Sunday, February 10, 2008

A City of Churches (Donald Barthelme)

"Yes," Mr. Phillips said, "ours is a city of churches all right."

Cecelia nodded, following his pointing hand. Both sides of the street
were solidly lines with churches, standing shoulder to shoulder in a variety
of architectural styles. The Bethel Baptist stood next to the Holy Messiah
Free Baptist, Saint Paul's Episcopal next to Grace Evangelical Covenant. Then
came the First Christian Science, the Church of God, All Souls, Our Lady of
Victory, and the Church of the Holy Apostles. The spires and steeples of the
traditional buildings were jammed in next to the broad imaginative flights of
the "contemporary" designs.

"Everyone here takes great interest in church matters," Mr. Philips said.

Will I fit in, Cecelia wondered. She had come to Prester to open a branch
office of a car-rental concern.

"I'm not especially religious," she said to Mr. Philips, who was in the
real-estate business.

"Not now," he answered. "Not yet. But we have many fine young people
here. You'll get integrated into the community soon enough. The immediate
problem is where are you to live? Most people," he said, "live in the church
of their choice. All of our churches have many extra rooms. I have a few
belfry apartments that I can show you. What price range were you thinking of?"

They turned a corner and were confronted with more churches. They passed
Saint Luke's, the Church of the Epiphany, All Saints Ukrainian Orthodox, Saint
Clement's, Fountain Baptist, Union Congregational, Saint Anargyri's, Temple
Emanuel, the First Church of Christ Reformed. The mouths of all the churches
were gaping open. Inside, lights could be seen dimly.

"I can go up to a hundred and ten," Cecelia said. "Do you have any
buildings that are not churches?"

"None," said Mr. Philips. "Oh course, many of our fine church structures
also do double duty as something else." He indicated an handsome Georgian
facade. "That one," he said, "houses the United Methodist and the Board of
Education. The one next to it, which is the Antioch Pentecostal, has the

It was true. A red-and-white striped barber pole was attached
inconspicuously to the front of the Antioch Pentecostal.

"Do many people rent cars here?" Cecelia asked. "Or would they, if there
was a handy place to rent them?"

"Oh, I don't know," said Mr. Philips. "Renting a car implies that you
want to go somewhere. Most people are pretty content right here. We have a lot
of activities. I don't think I'd pick the car-rental business if i was just
starting out in Prester. But you'll do fin." He showed her a small, extremely
modern building with a severe brick, steele, and glass front. "That's Saint
Barnabas. Nice bunch of people over there. Wonderful spaghetti suppers."

Cecelia could see a number of hears looking out of the windows. But when
they saw that she was staring at them, the heads disappeared.

"Do you think it's healthy for so many churches to be gathered together
in one place?" she asked her guide. "It doesn't seem...balanced, if you know
what i mean."

"We are famous for our churches," Mr. Philips replied. "They are
harmless. Here we are now."


He opened a door and they began climbing many flights of dusty stairs.
At the end of the climb they entered a good-sized room, square, with windows
on all four sides. There was a bed, a table, and two chairs, lamps, a rug.
Four very large brass bells hung in the exact center of the room.

"What a view!" Mr. Philips exclaimed. "Come here and look."

"Do they actually ring these bells?" Cecelia asked.

"Three times a day," Mr. Philips said, smiling. "Morning, noon, and
night. Of course when they're rung you have to be pretty quick at getting out
of the way. You get hit in the head with one of these babies and that's all
she wrote."

"God Almighty," said Cecelia involuntarily. Then she said, "Nobody lives
in belfry apartments. That's why they're empty."

"You think so?" Mr. Philips said.

"You can only rent them to new people in town," she said accusingly.

"I wouldn't do that," Mr. Philips said. "It would go against the spirit
of Christian fellowship."

"This town in a little creepy, you know that?"

"That may be, but it's not for you to say, is it? I mean, you're new
here. You should walk cautiously, for a while. If you don't want an upper
apartment, I have a basement over at Central Presbyterian. You'd have to
share it. There are two women in there now."

"I don't want to share," Cecelia said. "I want a place of my own."

"Why?" the real-estate man asked curiously. "For what purpose?"

"Purpose?" asked Cecelia. "There is no particular purpose. I just want-"

"That's not unusual here. Most people live with other people. Husbands
and wives. Sons with their mothers. People have roommates. That's the usual

"Still, I prefer a place of my own."

"It's very unusual."

"Do you have any such places? Besides bell towers, I mean?"

"I guess there are a few," Mr. Philips said, with clear reluctance. "I
can show you one or two, I suppose."

He paused for a moment.

"It's just that we have different values, maybe, from some of the
surrounding communities," he explained. "We've been written up a lot. We had
four minutes on the 'CBS Evening News' one time. Tree of four years ago. 'A
City of Churches,' it was called."

"Yes, a place of my own is essential," Cecelia said, "if I am to survive

"That's kind of a funny attitude to take," Mr. Philips said. "What
denomination are you?"

Cecelia was silent. The truth was, she wasn't anything.

" I said, what denomination are you?" Mr. Philips repeated.

"I can will my dreams," Cecelia said. "I can dream whatever I want. If I
want to dream that i'm having a good time, in Paris or some other city, all I
have to do is go to sleep and I will dream that dream. I can dream whatever I

"What do you dream, then, mostly?" Mr. Philips said, looking at her

"Mostly sexual things," she said. She was not afraid of him.

"Prester is not that kind of town," Mr. Philips said, looking away.


The doors of the churches were opening, on both sides of the street. Small
groups of people came out and stood there, in front of the churches, gazing at
Cecelia and Mr. Philips.

A young man stepped forward and shouted, "Everyone in this town already
has a car! There is no one in this town who doesn't have a car!"

"Is that true?" Cecelia asked Mr. Philips.

"Yes," he said. "It's true. No one would rent a car here. Not in a
hundred years."

Then I won't stay," she said. "I'll go somewhere else."

"You must stay," he said. "There is already a car-rental office for you.
In Mount Moriah Baptist, on the lobby floor. There is a counter and a
telephone and a rack of car keys. And a calendar."

"I won't stay," she said. "Not if there isn't any sound business reason
for staying."

"We want you," said Mr. Philips. "We want you standing behind the counter
of the car-rental agency, during regular business hours. It will make the town

"I won't," she said. "Not me."

"You must. It's essential."

"I'll dream," she said. "Things you won't like."

"We are discontented," said Mr. Philips. "Terrible, terribly
discontented. Something is wrong."

"I'll dream the Secret," she said. "You'll be sorry."

"We are like other towns, except that we are perfect," he said. "Our
discontent can only be held in check be perfection. We need a car rental girl.
Someone must stand behind that counter."

"I'll dream the life you are most afraid of," Cecelia threatened.

"You are ours," he said, gripping her arm. "Our car rental girl. Be nice.
There is nothing you can do."

"Wait and see," Cecelia said.


Max said...

Cool story... rather Poeish.

nnyhav said...

Welcome to Adelaide, CofCs.

J said...

Hallo, nnyhav. Yeah the wonder down under is a rather terrifying place, and that murder-spectacle is one of many, isn't it.

Really, CoC may be one of DB's more accessible montages. Yes, it has an absurd or Kafkaesque aspect, but also capable of shall we say economic-materialist readings: churches as property, for one. I am not quite sure of all the connotations (the potential car-rental girl as some feminist disruptor of the theological order? etc.), but rather dreamy. Quite a few DB stories (if stories they are) feature architecture in a sort of odd, nightmare-like fashion. Regardless, methinks DB was on a bad trip: or at least he perceives the bad trip of urban, capitalist America.

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