I got to be part of the children’s choir on an album by this singing songbook. Before it changed, my voice was as smooth and clean as soap. I got to meet the guy, Phil Chambers, who played the singing songbook. He appeared dressed as the book. He stayed in character for the duration of the recording session. His face painted white, the bright blue bookcovers closed, the pages packed in behind him. I found it strange that he would stay in costume and made up during a recording session.
He was an auteur of Evangelical children’s entertainment. The word “entertainment” on its own fails, because cultural artifacts made for evangelical children must always be overtly instructive. Mr. Chambers wrote the music and the stories, recorded them, performed them, designed costumes and sets for videos and photo-shoots, and most other things. I read the liner notes of the albums and marveled. I had questions. I had my own plan for creating media.
At 11 years old I wanted to create a radio program based around a family of spiders who live in a decrepit Methodist church. The spiders help to free an angel who’s spent twenty years trapped in the cobwebbed church organ by a demon (accidentally summoned by the youth band’s practice session performance of Heart of Gold by Neil Young). Overjoyed at his freedom, the angel blesses the spiders with flawless singing voices. They protect and restore the church while doing battle with the patron demons of various pop songs.
I was in complete agreement with, and much influenced by, my parents’ stance on the evils of popular music.
As the recording session ended, I approached Mr. Chambers, introduced myself, and said I’d like to talk to him about a project he might find interesting. He stared down at me, sweat beads standing out on the white, blank of his face. I reached into my pocket and retrieved a tape, which I held out to him. This tape contained the entire first episode of my show, which I’d called, “Webs of Glory.” He motioned to a gray-haired woman who put a hand on my shoulder and ushered me back to the choir, which was shuffling out to meet our parents. Chambers walked down the hall, past the bathrooms, and around a corner.
I thought that this might happen. Chambers was notoriously close mouthed about his work. I already had a plan in place.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” I told Kathy, the gray-haired lady.
“I think you can hold it until you’re in the lobby, waiting for your parents to pick you up,” she said.
“Actually, I doubt I can. I’m lactose intolerant, so the pizza and milk that you all provided for lunch is making everything a little bit urgent. My parents might also be disappointed that the menu choices weren’t properly cleared with them.”
She let me go. I walked down the hall, checked behind myself for Kathy, didn’t see her, and continued past the bathrooms and around the corner.
I listened and heard subdued piano chords and humming from behind a door a little way down the hall. I gathered myself in front of the door, got my tape out, and opened the door.
“Mr. Chambers,” I said as I walked toward the piano, “I understand that I’m being forward, and I’ve already asked forgiveness from the Lord for lying to Kathy, but I really think you’d enjoy this tape.” I stopped.
In the room, some kind of rehearsal room, the back of the piano faced the door. I could see Chambers’ looking over the top of the Baldwin upright. As I finished talking, I began to absorb what I was looking at. He was free of the face-paint, and free of the blue fabric of the bookcovers. However, he was not free of the bookcovers. His face emerged from a flat surface that extended up past his head and terminated in a large square angle, the spine of a book. The surface was pale and fleshy, was flesh. I continued around the side of the piano. I saw that the blue cloth which normally covered the book had been stripped off and now lay on the floor, and that the book boards or covers were likewise flat and fleshy. His arms protruded through the boards or flesh and bone plates. I was viewing a monster. A book creature. An animated book made of flesh.
“Disobedience is a sin,” Chambers said to me. “The wages of sin is death.” He looked at me with meaning and anger.
I did not know what to say. I got the sense of Chambers’ threat, as I took it, but he did not look murderously angry.
“I’m very disappointed that this has happened,” Chambers said. He stood up. He was wearing jeans beneath the book. He went to his bag, and picked it up off the floor. As he walked, awkward, the huge, boney-plated covers wobbled slightly, and creaked like stiff joints.
“How did this happen to you?” I asked.
“No one is supposed to see me,” he said. “This is a big deal.”
“Is it a curse?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“You crossed a demon, then. Who? Dagon? Asherah? Baal?” I asked. I had certain expectations for how these things worked.
“No,” he said. “It’s not a curse like that. It’s a curse in the most mundane sense possible. I was born like this. The Lord wanted me like this. I shouldn’t say it’s a curse. That’s the most faithless thing I say. God wanted me like this and I’ve done what I can to make it a gift.”
He reached inside his bag and took out a piece of paper.
A new question occurred to me. I asked it.
“What’s written on your pages?”
“I have no idea,” he said as he dropped his hand holding the paper to his side. “They’re organic, part of me. Maybe they’re empty.”
He tapped at one of the covers.
“These are cinched down too tight for anyone to be able to take a look.”
“I don’t think so. There’s no way they’re empty.”
He walked over to me and held out the piece of paper. I took it and read it. I’ve always been good at reading legal documents.
“This is a non-disclosure form. Do you know what that means?”
“It means you think I’ll blab.”
“Yeah. I want you to sign it.”
“What do I get for signing it?”
He smirked at this.
“I’ll listen to your tape. See if I can help you out.”
“I’d need a better guarantee than that, if that’s the way we went. But I’m interested in something else.”
I wrote an addendum on the paper. He read it, looked at me, and we both signed it.
Phil Chambers died last week. His estate has contacted me. In ten days I’ll receive a box, and that box will contain pages from a book that no one has ever read, written in the hand of God, in the body of a meaningful aberration. I’ll read it and become like . . . something else. I’ll know new things. I’ve been waiting for this. I expect it’ll answer my every question.