Chapter One: Art Appreciation
I stepped outside and raised my face to the cloudless sky, feeling the heat of the morning sun on my cheeks. Without a doubt, it was going to be a hot day, but right now, it was still fairly decent outside, so I intended to take full advantage of it. Not only was I determined to get some yard work done, I was hoping to catch a little color while I was at it, and had on my shortest pair of jean shorts and my skimpiest bikini top.
Normally by this time of year, I sported a deep golden tan. Of course, I used to live in Florida and went to the beach just about every single day, so that helped. My old art studio in St. Augustine had been right on the water and I used to take a stroll along the surf each afternoon. I was always careful with the SPF and all, but in Florida, you kind of can’t help but tan.
However, this summer I was as pale as a ghost—which the thought of made me smile considering where I lived now. I looked around the rectory’s yard and out past the iron gates of Idlewild Cemetery, not twenty feet from my back door. It certainly wasn’t a Florida beach, but it was on the coast of South Carolina, so there were some sunrays to be had and today I was determined to catch some.
As I trudged through the shaggy grass towards the outbuilding where all the yard implements were stored, I realized cutting the grass should actually be the number one priority today and not getting a tan. This yard was a mess. With my groundskeeper, Rory Garcias, and his fiancée, Jennifer Davidson, away visiting family in Mexico, the fact I had been without a groundskeeper for almost a month now was glaringly obvious.
Granted, I could have more than afforded to hire someone else to fill in until Rory and Jennifer returned. I was living on the interest of a two million dollar trust fund my Daddy had left me. But I really didn’t mind doing the work myself, and I had decided it was good to get outside, commune with nature now and then, and I could always use the exercise. Usually, I’d be holed up in my studio working on my latest painting and wouldn’t even set foot outdoors except to fetch the mail from the mailbox down at the end of the gravel lane.
I got out the riding mower first, figuring I would get the main yard done and then go back and do the trimming after. I planned to save the push mower stuff for last, hoping there wouldn’t be much left to mow with that after using everything else.
What I hadn’t anticipated was the fact it took me a good hour and a half to get the front and back yards done around the rectory and by the time I’d finished with the rider, the sun was high overhead. The midday heat and humidity was hanging in the air as thick as that proverbial pea soup and I soon decided I was ready for a prolonged break inside some air conditioning. I also wanted to fetch a cap to help cut down on the glare that was overwhelming my fashionable sunglasses. Besides all that, an ice cold drink sounded good right about now.
Climbing off the rider, I peeled off my work gloves and left them on the mower’s seat so they could dry a bit of the sweat off. I took a moment to survey what I had accomplished so far. I still had the area by the cemetery gates to mow, but I was thankful I’d actually gotten the majority of the mowing done at this point.
I made my way back to the rectory, stomping up the back porch steps to the door that led into the kitchen in order to rid my feet of the lawn clippings stuck to them. I pulled open the door, taking the time to wipe my tennis shoes on the mats the best I could before heading inside. I didn’t want to have to sweep up after myself, but I hated having dirty floors even if the rest of the house was a mess, which it was. I had a tendency to let the place go being here all by myself most of the time. Of course if I knew I was having company, I’d clean, but otherwise, I didn’t see the point. I’d rather just clean on an as-needed basis.
I stepped inside the kitchen and right away I felt the temperature difference. It was like I’d just come from the equator into the North Pole. My central air conditioning unit had been chugging away all morning and had the inside of the house all nice and cool. I stood inside the door for a moment, spreading out my arms, letting the refreshing air envelop every sweat-slickened inch of me. Sighing with appreciation, I closed my eyes to savor the sensation and reconsidered my decision to spend the day outside laboring in the sun. The temptation to sneak off to the shower and then while away the remainder of the afternoon curled up on the sofa with a tall glass of sweet tea and a torrid romance novel in climate-controlled comfort, just couldn’t be denied.
Reap what you sow flitted through my mind unexpectedly and I knew my beloved guardian angel and husband, Pershabael, was putting in his two cents worth.
It made me grin. “Feeling chatty today, are you?” I said to him out loud. “Don’t worry, I have every intention of finishing up the yard, but you can’t blame me for being tempted. It’s brutal out there.” I paused, thinking. “You know, Percy, you could just say ‘good afternoon’ or ‘I love you’ sometimes instead of just lecturing me.”
I waited for him to reply, opening my mind to the bond we shared. Call it metaphysical or spiritual, whatever it was enabled me to recognize his voice as my conscience, speaking to me even when he wasn’t physically with me. It helped ease the times we were apart, and made me feel like he was always here, regardless. Well, he was in a way, being my guardian angel and all. It wasn’t a conventional marriage arrangement by any means, but I couldn’t fathom being married to anyone else. I loved my guardian angel with all my heart—enough to marry him, and I truly valued his counsel and wisdom, but he was real good at making me feel guilty about certain things and sometimes he got a little bossy.
When he didn’t answer, I figured he was probably off pouting somewhere now. I went to the refrigerator and got out a soft drink, popped the top, and took a hearty swig. Taking off my sunglasses, I wiped at my brow with my arm and looked around for my cap.
My cell phone went off just then, buzzing away on the kitchen table and spinning around like an overturned beetle. I went to answer it, setting my can of soda down. I saw the number calling was my art gallery, Purple Passions, which kind of struck me as odd.
Monica McCutcheon was my gallery sales clerk and curator of sorts. She was a college student recipient of one of my art scholarships and she was also a computer whiz—which I so was not, so she handled all my listings and online auctions too. She and Jennifer even took care of the accounts and bookkeeping for me, freeing me to just own the place and paint. I normally made an appearance there once a week to restock the art and cappuccino mix whenever we ran low. Since Jennifer had been away, Monica was working six days a week, but two days were just half days, and today was supposed to be one of those. Noting the time, I knew she should have been off work by now. Curious, I flipped open the phone and took a deep breath.
“Oh Mrs. Cotton-Shelby, you need to come down here right away!” she blurted, sounding downright panicked. “I’ve been trying to reach you all morning. We’ve got trouble!”
I felt all the color drain out of my face as I immediately imagined the gallery having been robbed at gunpoint or possibly gutted by an overnight fire.
“Monica! What’s going on?” I demanded, already searching the contents of the cluttered kitchen table for my car keys.
“All I can say is there’s a real situation outside. There are reporters and all kinds of people. There’s some kind of church school bus taking up the whole parking lot! You need to get down here. I don’t know what to do!”
I was beyond confused. “Reporters?”
“Please come!” Monica wailed in my ear. “Now the police are here too!”
I finally found my car keys and held them up in triumph. “Look, calm down!” I told her. “I’m on my way!” I didn’t bother with a good-bye. I closed the phone and without thinking, tossed it back on the table, whirling around on my heel towards the back door. I was racing to my car a second later.
Monica wasn’t kidding about a ‘situation’ brewing. As I turned down Malabar Street where the gallery was located, I could see the news crew van and the church’s school bus she’d mentioned, as well as a deputy’s squad car all crammed into my parking lot in the midst of a small crowd of picketers. I had to park across the street.
For a moment, I just sat in my car assessing said situation. I watched as the news reporter interviewed a man carrying a placard. I tried to make out what the sign said, but he kept shaking it. One thing was for certain, the word ‘hell’ took up the whole bottom half written in a severe red gashes.
I looked at the school bus. The side had the name Wonder and Light Open Bible Church hand-painted on it. I’d never heard of it and knew it wasn’t local. The presence of the bus kind of hinted that these people had been brought here from somewhere else. Probably the same place the news crew hailed from.
The deputy was local however. I recognized him even. His name was Harrison Thornton and he didn’t look too concerned about any of this, leaning against the squad examining his nails the way he was. He must have just gotten a manicure or something. I took his nonchalance as a good sign. At least these people weren’t vandalizing anything. But they were disrupting my business. It didn’t matter that the gallery was actually closed right now. What if someone had wanted to swing by and check out the operating hours posted on the front door? As far as I was concerned, these protesters were scaring away potential customers.
Monica poked her head out of the side door just then, waving me over. The church group turned collectively towards her, yelling and waving their signs. That made the deputy look up as well as the news crew, but Monica quickly ducked back inside the sanctuary of the gallery as if they had her all but trapped in there.
With a sigh of resignation coupled with true reluctance, I climbed out of my car and started towards the gallery.
I was soon able to read some of the signs the demonstrators were carrying, and to say they were alarming was a gross understatement. Many were condemning me to an eternity in hell and accusing me of being a shameless Jezebel. Others were comparing my art gallery and its contents to the likes of everything from Sodom and Gomorrah to Hustler magazine.
I truly regretted rushing over here the way I had now. I should have taken the time to pull a tee shirt on at least. I realized dressed the way I was to do my yard work, I kind of looked the part of a wanton Jezebel, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20 and it was too late now. That fact really hit home when I was intercepted by the reporter and her cameraman. Good grief, I was on T.V. now.
“I’m Sonja Reynolds from News Team Channel Five,” she announced more than introduced, speaking loudly over the church group now clamoring around me, shouting accusations and bible quotes my way. “Could you state your name please and comment on what’s happening here today? Are you here to view the art inside this gallery? How does this organized protest make you feel? These people are obviously offended.”
Sonja Reynolds was throwing questions at me so fast I could hardly catch them. I blinked up at her, my mouth hanging open, more or less dumbstruck by what she’d just said.
Feeling hopeful however, I spared a glance at Deputy Thornton, thinking he’d be wanting to clear these people away, but he was too busy polishing off the lenses of his sunglasses now. I didn’t understand why he was just standing by allowing all this to go on. I was definitely going to have to have a little chat with the sheriff about this.
Now I turned and focused on the microphone looming in my face and tried to think of something intelligent to say to Miss Sonja in response. I shook my head.
“My name’s Mya Cotton-Shelby. I don’t fully know what’s going on here,” I admitted. The demonstrators hissed and booed at me. Clearly I had just established myself as their enemy. I pointed an accusatory finger back at them. “You know, this is a place of business! Y’all can’t be holding a protest here!” Even as I said that however it occurred to me they most certainly could. I knew businesses were picketed all the time, and the very fact the deputy wasn’t lifting a finger to send them on their way told me they were more than within their constitutional rights to be here.
“Are you affiliated with this gallery in some way?” Sonja asked me, looking all the more intrigued.
I nodded. “I’m the owner.”
That earned me more catcalls. I turned around and peered at the protestors and frowned. The closest sign to me read ‘Down with the Purple Porno Gallery!’ I realized now they were probably here demonstrating against the paintings of the nudes I had on display. It never ceased to amaze me how in this day and age people still equated any kind of depicted nudity as pornography. Just because people were naked in a painting didn’t make the picture dirty. I rolled my eyes and faced Miss Sonja again.
“Are they serious?” I asked her.
She actually looked a little amused. “Apparently so,” she said, reaching up to swipe back a stray strand of hair from her forehead that had caught the midday breeze. “Would you like to give us your side of the story? Start by telling our viewing audience what this protest means to you as the owner of the gallery.”
I cleared my throat and tugged at the sides of my bikini top to make sure it was covering me as much as it possibly could.
“Well, Purple Passions is my gallery, yes, but it’s also my art in there. I’m the artist.”
“It’s not art!” one of the demonstrators hollered over my shoulder. “It’s pornography! Plain and simple! It ought to be banned!” She pushed her way up to the front of the crowd. “Filth is not art!”
I took a deep breath, trying to stay calm. “I’m guessing you’re referring to my nudes. You know, just because certain art doesn’t appeal to everyone doesn’t make it any less an art form,” I explained, shooting her cohorts a condescending smile.
Keep cool. Try to see things from their point of view.
Again I recognized the ever sensible voice of my angelic spouse in my head. Normally I would be thrilled knowing he was being so attentive and near, but at the moment, his ragging on me was the last thing I needed right now. Besides, I knew he couldn’t possibly understand what was really going on here and how pissed off this kind of thing made me. This narrow-minded demonstration actually went beyond the realms of my little gallery and my artwork. Such things affected all kinds of art and the freedom of artist to express it everywhere.
“Disgusting! That’s all they are!” a man shouted back. His voice sounded hoarse and gave me the impression he’d been doing a lot of shouting lately. The demonstrators around him cheered as he muscled his way to Sonja Reynold’s microphone.
He was wearing a peel and stick name tag that read Pastor Bill.
I glared at him, knowing he’d most likely been the one to organize this little protest. I turned to face Sonja Reynolds and motioned for her to stop filming me, but of course she didn’t. “Now, just hold on a minute.”
“Is this true? Are your paintings disgusting pornography?”
I shook my head. “My paintings are not disgusting! They are just nudes. There is nothing dirty or disgusting about them. Or the human body. The nude form has long been a favored subject of artists. The body is art all in itself.”
Sonja Reynolds nodded, looking solemn. “And what is your definition of art, Miss Cotton-Shelby?”
I licked my lips. “Actually, it’s Mrs. Cotton-Shelby,” I corrected her, brandishing the gold ring I wore on my left hand.
Ms. Reynolds didn’t bother to correct herself however. She raised the microphone higher as if to let me know the cameras were rolling and the viewing audience was breathlessly awaiting my reply.
“Well, it’s simple really,” I said, trying hard to ignore the trickle of sweat rolling down my cleavage. I had a feeling it was going to be hard enough as it is for the folks at home to take me seriously clad in these Daisy Duke digs without me scratching at my breasts on camera.
“Yes? Go on,” Sonja prompted.
I sighed. “Art is something—usually an image, that is an expression of sorts. It speaks to people who view it. Now, whether or not people like what it is saying to them doesn’t make a difference. It’s still art.” I directed that last part to Pastor Bill.
“Sacrilegious smut!” someone behind me called out.
That startled me. “Sacrilegious?” And then it really hit me. I suddenly understood why I had a church group protesting my art in the parking lot of my gallery. This had to do with the paintings of the angels I had on display. The nude angels.
“Is it true your art shows offensive depictions of sacrilege?” Miss Sonja asked with a grave expression.
I closed my eyes a moment. This was really making my blood boil. Why I was even wasting my time with this nonsense when I had a yard to mow, was beyond me.
“Unfortunately, people are often offended by art,” I countered in an exhaled breath. “But then, a lot of art is kind of meant to provoke. Make people think. Make people feel. It can do all kinds of things. That’s part of the beauty of it. You know, I’m sure Michelangelo’s nude statue of David offends some people for one reason or another—even though it is commonly regarded as a masterpiece.”
The woman standing next to me scowled my way. “Your paintings aren’t masterpieces! They’re pornography! I’ve heard about them. You showed everything those men have got and then you make them into angels. You paint pornographic pictures of angels!” She was shaking now. Her face was puffy and red and she looked like she was about to burst into tears; she was that upset.
“Disgusting!” someone else called out.
“Garbage!” another voice chimed in.
I noticed Pastor Bill nodded in agreement.
I opened my mouth to reply but another woman next to me pointed an accusing finger in my face, cutting me off.
“It’s sinful to portray angels so…so sensually!”
“And why is that?” I shot back at her. “What’s wrong with sensuality? Or sexuality for that matter? It’s a God-given gift to mankind. Isn’t it better to show goodness, compassion, and love, and everything else an angel stands for as something appealing and intriguing or even seductive? Why can’t good things be as tempting as bad things?”
At that, they all quieted down and for a moment, I thought I had them, but then a familiar raspy voice piped up.
“Goodness does not tempt you to sin! Those are dirty pictures meant to fill the soul with lust! Lust is a sin!”
The demonstrators agreed, waving their placards and shaking their fists at me.
I put my hands on my hips, my mind scrambling to come up with some rational argument to the contrary. “Lust is…perfectly fine to feel in certain circumstances! But even so, my art isn’t meant to necessarily arouse lust. I want people to look at my paintings and be awed by the majesty and physical perfection of these beings. Angels…in all their celestial glory… are truly beautiful to behold.”
“In their true form, maybe!” Pastor Bill shouted as if he were addressing his congregation from the pulpit. “Not painted as a bunch of lascivious magazine centerfolds!”
“Lascivious?” I snarled back. “Are you for real?”
The demonstrators were pressing in on me. I held up my hands to ward them off.
“Just hold on a minute!” I shouted above them. “Have y’all even seen my paintings? Or are you taking his word as gospel for everything? I can’t believe all of you feel just because the angels are naked in my paintings, they’re all dirty. That’s God’s own creation you all are calling dirty. You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
Once more the rabble fell silent and a few of them even lowered their signs. I was relieved to put it mildly. It looked as if I’d finally diffused the ‘situation’. I could feel my pulse pounding in my ears and knew the heat flushing my cheeks was due to more than the afternoon sun. I took a long and deep breath and then faced Miss Sonja once more.
“Well, it looks like your news story has come to a peaceful end,” I said, being smug. “Now if you’ll excuse me. I’m going inside to check on my traumatized employee.”
I was also ready to get out of this heat as much as get away from these fanatics. I had no sooner stepped around the cameraman to get to the gallery, when the sudden presence of Pastor Bill brought me up short. It was as if he purposefully blocked my path.
“I’ve seen those paintings,” he grumbled, leaning towards me even. “I know exactly what they are. My wife had heard about this so-called angel art. She thought, being of angels, they’d be inspirational. She wanted me to bring her here to see them. I tell you, what I saw inside those walls was nothing short of scandalous!” He paused just long enough to gesture at the gallery. “Vile paintings of immoral men depicted as holy angels with their bodies on shocking display. YOU are the one who ought to be ashamed!”
Again, the protesters around us cheered. Sonja and her cameraman edged closer. I glared at each of them in turn before focusing my attention on the pastor. As it was, I had to bite my tongue to keep from telling him those ‘immoral men’ he was referring to were referred to in the bible as the Sons of God.
“That’s just your opinion,” I stated in a flat voice. I was tired of arguing with him over this. I could imagine the scene he must have caused inside the gallery with his wife and had to wonder why I hadn’t been told about it by Jennifer or Monica at the time. Then something occurred to me. I glanced around. “Pastor, is your wife here today? Did my paintings bother her as much as they clearly bothered you?”
Pastor Bill looked a little put off by that. He withdrew a white linen handkerchief from his pocket and quickly dabbed it over his reddening face.
“You leave my wife out of this,” he demanded.
I couldn’t help but grin. I got the feeling right then and there that Mrs. Bill might have appreciated my art a little more than her husband had. It also explained why they hadn’t caused a commotion and it told me why Pastor Bill was so incensed by the paintings as well. I got to thinking it was because his wife simply wasn’t. She might have even been taken with them. Of course who could blame her stuck with Bill—a man I wouldn’t consider attractive in my wildest dreams.
Mya Renae! Shame on you! That’s just plain mean!
Hearing that familiar voice suddenly pop back into my head like that made me jump. I took a deep breath and conceded. It also made me frown with embarrassment. Okay. Granted, I had to admit, it was mean of me, but what about the things Pastor Bill was saying about my art? That was mean of him!
It’s just his opinion, like you said.
I sighed, knowing deep down that Pershabael was right. It was only Pastor Bill’s personal opinion. There were lots of people who didn’t agree with him. Lots of people really liked my art.
“Whatever,” I replied to no one in particular, ready to get on with my life. I tried to step around Pastor Bill again.
He gestured at me and addressed his flock. “This woman even uses her own husband in some of those disgusting renderings!” he announced in a booming voice. “What kind of depraved man allows his wife to display his body in such a way? Has he no dignity? Has he no shame?”
Okay. Now how did he know I used Pershabael as a model? Someone in his party had no doubt inquired about one of the paintings. I knew Monica was always quick to tell people who were interested that the stunning angel in those paintings was actually a local boy married to the artist. She thought it was terribly romantic.
Sonja Reynolds switched her attention to me. “What do you have to say about that? Doesn’t it bother you to have strangers seeing naked pictures of your own husband?”
I scowled at her. “Don’t be saying it like that. I didn’t post honeymoon pictures of us on the internet! I made him the subject of my art. The paintings I did of him are artistic depictions. He’s beautiful and he…inspires me.”
“Lead us not into temptation!” Pastor Bill quipped back.
My pulse rate kicked into high gear at that. Fury in its purest form raced through my veins. The tension in my jaw hardly allowed me to speak. I jabbed my finger towards the pastor’s sweaty face. I’d had just about enough of him.
“For your information,” I said through clenched teeth, “my husband is an angel, and I wouldn’t be so quick to judge him, you ugly-ass, holier-than-thou, narrow-minded art Nazi!”
The demonstrators went quiet again, but this time, I knew it wasn’t good. Sonja Reynolds flipped the microphone to her other hand and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Deputy Thornton walking this way. It was about damned time.
Tears of anger welled in my eyes which made me even angrier. Crying was usually seen as a sure sign of weakness, and I didn’t want to come across as being weak in front of these people. I dashed my hand across my eyes.
Pastor Bill looked satisfied. He knew he had gotten to me. He nodded at me and said in a rather condescending tone, “I will pray for your soul, Mya Cotton. I will pray for you to be cleansed of your evil and your dark, unrepentant heart. Burn those pictures! Burn them all if you want to save yourself from eternal damnation. The Lord hears my prayers. We will get this den of iniquity shut down. If we have to protest it every day it opens for business, we will. We are God’s army, and we don’t want the likes of it in our communities, corrupting our children with its filth!”
“Get off my property now!” I shrieked, stomping my foot for emphasis, so angry I could hardly see straight.
Miraculously enough, the demonstrators were actually peeling off from the group a few at a time, heading towards the school bus. Even Sonja Reynolds lowered her microphone. I got the impression Deputy Thornton’s new proximity just might have more to do with breaking them up than anything I had said. I was grateful nonetheless.
Pastor Bill gave me one last look of utter distaste. “I will pray for you.”
I reached out and shoved him to get him away from me. “Don’t bother! I don’t need your pompous, self-righteousness praying for me! My husband takes care of me.”
Enough! He’s leaving. Let him go. They’re all leaving.
I made a face at that. Good!
Walk away from him now.
Gladly! I’ve been trying to get away from this kook all afternoon!
“Your husband is nothing more than a whore.”
Now I froze. Had I heard him right? I fixed my eyes on Pastor Bill’s. “Excuse me?”
Deputy Thornton cleared his throat. I was vaguely aware of his hand on my shoulder.
“Come on folks. Let’s break it up, okay?”
Pastor Bill leaned closer to me, getting in my face. “You sell his body to the highest bidder, don’t you? You prostitute them all. He’s your whore.”
Yeah, I had heard him right. In that moment, I realized that despite being a self-professed man-of-God, Pastor Bill had some real demons to contend with. He was a bitter, angry, and just plain mean, old man. I seized fistfuls of his polyester shirt and yanked him even closer to me. I was beyond pissed at this point. Tears of undiluted rage ran down my face and my heart was banging so hard inside my chest, it hurt. There was no way in hell I was letting this fascist creep profane my beloved angel in such a way.
“You piece of shit,” I snarled. “My husband is the sweetest, kindest, godliest person you could ever hope to meet! You take back what you said about him. Take it back now.”
I felt Deputy Thornton’s hands on me again. He was saying something, but I couldn’t make out what the way my pulse was banging in my ears. I struggled to get away from him and tightened my grip on Pastor Bill’s lapels, twisting the sticky fabric around his fleshy neck. “Take it back!”
Stop it! Let him go! Why are you letting him get under your skin like this? You’re acting like a child!
Normally, hearing Pershabael’s voice would calm me, but his chastising me only made me madder right now.
I am not letting him get away with calling you a whore!
Neither one of you is about to see eye to eye on this matter. What he’s spouting is pure ignorance, that’s all it is. It’s not even worth getting yourself all worked up over. Choose your battles, Mya. You’re only making things worse for yourself.
Percy! Damnit! If you’re not going to actually help here, then leave me alone!
Of course, the very second after I thought that, I regretted it, but it was too late now.