for weeks without eating. Or sleeping.”
Madison thought of the weeks he had spent in the basement of his home last fall. He didn’t remember eating at all during that period. Meth must be a lot like grief.
Jim interrupted his thoughts, “What’s the point of living at all if you’ve only got one week?”
“Mating,” Madison replied.
“Mmmm, sex,” Jim said appreciatively, and the two lapsed into silence.
A week later, Madison was sitting in his yard at night, thinking about his finances. It appeared that the money remaining from the sale of his house would not go as far as he had thought it would. He considered calling Lydia for a loan but rejected the idea.
Jim showed up. This time, he came with news. “Becky’s getting out of her lady prison,” he announced. She’d been paroled for good behavior and naming her suppliers. And now she was coming out, and she’d be clean. “I hope we still dig each other sober,” Jim said. “I don’t think that’s ever happened to us before.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” said Madison though he was not at all sure. He wondered if this meant he would have two observers instead of one, or if Jim would disappear. He preferred the latter. He liked Jim but couldn’t say that he trusted him. Jim’s car and the apartment he had described seemed to be beyond the means of a part-time church custodian, and Madison wondered if he didn’t have a few enterprises going on under the table.
“I think we should throw her a party,” Jim said.
Madison raised his eyebrows.
“Or not we, but me anyhow. And you can help. We’ll have it over here in the church, only it’ll be so pimped out you’d think it was the Playboy mansion before you thought it was a church.”
Madison looked over at the church. Like the parsonage, it had a white cement façade that made it seem more like a mental institution than a palace of pleasure. “How are you going to do that?” he asked Jim.
“I’ve got some tricks,” Jim said. “Just you wait.”
Madison didn’t press him further but got up to inspect a boxwood leaftier that had just landed on the sheet.
On the evening of the party, Madison saw that Jim’s car was in the parking lot early but waited until nine to go see him. He found Jim on a ladder in the darkened lobby.
“What’s up, Jim?” Madison asked.
“Just wait,” said Jim. “Get your hand on the light switch, and hit it when I tell you. Okay, now.”
Madison flipped the lights on, and the room was bathed in an eerie red light. Jim descended the ladder with some red fabric draped over his shoulder. “Pretty sweet, right?” said Jim. He didn’t wait for Madison to respond. “I had this idea: what if I dimmed the lights, then you could bring your moths over. Just let them crawl around on the walls. Wouldn’t that be something?”
Madison hesitated. He looked around at the lobby, which was hardly changed from its usual appearance: the bulletin board full of notices about women’s fellowship luncheons, the stand full of pamphlets, the box full of toothpaste being collected for a homeless shelter.
“Oh, don’t look at this,” said Jim. “This is not where the real party is happening. You gotta step inside the sanctuary. That’s where it’s at.” He ushered Madison through the double doors of the sanctuary. He’d covered the lights here too. The pews had been unbolted and moved aside to create a dance floor, and a few tables of party food were pushed against the walls. “Come look up here,” he said, dragging Madison to the front. He pointed to the baptismal font, which he’d turned into an ice bath for the beer. “I was trying to rig up a little motor to turn the whole thing into a Jacuzzi, but this is pretty cool too, right?”
Madison wasn’t sure what to say. The full-size cross that dominated the front of the sanctuary was draped in a banner that said “Welcome home Becky!” The whole affair seemed vaguely heretical to him. He wasn’t a believer, but the religious iconography beneath Jim’s decorations gave him a prickly feeling on the back of his neck.
“Do you think Becky will like it?” Jim asked, and he glowed with anticipation so sincere that Madison nodded.
“Do you have any boxes?” Madison asked. “We’ll need them to move the moths over here.”
Jim emptied two boxes of copier paper from the church office, and the pair headed over to the parsonage. The moths were immobile and drowsy in the heat of the living room.
“Geez, don’t you use the air conditioner, man?” Jim asked.
Madison hadn’t known he’d had one. Jim stomped into the kitchen, flicked a switch, and the air conditioner kicked on with a sudden gust of air that smelled of burnt hair.
They finished gathering the moths and headed back to the sanctuary, where the moths did not want to leave the boxes.
“C’mon, guys,” said Jim, snapping his fingers at them.
“They really don’t respond to that,” said Madison, but Jim did not pay any attention to him. Instead, he hoisted a box onto each shoulder and began running and jumping. The moths flew up in spurts like clumps of leaves being thrown into the sky. In flashes of yellow and green, orange and red, they took to the air. Just as suddenly, they landed on the walls and folded their wings, transforming into dull, brown stains.
“Whoa,” said Jim. “I wonder how we can get them to do that during the party.”
Madison shrugged. He leaned down to pick up an orange-headed epicallima that was still clinging to the inside of the copier paper box. He headed home and put the moth on a shrub outside his door.
Madison had not planned on attending the party, but the music was so loud that he could not ignore it. By eleven thirty, there was a large assortment of cars in the parking lot.
Inside, the lobby was scattered with a few groups of people, but the sanctuary was packed. The windowsills and tables flickered with dozens of large altar candles, and Madison watched a dancing woman let her hair sweep close to the flames. He wondered where all these people had come from; he considered the possibility that he had naively underestimated the size of the rural, drug-using community. Or perhaps he had simply underestimated Jim’s social abilities.
Madison turned his gaze to the ceiling. He had expected to see the moths arranged in placid constellations, but they were fluttering in a thick cloud. It occurred to him that the volume of the music was probably agitating their sensitive tympanums. At first, Madison was annoyed, but soon their bold flashes of color and chaotic movements transfixed him. He gazed at them until his neck cramped. He looked back down at the people on the dance floor. They weren’t so different: chaotic flashes of color amongst a sea of black-clad bodies.
Jim came through the crowd dragging a tiny but fierce-looking woman. Her tight pants and pointed black boots tapered so savagely that Madison thought it was a wonder that she did not penetrate the floor like a spike.
“Jim!” said Madison. “Great party!” He was surprised to find that he meant it.
Jim grinned. “Madison, this is Becky. Becky, Madison.” He had his arm clasped so enthusiastically over Becky’s shoulder that she seemed uncomfortable. “We’re gonna get married,” he yelled over the music. “You’re gonna be my best man, man.”
“Oh, wow,” said Madison. “Congratulations.”
“What?” said Jim.
Madison leaned next Jim’s ear to shout congratulations again and caught a whiff of smoke. He hadn’t known Jim was a smoker; in fact, Jim claimed to be disgusted by smokers. “That stuff fucks up your lungs,” he had told Madison on more than one occasion.
The smell of smoke was strong, but it wasn’t coming from Jim. Madison caught sight of the flames moving up the “Welcome home Becky!” banner. They moved quickly up the fabric and soon the entire cross was on fire.
“Fuck!” shouted Jim. “Who turned my party all KKK?”
The crowd responded by backing away from the flames. No one ran for a fire extinguisher; they just gazed at it. Madison watched the flickers of the cross reflect in a sea of over-dilated eyes.
The sprinkler system kicked on. The crowd gazed up at the downpour, then ran from the building. Madison found it funny, even as he ran after them, that they should all be more afraid of getting wet than of the fire. They huddled in the parking lot, and in a few minutes, Jim exited the church. “Come back in! The fire’s all out! I’ve got the sprinklers off!”
But the mood had been spoiled. The people who had stayed to watch the fire devour the church now climbed into their cars and drove down the mountain. Becky, looking even tinier with her hair drenched and flattened, climbed into a black Volvo with another man and left.
Madison walked back into the church. The water had soaked into the carpeting but oozed back out again as he walked across it. He found some of his moths strewn across the floor, others plastered to the walls, wings stripped of their colorful scales. When he tried to separate their sticky and translucent wings, they tore like wet tissue under his fingers.
Jim emerged from the basement with a wrench in his hand. “Can you believe that? Somebody just lit this whole place up! I bet it was that flamer Duane.” He noticed the direction of Madison’s gaze. “Hey man. I’m real sorry about that. I didn’t mean for your moths to get involved like that.”
Madison looked up. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. He fished a couple beers out of the baptismal font, walked across the parking lot to the parsonage, and lay on his back in the yard. A few minutes later, Jim lay down beside him without a word.
In the morning, Madison woke to the sound of cars pulling into the parking lot. He was sorry to be awake; he had been having a pleasant dream in which none of the characters were Lydia.
A few women in prayer bonnets milled about and then disappeared into the church. Madison glanced at Jim, who was asleep beside him, and then glanced over to the church. From outside, it looked fine, but the previous night’s destruction came back to him in a flash. Jim rolled in his sleep, revealing a crisscrossing pattern of grass marks on his cheek.
In the sky, a pinkish dot moved closer. Madison roused Jim and asked, “What is that?”
Jim sat up and wiped his mouth with his hand. They tracked the dot’s progress until it became clear that it was a hot air balloon. “What shape is it?” Jim asked.
“A brain,” said Madison.
The brain floated towards them over the cemetery. A man and a woman leaned out of the basket and waved at them, and Jim and Madison waved back. Both parties kept up the waving for a long time.
“Take us with you!” Madison shouted.
The woman leaned further from the basket and shouted, “What?”
“Take us with you!” Madison and Jim shouted together, and the sound of their voices carried through the valley.
The brain did not stop but kept floating past the church. Madison stood and shouted into the valley one more time, “Take us with you!” He did not shout because he wanted to go with them but because it felt good to have so much clear air in his lungs and to feel his voice fly strong and certain over everything in sight.