At first I thought Larry might be a not-so-secret supervillain. His store, a grackle’s shop of shiny pop cult marginalia, samurai swords, and Franklin Mint collectibles, was called Treasure Center. “Adults Only,” read a handwritten sign—inside. But there was nothing naughty for sale. “I just don’t like children,” he said. “They break things.”
The black box glowing red in his hand was a stun gun; he was showing it off to a crony. “You could use this on your wife,” Larry volunteered. “You know, if she got annoying.” Blue sparks, zap, crackle and a giggle. Nervous laughter.
* * *
The truth about Larry was that he’d moved to this dead little Adirondack town after his Lake George shop, The Wizard’s Den, burned down. He’d wanted to be near his mother. “You’ll see her flitting around,” he said. I didn’t, but her influence was everywhere: stuffed puppies and martyr figurines, gilded teapots and St. Lucy, holding her eyes, plucked out by the emperor’s men for refusing to look upon the sins of the flesh. As I was admiring her, a skinny girl in shorts and a spaghetti string tank-top came in. 17, maybe 18. “Danielle,” said Larry. He did not sound happy. Danielle wanted to sell him an iPhone. Whose it was she did not say. “Look,” she said. She smiled, leaning across the counter and holding the phone beneath her chin with steepled fingers. “Please? Please?” Larry stared down at his own hands, pressed against the counter’s edge. “You know I don’t buy those,” he muttered. Danielle left without another word.
* * *
I wanted to buy something, because I’d been taking pictures and it seemed like fair exchange, and also because I’d begun to suspect Larry wasn’t really the sinister figure I’d imagined. In a shop full of chipped fantasy and old plastic glamour I’d mistaken him for one of his monster-movie dolls. I wanted to make amends. But what would it be? A Jason mask? A dusty crystal ball? A bone china angel? Then I found the hands. “Musical,” and “wind-up,” and marked down from $25 to eight-and-change.
* * *
“That’s a good choice,” Larry said, appraising them. Plastic, painted pink matte over veiny knuckles and long pointed fingers, as if they’d come from a horror model kit repurposed for prayer. “Listen,” he said, and twisted. From within the plastic Bible base emerged a broken necklace of delicate notes. “Best religious kitsch I’ve seen in a long time,” I said. Larry didn’t smile. He was used to people who don’t understand. He wrapped the hands in newspaper and he gave me his card, a block of color-xeroxed handwritten inventory—“OLD Bottle’s,” “DOLL-COLLECTION,” “Knives,” “CASH *FOR*GOLD!”—printed on ordinary paper and cut with scissors. ‘The Treasure Center membership club card,” one stamp per purchase toward five & 15% off. Larry stamped once, considered, stamped again. “You can also have a piece of candy,” he said. “Free.” He nudged a red plastic bowl full of Smarties and hot balls toward me. “Your choice.”
* * *
I took the hands and got back on the road, a long late-night drive through mountains, not much radio and a lot on my mind. I decided to distract myself by taking pictures of the hands. But no setting seemed right. Not the yellow haze of softserv stands open for the end-of-summer trade, or the Labatt Blue glow of no-name small town taverns. Not the lit-up American flags hanging limp in front of junkyard used car dealers. That’d be kitsch on kitsch, and the hands were better than that. Then I spotted this sign. “Pro Wrestling” in a shuttered-up town, with a TV STAR. I don’t think wrestling is really kitsch—it’s not naively sentimental, it’s defiantly sentimental. It’s sensational in the most generous sense. Imagine the excitement the kid or the mom or the dad who painted this sign must have felt! A WWE TV star. It’s going to be awesome. I shined my headlights on the sign, set the hands before it, and gave them a twist.
* * *
I tried to record the prayer hands’ tune turning in front of the sign, but you couldn’t hear it over the crickets and the road. So I put them on my dashboard and listened. I lack belief in the supernatural powers of prayer, but I appreciate prayer’s resonances in the natural world. That is, its aesthetic power, even in musical prayer hands. Especially in hands such as these, an intensely peculiar echo of the faith that made them, and the faith that put them in a glass case at the Treasure Center, as free of irony as I am of the divine. God is more than I need. I prefer things, and the people who tend them.
“Prayer Hands” is part of an experiment in longform journalism in shortform pieces via Instagram. Follow the project as it unfolds here.
Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).