Great-grandma was a true Reisender, which, we were regularly reminded, is the German word for traveler. In her lifetime she’d covered half the world, from Prussia to Russia to the heart of Asia to Kansas and finally on to Idaho. She’d been born in old Prussia back in the middle of the nineteenth century and her family had moved to Russia when she was a young girl. Before coming to America she’d been married to Great-grandpa in a Muslim mosque out in the wilds of Central Asia, which is a story in itself. At the time I didn’t know the details; in fact, the whole thing was a big secret. Grandpa told us kids we were too young to understand, so after we looked up “Muslim” and “mosques” and “Central Asia” in the encyclopedia Karen and I came up with our own theories. I dreamed up the idea that Central Asia was the ancient version of the Wild West and that Great-grandpa had borrowed a horse or two that didn’t belong to him and when this was discovered, he and Great-grandma decided Russia wasn’t the best place to raise a family after all and became outlaws. Karen had it figured that Central Asia was the ancient version of Reno; it was where you went to get married if you jumped the gun and this happened to be reported to the preacher. But our theories were just guesses. And they didn’t account for that mosque.
Delores was a safe, comfortable subject. He could say a lot about her, especially as she way in her younger years. She had passed all his criteria for a wife. His seminary colleagues had approved. Though she had a plain face, she was then fair of form. His professors had delighted in her; Ed Milton had said with conviction that she was “made for the manse.” His mother had been pleased that he had had the sense to select someone who was majoring in Home Economics at the state university; she also confided to him that his father wouldn’t have exercised his usual veto, would indeed have seen Dolores as the comparative, if not the superlative, of herself. So Dolores it was, by popular demand. It helped that he himself had been attracted to her—she was so sensible, seeing the world as it really is, as a place prepared for the exercise of their moral obligations. He could discount his sister’s warning, “If you ask me, Dolores is a whiner, a real bitch,” on grounds of sibling jealousy. So Delores it was. Solid, if not spectacular. Reliable, if a little shrill.
In 1970, Corky and a young woman named Annette Hall were married in a Mormon temple. They moved into a home his father had built for him in an affluent neighborhood of the Salt Lake Valley at the base of the majestic Mount Olympus. Not long afterward the couple had two children, he lost interest in the Church, began to meditate in the basement den—at the time he thought of these exercises as relaxation—and he and Annette started to see things “from two totally unrelated perspectives.” In 1974, the two were divorced and he was doing his meditations in an apartment.
A year later, Corky says, “I was just having a regular old life like everybody else has. I would go to the clubs in town, and dance, and have a few drinks, and party and get involved with different people,” one of whom was a woman named Chris Miller, whose religious preferences seem not to have been preserved for the ages.
On October 28, 1975, while sitting on a couch in Ms. Miller’s apartment, Corky was supposedly visited by extraterrestrial beings he came to call “Summa Individuals.” This visit led to his founding of the religion Summum, which he registered with the IRS as a nonprofit organization. On orders from the extraterrestrials, he claimed, he began to construct a small pyramid-shaped temple in Salt Lake City. In 1977 Summum initiated a student organization at the University of Utah, making it possible for Corky to conduct classes for night students; he later claimed that after two years of these classes, almost twenty thousand had become members of Summum. Using volunteer labor and donations, his pyramid was completed in 1979; it was to serve as a sanctuary, a classroom, a winery, and a repository for the mummies of Summum devotees and their pets. In 1980 he changed his name (again legally) to Summum Bonum Amen Ra, though he was commonly and informally known as Corky Ra.
So maybe I should begin this spiel by lettin’ it out that I got myself a business degree from one of them SoCal colleges. Or maybe I should cut the big talk and be truthful, like Grandma Lark tried to teach me, and say I didn’t even get into that program. The reason? Grades from my ancient past, when a C- was a C- . . . Or maybe it was the test scores . . . Could’ve been the essay, and of course that screwed-up interview . . . Could also be they thought I was on the downslope from the big six-oh, that’s always a possibility, or so says my lawyer, Ms. Leticia Ladrona. After which she sports an Esq., which is how she wants to be known by her clients and, lest I forget, her fellow bandidos. That would’ve been lawsuit worthy, she’d said, except it’d be hard to prove, due to my grades and test scores and essay and prolly my interview, which I thought was goin’ okay if not super till they shut me off after maybe five minutes, prolly because they weren’t all that dazzled by my answers to their dopey questions, goin’ by the laughs I caught wind of after they suggested I leave and leave I did but put my ear to the door hopin’ not to get caught, and caught I was not.
Who knows why? Point bein’, I didn’t exactly get in.
Considering the fact that my surroundings were generally of an inferior quality, I concluded that I was not in heaven. Considering the fact that my feet were presumably cold, I was not in hell. And considering the fact that my walls were not adorned with an icon of the Virgin Mother, I was not in purgatory.
Having refuted the supposition that I had once been a senior citizen, I turned my attention to the remaining possibility, namely, that I was now a senior citizen.
I ran my fingers over my face and discovered wrinkles. Exploring further, I found those wrinkles to be deep. “Aha,” I informed myself, “I’m old!” I ran my fingers over other parts of my body and found that I had no breasts. A hypothesis formed in my mind. My fingers kept exploring. Soon my hypothesis was confirmed: I was a man. I conflated my two discoveries and concluded that I was an old man. Then, after a long interval of exploration, I found that, though I was an old man, my male parts were in satisfactory if not superior working order.
What Father Alazon Lustlieb discovered on April 1, 1978, in that hallowed cave overlooking Bear Lake, was a set of twelve ancient sheepskin Scrolls, neatly arranged within the folds of what he later described to his four disciples as “a very old briefcase.” When we pressed him for an estimate of the age of that briefcase, he judged it to be four thousand years old, “give or take ﬁfty years.” He conceded that this was an estimate, and that the angel Michelle had provided him no information about the history of the documents. He added that the probable reason for her silence on this question was that, in order to preserve the aura of mystery with which divine manifestations are always attended, angels do not reveal the minor details of their revelations to prophets.
The briefcase, he emphasized, had never been opened. He veriﬁed this opinion by citing the expert testimony of a certiﬁed Beverly Hills locksmith (he could not remember her name). Once she had disengaged the rusty clasp, Father Lustlieb said, he paid her, quietly left the back room of her establishment (secrecy, he emphasized, was extremely important), went back to his uncle’s mansion, stole unobserved into the wine cellar (secrecy again being the motive), opened the briefcase, and found a trove of twelve ancient sheepskin Scrolls, all of them perfectly preserved. Each scroll was secured with a royal blue waxen seal, on which was stamped a single Ur-Hebrew word, aleph $ taw, for which there is no English equivalent. Each seal was also stamped with a tiny Ur-Hebrew number, indicating, he surmised, the order in which the Scrolls were to be translated and positioned within the ﬁnished text.
“I’ll have what he’s having,” Benny informed the waitress.
The waitress cast a gaze in Dennis Bright’s direction and quizzically lifted a well-penciled eyebrow and wondered aloud what he was having. Bright, after some reflection, said he was having the small shrimp salad with French dressing and a cup of decaf.
Benny frowned and announced that he was reconsidering.
He would begin with the large turkey salad (Italian dressing), accompanied by a milk shake (chocolate). From there he would move on to the large sirloin (rare). He would finish with the apple pie, topped off with a generous portion of ice cream (tutti frutti, if possible; if not, strawberry). He also suggested that the waitress put a bottle of bubbles on ice, explaining that he and his friend were there to celebrate a great moment.
“We’re not allowed to serve alcoholic beverages,” said the waitress, as if repeating a mantra. “Kansas law.”
Benny feigned disbelief. “What? The State of Kansas discourages the celebration of great moments?”
The waitress ignored this question, glumly plucked the menus from their hands, and shuffled off with their orders.
She buzzed around the patient, dressed in a tiny pink pant suit, armed with a line of floss.
“Open wide,” she sang.
He opened wide.
She accidentally rubbed up against him.
“Relax, Rabbi Scheinblum,” she said gaily. “I’m not going to hurt you. That’s Dr. Digby’s job.”
He flinched again.
“Just kidding,” she reassured him. “My job is to take your mind off the coming pain.”
A major flinch.
She ignored this response and launched into her assignment. One of the questions she’d been asking people as she flossed them up for Dr. Digby was, what did they like best about Kirkland? If they were to name her the one thing they liked best about living in Kirkland, Kansas, one thing and one thing only, what would that one thing be?
They’d been saying it’s a nice conservative town. Still too much crime in the streets, maybe, and it was getting a little too big, in terms of population, but basically it was still a nice conservative town, knock on wood. They’d been mentioning the friendliness of the people. They’d been saying Kirkland was the kind of a place where family values were allowed to shine through, which accounted for the friendliness. They’d also been saying it was a big happy church-going community where everybody was free to go to the religion of his own choice and there were no Liberals—she guessed that maybe now they were called Socialists (this brought an indisputable flinch)—and very, very few atheists, just a few scraggly professors out at the University, and nobody paid any attention to them anyway, except for maybe a few Sophomores, who’d grow out of it just about the time they started applying for jobs in the appliance department at Best Buy.
As he considered his own wisdom, he felt a strange but unmistakable relief. The weight of passing Western Culture to the next generation no longer rested on his substantial shoulders. Now that for all practical purposes he was no longer Chairman of Language Arts, he was finally free to do what he had been hoping and planning to do for the last ten years: leave philistine, prosaic Kirkland, move to the West Coast, and compose his memoirs for the benefit of a distant posterity that would, in time, come to appreciate the fact that for thirty-odd years Edward Budwieser, M.A., had wasted his fragrance on the Kansas air.
While I was coming back to Inverness on business, I checked in at a motel after a long day’s drive. I thought I was in Pocatello, but at dinner, just as I was finishing my glass of Chablis, it struck me that I was actually in Gomorrah. When the waitress came with the bill, I tried to make a joke about this, but she’d never heard of Gomorrah. So I dropped the subject, paid for my meal, went back to my room, and got ready for bed. Being tired but not sleepy, I decided to watch a movie. I picked a comedy that was advertised as having “brief flashes of nudity,” but it turned out that the flashes were too brief to keep me awake. As I dozed off I remember wondering what Uncle Edgar would have thought about his oldest nephew spending a night in Sin City. Would enjoying a glass of wine and watching a slightly naughty movie be enough to cancel my reservation for the last reunion?
While I was driving to Inverness the next morning, I got to thinking of those bygone Reisender reunions and about Snake and the orchard and the goats in the backyard and the ghosts in the attic and about all us cousins gathered around Great-grandma, singing her an old German hymn to ease the pain of going home to the Fatherland. Then, as I crossed the dam at Beaver Falls and headed north, I got to thinking about the family secret of what Great-grandma had been doing out in the middle of Asia back in the 1880s and why she’d been married in that mosque. When I graduated from high school and left town, Grandpa finally presented me with the key to the puzzle. So after Aunt Lena filled me in on the details, I finally got the point.
Paul Enns Wiebe perpetually asks himself, "What do I want to write when I grow up?"