Grace Gala

Mansion in Heaven Thomas Kinkade

Charlie looked like a man who had been boxing natural selection in the wrong corner of a punnet square for the past seventy-five years. He was dumb and poor like his strong, loving mother and weak and mean like his intelligent, wealthy father. It seemed the only thing that hadn’t yet been entirely beaten out of him was his curiosity. Only, he didn’t have much to be curious about in those days. Moreover, he refused to be curious about certain other things—pretentious parties, lavish homes, and formal dances, to name a few.

Nevertheless, he shuffled into the mansion with a hunched back and a limp. The latter he earned from his first job in landscaping, and the former from a terrible mishap in his current occupation, construction. It was for these reasons—or so he told himself—that his gaze was almost always fixed on the yard or so of ground ahead of him. He figured there’s enough going on down there to be bothered with what’s going on up above.

On this particular night, what was going on up above was perhaps the most exclusive and opulent gala in recent memory, and nothing could be more fitting to describe Charlie’s thoughts on the matter than what was going on down there. His father’s old, ragged Oxford’s were struggling to keep pace with the steady trickle of guests as they entered the venue. Each awkward step threatened to topple him, and the worn leather seemed to squawk with delight at the prospect. Needless to say, he was the last to enter.

Why he accepted the invite, he couldn’t say. He was humiliated that he even had to ask the question. But there it was, no two ways about it… “What am I doing here?” Whatever the real reason, a few things were for certain. It wasn’t out of love for music. He had long tired of the same few songs being sung in more and more showy ways with less and less to actually show. It wasn’t for interest in fraternity either. People, in his experience, only “see each other” to see each other see each other; they love to admire their fashion through other eyes, hear their wisdom through other ears, feel their bodies through other skins, smell their perfumes through other nostrils. And, it wasn’t even out of a sense of compulsion or loyalty to the one who invited him. In fact, who invited him was as much a mystery as why he was there.

All he was given was a cryptic voicemail, exactly one week ago, in which a boisterous voice demanded his attendance at, “Grace Gala with the master of masters themself.” Charlie thought it a great curiosity for such an obviously scripted message to include a grammatical blunder, but he had more pressing concerns, namely, where Grace Gala was to be held and who in the world the master of masters was.

As it happens, he didn’t have to go on wondering all that long, for the very next day, the construction company he worked for was contracted for work at an old mansion some seven miles from where he was living. On his way to the site, Charlie had to ask his boss to repeat himself more than a few times.

“You want us to build what now?” Charlie pressed the phone tighter against his ear.

“A woman stage. Well, a stage in the shape of a woman. A woman-shaped stage, I guess.”

“Is that even legal?”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s legal! The customer is hosting a gala there in exactly a week. Calling it ‘Grace Gala’. Sounds like money to me. Get it done!”

As it happens, it was legal. But that didn’t stop it from offending Charlie’s sensibilities in both directions. On the one hand, Charlie had been raised from mother’s knee to believe that one’s body is wicked, a conduit for weak wills and strong desires. “Flesh,” his priest would say, “is the shackle of a sinless soul.” How could any self-respecting socialite dance on such a scandalous stage? On the other hand, the world around Charlie seemed to praise the body, even worship it. Billions of dollars were spent yearly on efforts to protect the body from death, on equipment to fine-tune the body, on substances that pleasure the body, and on videos of bodies in intercourse. How could any forward-thinking person even think about reducing the female form to something functionally identical to the dirt outside?

All this aside, a job was a job, so Charlie went to work building this stage. Nothing but the finest materials were used in its construction. This came as no surprise considering the splendor of the mansion itself; every brick of the place seemed to sing. Not just any song either, but one in particular; a timeless song that told of unrequited love, hidden knowledge, and thrilling adventure. It was a song that beckoned to Charlie, if only he were wise enough to hear it.

Each day that he returned to the mansion, he would keep an eye out for the owner (or, really, for anyone matching the description “master of masters”). Oddly enough, all he ever saw were the same small group of men chanting in a foreign tongue and reading from scrolls that looked quite ancient. They were always huddled outside the entrance to a room at the back of the banquet hall just beyond the head of the stage, a room which Charlie’s construction intuition told him led into another, smaller room. This cultish behavior did tremendously little in the way of enticing Charlie to attend Grace Gala. Even so, he felt that the master of masters might be waiting in that back room, and that its doors might open on the night of the party.

By day six, the silhouette of what could only be described as the perfect woman was completed. And, by day seven, Charlie was approaching that stage, not with work boots, but with those forsaken Oxfords.

“Kind of you to join us, Charlie!” came a familiar voice from behind. Charlie looked up and saw a great many people of all kinds, the chanting men among them, dancing with zeal. He then turned around to find that the voice had come from the butler of the gala. Charlie would have never guessed that he was a butler if not for his outfit. The man was about as tall as Charlie with the body of a college line-backer but the eyes of a wise, old sage. “I knew that you’d make it.”

Charlie immediately recognized the voice as the one on his voicemail. “Did you? That makes one of us,” Charlie said, letting his gaze slip back down to his bum leg resting on the polished floor.

“Come. Join us,” the butler returned, lifting Charlie’s chin with his first two fingers.

Now, Charlie had always had a temper so hot his stork likely wore oven mitts. And, if there was one thing he had never appreciated, it was a breach of his personal space. On this occasion, he very nearly socked the butler for his trespasses. That was, until he realized that his body actually could sock the butler. His previously craned back, stiff neck, and arthritic shoulders now moved like magic. No sooner had he realized that the miracle occurred than did the butler disappear into the crowd of people on the human silhouetted stage.

For the first time since his youth, Charlie looked about him with a full range of vision. It was then that the full majesty and grandeur of Grace Gala finally hit him. The floors, the windows, the ceiling, the paintings, the lights… it was all too much for him. Overwhelmed and all the more self-conscious of his lacking attire, Charlie started to hunch his back and bend his neck back down to the familiar comfort of earth. But something drew his gaze back up, just as forcefully as the butler’s fingers. It was a song that he had only then begun to hear despite its playing since his arrival.

The song was queer in more ways than one. For starters, every lyric from the singer sounded an odd combination of solemn and soulful, but Charlie was damned if he could understand a single word. He guessed that not even the chanting men had a clue what was being sung. What’s more, the song had a rhythm he had never heard before, one which felt more like a heartbeat than a drumbeat. Similar to a heartbeat, the rhythm was merely a facilitator for something much greater: the flow of the melody through the crowd. Charlie felt it invade his body, compelling his legs to action. He marched, not limped, onto stage.

It was warm up there, yet his body insisted on shivering. Sweat dripped down his suddenly aching forehead. He felt like he was being brought to a fever, but it was unclear to him if the song was causing him to be ill or if it was purging an illness already inside him. All he knew was that it hurt. A lot. But whether the music was the problem or the solution, he knew that his first step was the same: find the band. He would decide whether to run from it or to it when he got to that point.

His scan of the room came up woefully short. Not only could he find no band, it seemed that the amplifiers and microphones were missing as well. Just when he thought this night couldn’t get any more bizarre, the song that had been playing this whole while was disrupted, and for the first time, he could distinguish three singers. They were still singing the same song with the same mystical lyrics, but it took on a new energy. One of the harmonized voices waned into a throaty whisper with morbid undertones. Another grew in intensity, sending frightful reverbs through the crowd. The last voice was perhaps the most conspicuous, beginning a beautiful crescendo whose progression Charlie could not predict and whose end he could not detect. The effect, in short, was that the assembly didn’t know whether to plug their ears or strain them. Fortunately, the choice was made for them. At once, all fell silent. That is, all but one voice with a familiar refrain. Then, no more than three seconds later, the song resumed ostensibly as normal, although Charlie thought he detected an heir of triumph that wasn’t there before.

As the song returned, a most unusual thing happened. The ground beneath his feet felt like it was moving, as if the body he built was alive and active. At the same time, almost all those on stage started to reorient themselves. As if rehearsed, they started to break off into small groups. The longer Charlie stood observing this fractioning, the sicker he became.

In all the confusion, Charlie noticed that one part of the stage was not moving, the head, and behind it, the two back rooms were now open and empty. It was there, at the head of the stage, that he found the source of the song.

The butler was side by side with two other men, and they were simultaneously singing, dancing, and playing their instruments. One was clearly the lord of the property, the so-called “master of masters”. A full, stoic head taller than the rest and dressed like a King, this gentleman was located at the top of the head, leading the dance with an imperceptibly small tempo. It was the person to the side of him and the butler who was most perplexing for Charlie. Unlike the others, this man wore meager clothes not entirely dissimilar to Charlie’s. He looked like a man after battle, like a knight who might as well have been eyeing down his virgin maiden while holding a sword still dripping with the blood of a dragon. Seeing these three figures made one thing apparent, that the sickness was in him and not in the music. It was as if the Butler’s eyes could see infection in him, as if the King’s face was hardened against it, and as if the knight’s sword was dripping with it.

Together, the trio all sang the same song and danced the same dance, except they played different roles. Each played their own instrument, each sang their own pitch, and each danced their own choreography. They played their parts so well, however, that the three were indistinguishable from afar, and if one didn’t know better, one would think that they had been practicing for eternity past. It was a performance so overwhelming and so mystifying that any attempt to join was an insult to the trio and their music, if one could even make the distinction.

This is where the name of the night’s event finally dawned on Charlie. Grace Gala. He saw in the eyes of the butler an invitation to join in his dance, despite the obvious offense against the trio. The fever inside of Charlie, the movement of the stage, and the welcoming eyes of the butler all obliged him to dance and to dance with the entirety of his soul, his filthy, clumsy, off-beat, and out-of-tune soul. So, he did.

At first, his mind resisted the free movement of dance out of sheer habit; years of guarding what little was left of his stiff joints and tight muscles had conditioned his mind to make slow conservatism the standing order over his body. But little by little, his joints and muscles loosened, and with them, his fever disappeared. “If only my chiropractor could see me now,” Charlie chuckled with joy, not realizing that the fever was passing.

The special thing about this particular dance, he discovered, was that, very often, the more one danced the dance and the more progress one apparently made, the less skilled one actually became. For this reason, children seemed to be among the best dancers on the floor. Charlie realized this as soon as he became proficient enough to stop looking at his body and start looking at the crowd (which, of course, made his dancing all the worse). In his observations of the crowd, however, he did realize (and not without much dismay) two important things. The first, that the dance required a partner. And, the second, that he had come alone.

As if anticipating this problem before it even existed, a small woman had been migrating from the left rib-area of the stage to Charlie’s location in the right, upper arm since the time that the music returned to normal and the people started separating into groups. Her black, frizzy hair was floating by when, in an act of raw instinct, Charlie took chase, probably (definitely) faster than he needed to. She feigned surprise as they made contact.

“Oh my!” She gasped in perfect exasperation.

“Hello. My apologies. My name is Charlie, and I’m afraid that I’m quite lost. Well, not lost, per se. Just unsure if I belong. I don’t know the host, I hardly know how to dance, and I don’t have a soul to dance with if I did.”

She laughed softly. “I’m Alice,” she paused to curtsy. “Nobody at all belongs here, silly. Not except the master of masters, of course.”

“He’s the one dressed like royalty, right?” Charlie asked.

“He is.” She answered.

“Then who are the other two?”

“What do you mean?”

“Who are the other two men at the head?”

“They’re the master of masters.”

“I thought that was the man in the King’s mantle.”

“It is!”

This time it was his turn to be exacerbated. “Oh, never mind.” he puffed, “Would you like to dance?” He thrust out his arm.

“I thought you would never ask,” she replied, softly laying her gloved hand on his. His anger melted down his spine and filled those ragged Oxfords right to the brim. He took his other hand and laid it on her waist. They danced like that, perfectly content in each other’s company, for a few moments before something felt incomplete. The mysterious absence nagged at them to where they lost rhythm and started to trip over each other’s feet.

“Hold on a second,” Charlie said, pausing briefly. Something’s not right. What are we missing?”

“You tell me,” she said, still smiling, dimples and all. He managed to take his eyes off her, and they landed right back on the trio at the head.

“Aha! I’ve got it! We need a third person! The dance is clearly meant to be danced between three people,” he exclaimed, pointing at the trio.

“Who did you have in mind?” she asked.

It took all of nine seconds of searching for them to get their answer. Like a little tornado, a young boy came whirling past them, clearly caught up in the excitement of the party. Charlie grabbed him by the arm and swung him between his body and Alice’s. Without missing a beat, the boy matched their movements.

“What’s your name, Sport?” Charlie asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied with a smirk.

“Haven’t your parents told you your name?” asked Alice.

“They haven’t gotten the chance yet.”

“Fair enough,” Charlie shrugged, long past questioning such oddities. It was beginning to seem to him like the only predictable thing about this gala was its unpredictability. “How’s Clement sound?” “Sounds like a fruit,” he answered honestly.

“Well, it’s not. It’s a name. And it’s yours now.” Charlie replied in his best grouchy dad voice.

The boy looked questioningly at Alice, who gave him a slight nod. “Alright, Clement it is,” he said with glee in his voice.

The three of them danced like that for a good, long while before, once again, their dancing turned to mush—Clement was whining about being hungry, Alice was struggling to anticipate Charlie’s movements, and Charlie was unsure if he was even dancing the same dance as the one he entered the stage dancing. He looked around for someone, anyone, to mimic. In doing so, he realized to his pleasant surprise that the whole of the right, upper arm was well worth imitating. Indeed, they seemed to be dancing in a strange, dynamic unison both beautiful and useful, almost as if they all had a similar goal in mind. Looking further in either direction, he saw that those in the right upper arm were actually in a dance with those in the right shoulder and right forearm. Charlie couldn’t see far enough, but he would have bet his bottom dollar that the right arm was dancing with the rest of the upper body and the upper body with the lower. It reminded him of the larger construction jobs he worked where each person had their own task—cutting drywall, for instance—within a small group working on one wall within one room within one floor of a sprawling complex. “How is this possible?” he asked himself. “Who has the blueprints? Where’s the foreman?”

“What’s going on up there?” Alice asked. Charlie almost forgot that she and Clement weren’t tall enough to see what he was seeing.

“Just listen to the music and follow my lead,” he instructed, taking her hand in his. “Clement, grab Alice’s hand and do as she says.”

Charlie discovered that by keeping one eye on the trio and the other eye on those with him in the upper arm of the stage, he could lead Alice and Clement in a dance that started to feel less like work and more like worship. Worship of what, he didn’t know, but he had his suspicions that the trio had at least something to do with it.

But, alas, even worship can grow tiring, and Charlie thought with remorse that it must be time to go home soon. He entered the Gala at 8 o’clock, and he could see through the windows that it was dark out. In the absence of any clock or watch, he guessed that it was probably 11 o’clock already. Unfortunately, the song showed no sign of concluding, and neither did his dance partners. Actually, now that he thought about it, Charlie sensed that the beat had picked up recently. Or perhaps another drum entered the mix. “If so,” Charlie thought, “he’s not very adroit.”

He turned to Alice, “Is there another drummer?” Charlie asked.

“I hear that too. I’m not sure.” “It’s fireworks!” Clement exclaimed.

That gave Charlie pause. The drumming did sound like fireworks but as if the fireworks were far away and growing nearer. Then the stage started to shake underfoot.

“BOMBS! RUN!” Charlie shouted.

He scooped Alice over his left shoulder and Clement under his right. Everyone scattered like ants, making their way to the exits. They were too late.

Charlie was the first to make it outside, but not for long. A bomb dropped ten yards away from him, sending all three of them back through the doorway. Charlie recovered himself, slammed the door shut, and helped Alice and Clement to their feet behind the wall. Looking around, he saw that the same was happening in every exit. They were trapped.

Panic set in. Charlie felt his fever return. In the chaos and confusion of it all, though, he noticed three figures still dancing on the stage. He had to rub his eyes. It was the Trio, moving as elegantly and peacefully as ever.

“Stay here!” he yelled over the explosions to Alice and Clement.

The trio gave no reaction to Charlie as he ran up to them in a frenzy. “What are you doing? You need to tell these people where in your house they can hide. We need to get to safety NOW!” Charlie’s fury was back in full force. But the trio just kept on singing, dancing, and playing their instruments.

“Why won’t you save us?!” He asked, aggravated.

The knight stopped his singing and stooped to look deep into Carlie’s eyes, “You have already been saved. Now, dance in peace.”

The butler took Charlie by the hands and led him in dance. He felt tremendous power in the butler’s hands and nearly wept with relief as the anger, terror, remaining fever drained away, this time into the hands of the butler.

When the crowd saw this, a hush filled the room. Little by little, some of them started to filter back on stage and dance hesitantly. The dance floor shook with the building, but the more it shook, the more confidence Charlie had in his workmanship and in the grip of the butler.

Charlie heard a crash behind him and thought it was the building finally giving way. He shut his eyes and prayed his first true prayer, which was also to be his last. To his amazement, the building was still standing when he opened them again, but the door he had shut was now on the floor with a dark figure standing in its place. Even in the shadow of night, Charlie immediately recognized the person from his landscaping days. This was the man who gave him his first job, the same man who gave him his limp. He called himself Amon.

“Isn’t this cute? One last hoorah before it all goes up in smoke,” jeered Amon.

For the first time, the lord of the house spoke. “That’s right.” His regal voice sent echoes through the mansion.

“Well, it doesn’t have to be that way,” he hissed, now addressing the crowd. “You don’t have to die today. He never should have even invited you into this shack; he knew it would end in death. Come, all of you with sense, follow me to safety and freedom. Who will join me?”

Those in the crowd looked at one another. It didn’t take long for the people still cowering by the exits to sheepishly surround Amon. These were the same ones who, from the beginning, refused to enter the stage. They were those who preferred their own dance, who were too embarrassed to dance, or who hated the masters of masters. Many on stage walked off to join Amon’s ranks as well. These people, everyone more or less knew, were never really interested in dancing with the master of masters in the first place.

After the enemy lines were drawn, Charlie decided that couldn’t help himself any longer. Seeing Amon after all those decades brought more anger—this time, of the righteous variety—boiling up to the surface than could be contained.

“You! You gave me my bum knee!” he shouted.

Amon darted his black eyes to Charlie, clearly vexed by the interruption. “I gave you your crooked back too. Or did you think I wasn’t also there on the construction site?” He twisted his lips into a grin.

“You were?” Charlie was lost.

“I was. No different than when you worked for me and wouldn’t stop dancing, so I crippled your leg by letting that tree branch fall on you. After you quit, I continued to watch you. I saw you dance while you were installing windows in that building. So, I made that crane drop its load on your back. I even see you on your average, good day; you know, the ones where you are a bit more hopeful, a smidge more joyful, and you just can’t stop doing good for others. You always dance that same stupid dance, and I always find a way to straighten you right out.”

“You are wicked. I’m healed now and will never stop dancing,” Charlie cried.

“No, you will come wit—”

“Silence. You have taken your lot. Be gone.” The knight commanded the man and his company back into the hellscape outside with the point of a finger. Amon looked at the knight, then at Charlie, then at the people surrounding him. He sneered with bitter delight and stooped through the broken doorway. After he and his company had all left, the trio bowed their heads, and one final explosion sounded outside. The shock wave shook the mansion worse than any of the bombs before it. Then it was over. No more explosions, no more disruptions, no more injuries or illnesses. Only dancing.


To my friend, Antonin, who seeded in me a love of Catholic metaphor.

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply