Illustration © Eric N. Peterson
The Masque of the Red State Death
The Red State Death had long devastated the country, the southern regions in particular. No disease had ever been so underestimated by its leaders, or so preventable. There was the prolonged fever, the excessive perspiration, the shortness of breath. For the old or infirm, especially, it often brought an excruciating and lonely end.
But Pastor Tony was happy and stubborn and persuasive, and he did not hesitate to gather several thousand pale and light-headed followers in the deep seclusion of his constipated arena of worship. There were husbands and wives, grandparents and grandchildren; there were pro-lifers whose lives had plateaued and anti-activists who were seldom active. Many were creatures of habit who believed it folly to grieve, or to think, or to take precautions. The external world would deal with its problems in due course so long as they prayed today. Everything bad was beyond the strong and lofty walls of the church.
Pastor Tony planned on citing seven passages from the New Testament. An ostentatious man, he had a fine eye for colors and effects, and so he saw it fit to have seven lighting schemes for the occasion. With a handheld gadget, he would transition from one to the next while whipping his arm upwards with a dramatic flair, as if some external force was yanking him by the wrist toward the cross some thirty feet above the stage.
The first lighting scheme was eggshell white, the second navy blue. Third was Mississippi-since-1960 red, while fourth was Scandinavian immigrant white. Fifth was CO₂-enriched sky blue, and sixth was ‘MAGA’ hat red. The seventh and final scheme Pastor Tony had trouble deciding on given the even number of colors thus far. Maybe he would leave it up to the quarter in his pocket, he thought, or maybe he would have it convey some significance.
As the parishioners filed in, waiting on the back of the seats in front of them were iPads. Pre-programmed on each was a seven-minute video containing a message about the power of positive thinking and the glorious feeling that comes with attributing any uncertainty in the natural world to a sole agent. At the end came a few words from a pair of media personalities whom the pastor had befriended at the Conservative Political Action Conference a few weeks ago.
At 11 A.M. precisely, Pastor Tony threw aside the curtains and sauntered down the ramp in the center of the stage, shrouded in mist and pretension. After some pleasantries and platitudes, he launched into his act. As one lighting scheme moved to another, the ebbs and flows of his passion steadily began to rise. There were some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not. Since it was necessary to hear and see and touch him to be sure that he was not, that is what many of them did, making their way down the aisles to clutch his outstretched arms.
Upon the completion of each passage and Pastor Tony’s interpretation of it, the lights went out and the music paused. At this point the more aged and sedate in the audience passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. A sense of agitation, unease and emptiness pervaded the giant room. All that could be heard was the occasional beep of the lighting equipment on the catwalk and the fuzz of the amplifiers on stage. But when a new color blared down from above, there again was Pastor Tony, standing resolute, and everyone looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, vowing that the next break in the action would produce in them no similar emotion. Yet each time it did.
Pastor Tony then came to the sixth passage, from Revelation 16. With hands outstretched, and this time in shorter, more clipped utterances, he described the plagues sent by God to punish the wicked in the form of seven bowls filled with his wrath, carried by angels.
“’The fourth angel…poured out his bowl on the sun…and it was allowed to scorch people with fire,’” he said as ‘MAGA’ hat red lit up the stage and the eyes of those who watched him. “They were scorched by the fierce heat…and they cursed the name of God…who had power over these plagues.”
Sweat poured down Pastor Tony’s cheeks onto the polished wooden floor, amplifying the squeak of his black dress shoes as he shuffled to one end of the stage and back again. He continued on, no longer reading now, but with eyes closed, as this part he knew by heart.
“’The fifth angel poured out his bowl…on the throne of the beast,”’ he exclaimed, grasping a mishmash of palms and fingers seeking affirmation, seeking to bid defiance to contagion, “’and its kingdom…was plunged into darkness!”’
As went the beast’s kingdom, so did the stage. For the moment, it seemed routine. A sudden cut to black wouldn’t be uncommon during such a dramatic narration, many in the congregation reasoned. All they could hear now was the periodic beep from above and the constant fuzz from up front. But the longer the stage remained dark, the louder those noises seemed to their edged senses, and the more worried they became.
After a minute had passed, the murmurs began. Seeking light of any form, some parishioners reached for the iPads, which, when unlocked, were frozen on the last frame of the video they had watched an hour or so earlier: the empty expressions of those two media personalities, one named after a jewel, the other a fabric. Surrounded by darkness, the screens produced so wild and ghastly a look upon the countenances of those who held them, it was as if they had donned masks they had stored under their seats in anticipation of this moment.
After another revolution of the second hand of Pastor Tony’s Rolex, those who expected the distinctive twang of his voice to reassure them that this was a mere technical difficulty had grown doubtful. Sensing something was amiss, one man felt his way on stage and crawled towards the podium. Padding around on the floor, he felt Pastor Tony’s damp hand. Grasping it, he pushed the pastor’s lifeless thumb down on the gadget once more, revealing what would have been the setting for the seventh and final passage: red light on stage right, white light in the center, and blue light on stage left.
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Red State Death. No amount of praying could remove the virus that many in the congregation now carried. It went home with them, it went to the diner with them, it went to the supermarket with them, it went to the drugstore, to their children’s schools, to the in-laws’, to the post office – everywhere it should have never been able to go. But it had, and now it held illimitable dominion over all.
William Vaillancourt is a writer and editor from New Hampshire whose work has appeared in The Progressive, The Washington Post and Slate, among other print and online publications. He holds a BA in History and Political Science from Boston University.
Eric N. Peterson is from Atlanta, Ga. He’s been drawing cartoons all his life. He leans towards the absurd, imaginative, and the surreal, as that’s where all the flavor is.