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The search for meaning 

It's all in how you look at it

Grant and Daniel have pissed off God again. They're opening a shop across from a church on Charles Allen and calling it "Sister Louisa's," complete with porno evangelical paintings created by a fake nun who lives in a beat-up Airstream outside Baton Rouge, La. And I think you should know that when I say "porno" I am simply attaching my own personal interpretation to the work, even though I can't imagine what else you would call a crudely painted plywood sign that blares "Nothin' Harder Than a Preacher's Dick!"

"You call it art," Grant insists, adding that whatever meaning I choose to attach to it is my own trip. So, in other words, if I see porno when I look at Sister Louisa's art -- and let's face it, she doesn't paint pictures or anything, just words -- then it's only because my own brain is a festering cesspool of tawdry thoughts I personally project onto everything else.

"It says 'Preacher's Dick,'" I emphasize. "I'm not making that up, it's right there." Grant ignores me and stays busy, completely covering the interior of his new shop with white paint. "Everything, just white," he'd said earlier. "Isn't that great?" Of course it's great, why wouldn't it be? Just white. If you're gonna spend a lot of time projecting meanings onto things, what better surface is there?

I wonder when it starts, that need for meaning. |I can remember back when I didn't have it, when I used to catch blowfish at the end of the pier in Melbourne Beach, Fla. I am almost positive I was damn happy then. I had a rich friend who lived in a riverfront house and a group of us would go there and play spin the bottle. Only we used the plastic baby Jesus from his parents' Christmas nativity display instead of a bottle, because it spun really well and such baby Jesuses are inevitably reaching out with one hand -- toward the heavens or whatever, or maybe toward all that myrrh the wise men were bringing him, who knows -- and that little hand made for a perfect pointer. It pointed at me to French kiss a kid named John Carnegie, a kiss we accomplished with lots of slobbering and lethargic pawing of each other, in perfect imitation of two groaning zombies from Night of the Living Dead.

Another childhood friend fancied herself somewhat of a psychic, and one day at recess she told me of a vision. It was of an angry river of blood, she said, and among the flotsam coursing through the roiling debris was my favorite shirt, the shirt I happened to be wearing right then. "I saw that," she said, pointing to the little embroidered sailboat on the front of my tank top, "I saw that shirt in the ... in the blood."

I realize now the display was meant to frighten me, but nothing frightens you when you have no need for meaning. My brain didn't even go there. "River of blood?" I responded simply. "How cool is that?" I bounded happily away, leaving her with her little pentagram key chain charm, jingling.

Of course that all changed, I just don't know exactly when. It was around then, though, sometime between fishing barefoot off the pier and being busted for smoking some very poor-quality pot in the restroom at the skating rink. Whatever it was, something turned when I was 12.

Maybe it was when my friends and I were in the midst of our weekly routine to terrorize the insane old lady who lived in our neighborhood. She was always walking out in her underwear and knocking us off our bikes, hollering about how we were such Satan spawn. When she was in those moods, her husband would have to come fetch her, and when he did we would usually dissipate, chanting "Crazy Lady" into the distance.

He was always quiet when he came, murmuring "Now, now, Mabel," as she shrieked at the kids who buzzed around her like fruit bats. One day I was about to join the melee when I saw him take her arm and gently place his hand on the side of her face. She looked at him and her anger immediately melted. Her eyes became lucid and knowing. "George," she said, smiling. "It's so good to see you." And then he hugged her.

What is this? I thought. Old people don't hug. But there they were, clinging to each other like lost children. Something happened to me then. Something changed. I don't know what it was -- I'll have to pick it apart later -- but from that point I began my search for a reason why an 80-year-old man would stand on the street in a small town in Florida embracing his wife of 55 years, burying his face in her hair so we wouldn't see his tears. I've come up with a lot of possibilities over the years, but have yet to choose one, and to this day the memory remains a favorite surface upon which I project many meanings.

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