Before the questioning member of my self could agree, or perhaps disagree, with my judgment, the telephone again rang. I answered it and heard a young woman with a pleasant voice. She asked me if I was having “a nice day.” I responded in the affirmative, without, however, revealing the details of my yoga class, my unsuccessful attempt to engage in colloquy with its instructor, or my recent meditation concerning the proper headstone to cap a long and successful literary career. After an exchange of pleasantries concerning the outdoor temperature—how it compared to previous winters, etc.—she reminded me that it was the time of year when “the friends of Heartland College”—a category within which she clearly assumed I belonged—showed their support for that worthy institution by pledging a certain amount of their “hard-earned money.” This amount, she then informed me, was tax-deductible.
The following Monday the Budwiesers had an argument.
It wasn’t over the question of why he wasn’t spending more time looking for a job, or over the question of why he had resigned his old job without consulting her or why he not only didn’t want to talk about it, he didn’t even want to think about it, or over the question of the liquor bill, or even over the question of whether Molls and A Peculiar Passion were Classics or just plain trash. Because after the Winnebago incident she had gotten Ed to promise to quit drinking and stop the new subscription to Molls and spend at least four mornings a week on the job hunt.
No. The argument was over a silly little thing.
It was over a Betsy Bander.
That morning, ten days after their innocent telephone conversation on the subjects of vacuum cleaners and the relative merits of San Diego and Kirkland as places to live, Ed had received a follow-up letter from Ms. Bander. It dealt with the subject of vacuum cleaners, but she gave it a personal touch by enclosing an autographed photo of herself.
In the chutes but not ready to cast before the reading public is a novel I’ve not mentioned. It’s a satire—what else is new?—consisting of five interlocking stories told from the points of view of six characters.
Armed with a pair of JUCO courses, one on starting a small business and the other on creative writing, the principal character, Talia la Musa, runs a national ad inviting four other writers to join a literary group to be called the Kachina Round Table. This group is to meet in the bar of a decrepit hotel in Small Southwestern City, Large Southwestern State.
She then wakes up one morning to find herself in bed with a dead man, the owner of this hotel and her date of the evening before. With the aid of an old friend, Leticia Ladrona, Esq., she “inherits” the hotel and renames it the Hôtel Adiós. Then, one by one, four men answer her ad and immediately enter a literary contest, which is won by her new heartthrob, Myles na Gopaleen, Jr., a bastard son of a famous Irish writer who gave James Joyce a run for his Irish pounds. The others are Arthur Unknown, a grandson of Author Unknown, the most voluminously anthologized writer in the history of the American grammar school textbook; Ab Ennis, a cremated Russian immigrant who is then furnished with a robotic apparatus by Mr. na Gopaleen; and Orville Slack IV, a hillbilly from the intertwining panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma who soon dies but is cremated and given a robotic body of his own.
This first story tells how Ms. la Musa sets up the Kachina Round Table. The second is an account of the literary contest, and the third is an account of a run for POTUS by the robotized Mr. Ennis on the Dead Rights Ticket. The fourth consists of the inventions of Mr. na Gopaleen. Finally, Mss. la Musa and Ladrona receive their just desserts—or rather, Ms. Ladrona does so, because . . . but I’ve already said enough.
It wouldn’t be easy to pin down either the matter or the style of all my novels.
The matter is in each one different. One might say that some of it is autobiographical, but that holds only for Crazy Were We in the Head, and even there, few of my characters are based on real persons: the descriptions of Onkel Abe Hamm, for example, are clearly of my father’s eccentric uncle. One might say that much of my writing concerns matters religious, and here I would plead guilty. Everything from Crazy to Just Another Dead White Male to The Church of the Comic Spirit to Pope Dun the Incredible to Sacred Books & Sky Hooks shows the influence of my days as a professor of comparative religion. Dancing Over the Rays of Light is something of an exception, though the main character’s search for his true self could be said to be a pilgrimage.
Outside the tent. Abraham, still ninety-nine, sits in the shade. A one-humped camel is tethered nearby.
Narrator’s Voice:Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. And Abraham sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.
Abraham closes his eyes and begins to snooze. And dream.
A desert well. Abraham and his thirteen-year-old son sit in a pair of lounge chairs beside a well, ﬁshing. The son feels a tug on his pole. He yanks and is soon ﬁghting the ﬁsh he has just hooked. He slowly reels it in, while Abraham prepares a net to retrieve it. They ﬁnally land an octopus.
A baseball diamond in a desert pasture. Abraham sits behind the home dugout with a camcorder, pointing it at the action on the ﬁeld. Abraham’s son, dressed in a Camel League uniform with the nickname “He-Asses,” is at the plate, pointing with his bat, like Babe Ruth, at a distant target. The pitcher, wearing a uniform bearing the nickname “Librarians,” pitches; the son hits the ball four hundred feet, scattering a herd of sheep. Abraham bounds onto the ﬁeld and records his son rounding the bases.
The saloon. Evening. Abraham’s young son and a thirteen-year-old girl sit at a table, drinking goat milk. The two gaze intently at each other. They stand. They walk upstairs, his arm around her. They disappear into an upstairs bedroom. A moment later, a cap gun rings out.
I had been brought up not to believe in ghosts. Uncle Edgar made himself very clear on that point. You couldn’t be a Bible-believing Christian and still believe in ghosts, he said, with of course the one exception, the Holy Ghost, who was in a class by Himself.
But when it came to a choice between the theories of Uncle Edgar or Snake, I always tended to go with Snake. Sitting there on the motel bed sifting through those old books and pictures and the family history, I became more and more convinced of the existence of ghosts. In fact by ten o’clock I had come to the conclusion that a world without ghosts wouldn’t be much of a world. Without ghosts you wouldn’t have a past, and without a past, what would be the point of going forward?
Another thing I’d been informed on good authority was that God has a plan for the world; otherwise, why would He have bothered to create it? And why would He have bothered to create us if He didn’t have a plan for each and every person? So isn’t our own purpose in life to discover His individually-tailored plan for us and then get to work on implementing it? “QED!” said Uncle Edgar triumphantly when he had finished this line of thought, “QED!”
Just after I finished Brodie’s chapter on Joseph’s final departure from Kirtland, my cell belted out the first bar of the National Anthem. Hoping but no longer expecting it would be Alcina, I answered.
“Tonight. Same place. Eight,” a female voice said softly and hung up.
That night at eight I was sitting at my small table in the Heretic Lounge when Alcina entered, wearing a dark brown wig and dark glasses and carrying a posh purse instead of her laptop. Looking around furtively, she slithered into the seat across from me and admonished me for looking at her “like that.”
“It’s me,” she said in a low voice. “Let’s keep it quiet.”
Just as I was preparing to insert a quip into the conversation, the barmaid appeared and tapped a pencil on my ready tab.
“Two Latter Days,” I ordered.
“That’s all?” the lady wanted to know.
“That’s it,” I said and, as she left, turned to Alcina. “Maybe we should go over to my place.” Before she could answer, I wrote down my address, slipped it to her across the table under a napkin, got up, and left for home.
The first obstacle to a successful fulfillment of my calling is as simple to state as it is difficult to surmount: I have no long-term memory. How can an aspiring novelist hope to perform his lofty duty if his experience is limited to a single week? Does he not need what the incomparable Marcel Proust, by all accounts one of the main practitioners of the modern novel, has called “the vast structure of recollection” on which to draw?
Do not suppose that my thoughts on this conundrum led me into the pit of dejection. On the contrary: they aroused in me a sense of the absurdity of my circumstance, a sense that expressed itself in the slight, self-deprecating chuckle I had come to regard as my most endearing trait. They also rekindled a memory of my all-too-brief relationship with a young but kindred spirit. I speak, naturally, of Professor Chlöe Calloway.
“I thought Winnebago engines lasted forever?”
He was standing at the bow of his stranded bark, at the mercy of ancient Milo. Mildred, after locating Milo, had gone on home in her own cloud of smoke.
“Oh they do,” came Milo’s drawl from under the hood. “Problem is, this ain’t no Winnebago engine. Looks like they took out the original and put a replacement in. This here looks somethin’ like one a’ them Phantom engines.”
“The kind they used to put in lawn mowers.”
“Ridin’ lawn mowers,” explained Milo, coming up for air. “Ain’t as bad as it sounds.”
There was a long silence.
Ed finally asked, “So, where do we go from here?”
“My advice to ya would be, take it back to town an’ try ’n’ getcher money back.”
“It’ll make it back to Kirkland okay?”
“That’d be my guess.”
“Think it’d make it to the West Coast?” he ventured.
“Lemme put it to ya this way, Mr. B,” said Milo, wiping the grease off his face with a red handkerchief. “Ya gotta helluva lot better chance a’ gettin’ to the West Coast by pushin’ it than by countin’ on this here piece a’ crap.”
Abram: Come right in, sir, come right on in.
God comes in and sits down at the table.
Abram: Getcha a glass of Mogen David, sir? . . . Oh I forgot, you don’t drink.
God: Now that you mention it, I think I will have an earthen pot of the stuff . . . just to celebrate the deal.
Abram retrieves a bottle and mugs. The bottle reads “Christian Brothers.” He pours two drinks and hands one to God.
Abram: Here you go, sir.
He joins God at the table.
God: (Snifﬁng) Hey, this smells like Christian Brothers!
Abram: (To himself) Ohmigod, wrong bottle. (To God) You must have a cold, sir. (Snifﬁng) It smells okay to me.
God: Hmmm. I could have sworn . . .
Abram: (Laughing nervously) I mean, what would I be doing with a bottle of Christian Brothers?
God: (Chuckling) Yeah, I guess the old nose just ain’t what it used to be . . . Well, here’s to our covenant.
(Offering a toast) Cheers.
Abram: (Clinking God’s mug) Cheers.
God takes a sip.
God: Funny, but it tastes like Christian Brothers.
Abram: I wouldn’t know. Never tried the stuff.
God: Of course I’m just going by hearsay.
Abram: Of course.