Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Ron Carlson’s
“The Tablecloth of Turin”

From Sudden Fiction (Continued): 60 New Short-Short Stories
Edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas. Norton & Co.: New York/ London, 1996.

The Banquet of Charles V by Jean Fouquet

Ron Carlson’s “The Tablecloth of Turin” is a fine example of flash fiction presented as a one-act stage play. The play is amusing and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. At the same time, the story brings up serious questions as it explores how people might go about believing something they’re told is true.

A middle-aged man, Leonard Christofferson from Ann Arbor, Michigan, makes his seventy-first public appearance and walks on stage with his large folded tablecloth, his folding desk lamp, pointer, and other gear. For the last three months, he has been traveling and exhibiting his Tablecloth of Turin.

He pins the tablecloth to the backdrop and shines the desk lamp on it. He then steps forward and addresses the audience.

The story he tells is satirical and highly amusing. Most of us have heard of the famous Shroud of Turin, but Christofferson brings us something new. He exhibits the Tablecloth of Turin. Like the Shroud of Turin, this new artefact has also been scientifically tested and retested to establish its authenticity. Christofferson is convinced that this large tablecloth he now owns is the one used at the Last Supper. He claims it’s the tablecloth that’s also depicted in so many works of art, including Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting.

To establish his credibility, he tells of his background as an insurance investigator and his experience with and exposure to frauds. He claims to trust nothing and nobody and says he has very little faith in the human race. He makes it clear to his audience that he is nobody’s fool. He is not someone likely to be taken in by scams and frauds.

Christofferson says only God knows why the stranger in the restaurant in Turin, Italy sold him the tablecloth when he dined there with his visiting Art Guild. He turned to science to establish the authenticity of his tablecloth. It measures six-feet-five by twenty-three-feet and the stranger claimed it was the one used at the Last Supper. Christofferson immediately became a believer, bought the tablecloth, flew back home, quit his job, and has been traveling and exhibiting the tablecloth ever since.

One of the many outstanding features of the story is the use of humorous details. Christofferson tells his audience that the tablecloth was woven in 29 A.D., and claims that a scientific spectrometer analysis reveals the presence of bread crumbs, palm prints, spilled wine, and even two elbow prints (possibly prints left by James the Lesser, who likely had his sleeves rolled up).

Scientific analysis also shows there were thirteen place settings and, depending on the number of wine carafes, as many as fifty dishes on the table. It was “a nervous dinner,” as revealed by x-ray analysis which shows the number of wine glass rings present—an increase in wine glass rings in the cloth indicates a more uneasy occasion. Scientific analysis even reveals the number of times Andrew tapped his wine glass that night (seventy times).

Christofferson makes the outrageous claim that the wine used at the Last Supper was a California wine. He justifies his preposterous “fact” by pointing out it merely shows California civilization is a lot older than originally thought. Also comical is the information on the food at the supper itself: bread, wine, and “a light salad with rich vinegar and some kind of noodle dish.”

He also explains that the Heimlich maneuver wasn’t invented yet to help with Judas’ choking when Christ announced that one of his apostles was going to betray him. He claims it’s still a mystery who might have patted Judas on the back.

Christofferson insists that his scientifically analyzed tablecloth provides “shocking new evidence” that shows Leonardo da Vinci got it all wrong in his famous painting—da Vinci erred in showing all the figures (the twelve apostles and Jesus) sitting on just one side of the table. Christofferson claims three sat opposite Jesus and insists that science, the ultimate detective,” has “unraveled the whole story of the Last Supper from this humble tablecloth.”

What Carlson manages to do with his wonderful story is call into question how we might go about believing anything. In other words, the story shows that we likely fall for all sorts of things when the right person provides the evidence needed to convince us something is true.

Even though the story touches on sacred texts and ideas, it’s not an indictment of religious belief itself but is instead a close and humorous look at how human beings construct our various “truths” of any kind. It’s a story that looks at what many of us might fall for ourselves.

As a result of Carlson’s story, I’m seriously thinking about going on tour myself since I’ve come into the possession of a certain curious and antique napkin, purchased when I visited that same restaurant in Turin. Antony Cuppolini, the man who sold Christofferson the tablecloth, was still employed there. But the napkin Cuppolini sold me is even more special since scientific analysis shows it to have been woven in 100 BCE and at that time was sprayed with an aerosol fabric protector.

Carlson’s wonderful story is both humorous and serious too when we go beyond the amusing story specifics to question our methods of constructing any of our shared beliefs or truths. Carlson’s story provides a delightful way to take a closer look at what we might ourselves come to believe and pass along to others as the gospel truth. Even better when we can get science to seem to back up our sometimes quite outrageous claims.


About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto
twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

About Ron Carlson: Ron Carlson is an American writer of novels and short stories.

Image: The Banquet of Charles V by Jean Fouquet (Unknown – 1478). No medium specified. No size specified. Circa 1460. Public domain.