Above me, there was a ceiling plastered with thousands of pieces of faux popcorn. Surrounding me were four beige walls. On one of these walls hung a portrait of Jesus with shoulder-length hair, a well-trimmed beard, an earnest gaze, a long, handsome, shining face, and a head surrounded by a nimbus. A window looked out upon an outside world decorated with trees. In the distance, I saw a parking lot. Below me, a faux gold carpet appeared to have been carved out by some mediocre sculptor. A bedside clock of inferior quality appeared to be abuzz with the reminder that it was past six o’clock and time to rise.
“Hello Dolly!” announced Benny as he planted his magnificence on a stool and slapped a hairy paw on the counter.
“Benny!” sang a chorus of baritones who were perched along the counter like birds on a telephone wire.
“Norm!” sang an off-key tenor.
“Well, speak of the devil,” said Dolly from the far end of the counter.
“Somebody has seen behind my façade of childlike innocence,” protested Benny.
Dolly, not her real name, wiggled a seasoned hourglass shape over to her new customer. She handed him a menu and planted her palms on her hips, a gesture designed to exhibit ten long audaciously-red fingernails. He handed the menu right back to her and winked.
“Make it a barrel of oats, three bushels of corn, a sack of potatoes, a small truckload of your best quality sorghum, and a bale of hay. And to wash it all down, a six-pack of Bud Light.”
“Benny’s on a diet,” observed a chorus member.
“For dessert,” Benny went on, “let’s have an apple pie to go and a world-class waitress to enjoy it with when she gets off work. And when does she get off work? I’m glad you asked that question. She gets off work in half an hour. Has she had dessert tonight? No, she hasn’t yet run across a world-class customer to enjoy it with.”
Dolly shook her audaciously-red head and shrugged helplessly. “Sorry, Benny. My old man picks me up in forty-five minutes.”
“What? Married? Is this true?” Benny looked around at his former comrades for confirmation.
The chorus nodded sadly.
Benny turned to Dolly. “How long has it been, what’s his name, how old is he, what’s his social security number, how much can he bench press, and why wasn’t I consulted? That’s six questions. Start from the top. Think each question over carefully before you answer. You have one minute. Ready? You may begin.”
“It’s been three months, Juan, he’s seventeen, he’s an illegal, and he bench presses me.”
“He could even bench press you, Benny,” warned a far stool.
“Sorry, young lady, your time is up,” said Benny.
“Let’s hear why she didn’t consult him,” sang the tenor.
Dolly reminded the jury of her constitutional right to remain silent. Then she turned to Benny, exhaled a pink bubble, tapped her pencil on her pad, and asked him what it would be.
On the opening day of Bible School every year Reverend Menno Prediger would throw out the first pitch by standing up in front of all the kids and teachers and reading a passage from Scripture. It was always the same passage. “Ah yes,” he’d say, wiping the sweat off his tiny dome with his big white hanky and tipping his head back so he could see his Bible through his wire-framed glasses. “Ah yes, the words of Our Lord, found in Mark 10:14b. If you’ll turn with me to that verse, Mark 10:14b, which says . . . wait a moment . . . just one moment, please . . . ah yes, I believe I have it . . . yes, here it is, the words of Our Lord: ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.’Ah yes.The kingdom of God.”
Then he’d go on to treat us to a sermon on the meaning of this verse. The point of the sermon was that children are naturally religious, in an innocent kind of way. Anyway, something like that. To tell the truth I was never exactly sure what his point was. My first year I was busy studying the hair growing out of his ears and later on I picked up the habit of watching my pal Gary Albrecht doing things like working a thumbtack into position on pious little Margaret Siebert’s chair.
Reverend Prediger would wind up his sermon with another Scripture passage called the Parable of the Sower, which is about the farmer who went around planting seeds all over creation, even on the rocks and weeds. I happened to pay attention to this part because it made me think of Uncle Herb. But it made Reverend Prediger think we naturally religious children were the good soil the seeds happened to fall on, which was the reason the teachers had to cultivate us.
All these Scriptures and sermons were supposed to explain why the Inverness Mennonite Church was ruining the first three weeks of our summer vacation by spending every morning in Daily Vacation Bible School.The one hour per week we spent in Sunday School wasn’t enough. It only gave us the general idea but as Aunt Lena explained, DVBS gave us the real scoop on subjects like the Bible and God and Jesus and turning the other cheek.
In the beginning, there wasn’t much of anything. Just the basics. There was earth, of course. Heaven, too—we needed a place to come home to, after our numerous trips down to earth. And when I say earth, I’m including the lakes, the rivers, the oceans, etc. Everything that comes under the category of water. But water was not why we made those excursions. None of us would have even thought of coming down for water. We associated water with ships and sailors. Nobody wanted to be a sailor. The sailor was considered the lowest form of life. No, the reason we came down was for the dry land. And when I say dry land, I’m including the vineyards.
Speaking of the basics, there were also the sun, the moon, the planets, the stars—things for the astrologers to study, I believe that was the plan, and for the poets to write about. Also, there were the birds and the fish, for the bird watchers and fishermen. (That’s what they were called back then, fishermen. Nobody knew any better.) And I can’t forget the animals. At that time they were all wild—not necessarily ferocious, just wild. Domestication was my later innovation, just as were the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, of which, they tell me, I have every right to be proud. They include—I’m reading from my notes—(1) the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus; (2) the Artemision at Ephesus; (3) the Colossus of Rhodes; (4) the statue of Zeus (Zeus was my biggest rival, but we were instructed to be tolerant about religion; besides, he was not a key player in the total scheme of things); (5) the lighthouse at Alexandria; (6) the Sphinx and the Pyramids, which counted as one (I especially enjoyed designing the Pyramids, because of the excellent retirement benefits); and (7) the Hanging Gardens of Babylon—not including the walls, which came later.
And oh yes. I also created an Eighth Wonder. That was Eve. I once considered her my masterpiece.
I had been born on a bleak, frigid morning at Massachusetts General Hospital, courtesy of Renée Swift, née Arouet. While we were in the delivery room, my father, J. Ethan Swift II, JD, was pacing the halls hoping for a boy to continue his good name. The gods smiled on him, so to speak, and I was christened J. Ethan Swift III, with a JD to follow.
Father liked to say that he was “of the Dooblin Swifts,” though he had left Ireland and run off to London when he was barely seventeen. He’d been born into a Catholic family but when he turned twenty-one and moved to Boston he became what he liked to call “a staunch, born-again Unitarian.” He’d come to prefer the music of Liszt to that of Palestrina, he’d often say, and a rose supported by a vase on top of a piano to a statue of the Virgin standing in a dusty alcove.
Father’s face advertised his Irish genes. Even at the age of seventy his large, fit body supported a substantial head graced with gray, well-kempt hair, a round, pink face and a broad mustache whose edges extended half an inch beyond his large pink ears, which had been tinged—or so Mother would suggest—by his routine of enjoying a late-afternoon port, a dinner chardonnay, and a bedtime whiskey. His conversation was lively and his learning immense. He always dressed immaculately in the kind of suit one would expect from someone in his position, though where the Brahmins were concerned, he was only an upstart who had made good at the bar.
Mother came from a long line of French atheists. But while she was heavy with my younger brother Jean-Pierre, she took a stroll on a Chestnut Hill green, where she was caught in a thunderstorm; a bolt of lightning knocked her to the ground, causing her to have what she came to call a religious experience. She was quickly carted off to Massachusetts General, where, on waking, she became a Christian for life. But she had trouble settling on a single denomination. Not long after finding a new church that better fit her shifting theological tastes, she would move on to another. This was largely because, as Father would say on those occasions when I accompanied him to his weekly Liszt-and-rose affairs, the church she’d most recently abandoned wasn’t consistent with the social advances he had made and the views that went with them.
Mother had started with the Pentecostals, moved from them to the Baptists, then the Methodists, before settling on the Presbyterians—for two years, after which she considered becoming a Catholic, though because of Father’s disapproval of the religion he had abandoned she settled on the Episcopalians. I don’t recall her other religious experiments, though I believe the Quakers once held her in thrall. At any rate, during her inevitable quarrel with the Episcopalians I quit attending the services of the churches she at times had me grace with my company. This happened after my last Eucharist, where before receiving the Body and after the woman before me had had her portion, I whispered to the man administering the sacrament, “I’ll have what she had.” For this petty sin I received a murderous glare, not the conspiratorial smile I’d hoped for.
Other items concerning Mother included her appearance (tiny, svelte, Gallic nose) the accent of her native tongue, and her dress (elegant, preferring business suits when in the world of charitable causes but long, sparkling gowns while entertaining Father’s crowd). She was lively in motion and ardent in conversation, though her mind, once bright and astute, was prematurely on the wane—because, Father often confided to others, of that damned lightning strike.
Then there was Jean-Pierre, co-victim of that bolt from the skies. Despite being somewhat deficient in matters of the mind, he was Mother’s favorite. He was tiny and slim and had an awkward gait and a nose that advertised his Gallic genes. A difficult birth had been prologue to a difficult life. He was constantly changing his attire, always according to the fleeting fashions favored by the mavericks of his marginal world, and continually in search of his true self, which, when he seemed to have found it, quickly vanished and was followed by another futile quest.
“Follow the smart money.”
It was late Wednesday afternoon, and Ed was laid out in Dr. Digby’s chair. Digby was pinching his cheek and depositing a dose of novocaine into the right side of his lower gum with a long silver needle, at the same time offering free investment advice.
“Incidentally,” warned Digby, “don’t try this at home.”
He chuckled at his little joke and went back to the subject of investments, still brandishing his needle. “If you really want to carry through on this ill-advised retirement threat,” he said, “you’re going to need the wherewithal.” He put the weapon back on the tray. “And on the subject of wherewithal, my advice in this tricky market is, follow the smart money.” He stood back to let the novocaine take effect and to allow his wisdom to sink in. “When the smart money is in there buying Microsoft hand over fist,” he went on, “that’s the time to be in stocks. When the smart money is paring down the Microsoft portion of their portfolios, that’s the time to be out ofstocks.”
“Try it,” said Digby, scratching around on the old filling with a metal hook. “It works.”
Ed didn’t always agree with Digby on issues such as politics and religion and the Royals and the Chiefs and the economy and the educational system and America and what was wrong with them, but he couldn’t argue with the wisdom of going with the smart money. It stood to reason. How could you disagree on the subject of investments with a dentist who uses Chivas Regal as a mouthwash?
Digby stuck his head out the door to catch the up-to-the-minute stock market report. “It’s sure worked for me,” he called from the hall.
Ed also couldn’t argue with the fact that it had worked for Digby. There it was as living proof, the brand new jet-black Lincoln, sitting out there in the driveway blocking the view of his vintage ’66 VW Bug. Today it was the Lincoln, last tooth it was the red Mercedes coupe for the current wife. Number three, he believed it was. Carole. He’d noticed that that was often the name the third wife comes equipped with. Carole, spelled with an extra e. Used to sell beauty products, Carole the Third did, before Digby dismissed Number Two and came riding to the rescue. Mildred would know for sure, about the numbering system. She was the kind of person who kept track of those things. Anyway, the root canals and porcelain caps in and of themselves weren’t enough to cover the cost of keeping Digby’s harem in German cars. There had to be another factor.
NOTE: To read the first 20% of this novel free, see www.paulennswiebe.com/novels and check in with Smashwords.
[Narrator limps down aisle with aid of a shillelagh; climbs on stage, cheeks aflame; receives trophy; exchanges innocuous cheek kisses, etc., with both formally-suited male and sheer-gowned female luminaries; accepts applause from rising, broad-smiling audience, then directs decrescendo from fortissimo to pianissimo by gesture that recalls ancient rite of laying on of hands. Reaches up toward microphone; male luminary comes forward and adjusts it for him or her; Narrator speaks, with face set toward ceiling.]
I’d like to thank the Higher Power, or Powers—you know who you are—for sprinkling a wealth of clues in my modest corner of the earth. They greatly aided me in my quest to discover both my identity and my place in the vast arrangement of things. Without their help, I would not be standing before you today as the one who finally solved the enigma of our species’ place in the universe. Let’s give them a big hand.
[Casting a horizontal gaze] I’d also like to thank the little people in my life. First, Erma Cannon. If you’d please stand up, Erma … Rusty, could you tell Erma to stand up? … There. Let’s have a big hand for Ms. Cannon. [Applause.]
And for Rusty “Chuck” Stubbs, who helped Erma stand up. [Mix of laughter and applause.]
Reginald and Regina? The Wrights? Yes. Good. And a hand for them. [Applause.] Reginald is the gentleman, Regina is the lady. That’s how I learned to tell them apart. [Laughter.]
You may sit down, Erma … (Rusty, could you please help Erma sit down?) [Laughter; smattering of applause.]
Fine. Now, Marta Smith. Where’s Marta? Oh, there she is—she’s the one riding on a cloud, floating from table to table, collecting autographs. I hope you don’t mind. She has a colossal collection and takes every opportunity to augment it. A hand for her single-minded search for celebrity signatures.
[Applause.] Wave to everybody, Marta. Isn’t she something? [Continued applause.]
Now, Professor Calloway. Is Professor Calloway here? Professor Chlöe Calloway? Rusty, have you seen Professor Calloway? No? She’s probably at home, rearranging the jots and tittles of her dissertation.
[Smattering of laughter.]Don’t laugh. She inspired the title of my novel. Doesn’t that deserve a hand, in absentia? [Applause.]
And where’s Maria? Maria Flo? [Suddenly struck.]
Oh, I forgot. This was the day for her screen test. [Knowledgeable laughter.] But mark my words. One of these days she’ll be standing up here, giving her own acceptance speech. [Standing ovation.]
No no. [Staying expression of audience enthusiasm with charismatic yet graceful gesture of the hand.]
Hold your applause. Save it for later. [Suddenly overcome with emotion.] What can I say?
[Preparing to leave stage.]T hank you. [Touching fingers to lips; blowing kisses to the assembled masses.] Thank you. [Raising trophy in triumphant yet unpretentious fashion.] Thank you very much. [Bowing in acknowledgement of applause, now at fff level; bowing again; repeating, in random order, many of the above-cited tokens of reply to the general zeal; finally descending from stage, making way through a thicket of hands greedy for a mere touch o’ the garment, moving slowly but inexorably to table occupied by the little people in his life.]
To sample the first twenty percent of this and other Wiebe novels, simply go to Smashwords, under Paul Enns Wiebe, and order.
Approximately forty-three years ago, while old Eli Good was attending an evening worship service, an unknown person or persons had left a tiny infant in the back seat of his black buggy.
Instead of seeking help with this active bundle of joy, as both the church elders and his sisters urged, Mr. Good, an honest but simple Amish bachelor and raiser of rabbits, chose to rear the child himself. He started by christening him Kaninchen (the German word for Bunny), a name the lad later shortened to Benny.
With his sunny disposition and verbal gifts, Kaninchen quickly worked his way into the hearts of the Amish community. But as he grew in wisdom and stature, his playful curiosity occasionally got him into trouble. By the age of four years, he knew the location of every cookie jar within a two-mile radius. By the age of six, he had composed irreverent versions of over half the songs in the Amish hymnbook and had taught them to the other children. By the time he was eight, the young prodigy had moved from music to literature and was entertaining his little friends with bawdy paraphrases of the Bible stories that were their daily fare. When he was ten, Eli Good found him at the rabbit hutches, amusing himself by placing a love-starved buck in the hutch of three does and cheering the results. At twelve, he was caught peering into the bedroom window of a neighboring couple. At fourteen, it was reported that he had attempted to break into the bedroom of a young Amish woman.
Then, at sixteen, his adoptive father died of a heart attack. Because the elders could find no one to volunteer a spare bedroom, they took Kaninchen aside, gave him a hundred dollars and a shoo-fly pie, advised him to make his own way in the outside world, and, with fervent but desperate hope in their hearts, said a parting prayer.
A fellow theoretician associated with the JPL has pointed out a problem with our scheme to produce lunar power. This problem has nothing to do with the plan to wrap “our” side of the moon with used tinfoil in order to provide reflected sunshine, thus solving, or at least alleviating, the problem of scarce energy sources that dogs our late-industrial society; the problem our man sees concerns the steady filching of the extra moons from the planet Jupiter.
Not that he regards this in a moral or legal light. In his opinion, the Deity would not object to our far-flung project, being unconcerned by minor events in a far corner of His or Her universe. Rather, our colleague’s concern is eminently practical: what would half a dozen moons circumnavigating the earth do to our ocean tides? (In the interest of full disclosure, I must report that he and I are fellow fishermen, and many of our younger colleagues are ardent surfers.) Would all those extra moons cause huge or unpredictable tides, perhaps even the dreaded tsunamis that occasionally bash our coasts and disrupt our marine trade and cruise ships?
An afternoon at our sophisticated computers alleviated our concerns about this potential hazard. Working together, we were able to devise several alternative models of multiple satellite orbits (MSOs) that would allay all irrational fears.
These models were built on the simple idea that not all the orbits of our “borrowed” moons would be either (1) equatorially aligned or (2) perfectly circular. For example, as many as three moons could orbit our planet around the two poles; at least two of them could follow an elliptical orbit. With attentive fine-tuning, any and all of our models could even provide us with completely placid oceans, in which all tides would vary as little as .678 centimeters on a calm day. Not that this would be desirable, we were quick to point out to our young surfer assistants; only that it would be possible.
Pleased with our resolution of this potentially disastrous problem, we sat around one of our laboratories at MJTT and sipped our evening port.
Next morning, however, I must report that I awoke with a dreadful premonition that there was still a major flaw in our theoretical work. Tides, I reasoned, are caused by the gravity that the present moon exerts on the earth we have grown accustomed to call home. Would not a plethora of moons be unsettling to our current arrangements—for example, apples that fall from trees to the ground instead of leaping skyward?
I called my colleague at JPL to discuss this problem. That afternoon we held an extensive consultation over the net. To be short, we concluded that it was theoretically possible to continue our budding joint project, under the auspices of the U. S. Government, the United Nations, the Pan-Arab League, the International Olympic Committee, the American Farm Bureau, and the Eagle Scouts. That is to say, we became convinced that our initial goal of providing lunar energy to the world would not necessarily be compromised by the problem of gravity. In fact, it was clearly possible for us to concoct a multi-moon model that would both preserve the advantages of present gravity and provide extra benefits of which we are presently deprived.
Let a pair of examples suffice. With the proper alignment of half a dozen tinfoil-coated moons, apples would fall more gingerly to earth, thus avoiding bruises; and world records would be set in practically every Olympic event. (The major exception would be in downhill skiing, a sport that would have to change its emphasis from speed to grace, thus freeing the skier from the fear of disastrous tumbles and careers shortened by repetitive-stress knee and ankle injuries.)
All in all, we believe, our initial plan, properly qualified, will make the world a better place in which to ski.
Mother’s plan for Jean-Pierre’s life had not gone well. At a certain stage in her spiritual odyssey, she had decided that her beloved son would do well as a Presbyterian pastor. He’d balked at the idea, insisting that he was on his own quest. This, he said, had started while he was preparing for the rite of confirmation featured in that version of Christianity. He had shared with me the secrets that he’d spent short stints as a Buddhist monk, a Taoist, a late-to-the-game Hare Krishna, an unwholesome mix of American cults, an adherent of several of the apocalyptic sects that periodically raise their horrid heads, and a Muslim—peace-loving, he insisted. And these were only the ones he’d told me about. In our last pre-Summum conversation, he’d confided that his current goal was to become a Hindu guru meditating in a mountaintop cave while, I supposed, muttering sacred words and enjoying the view.
But Mother was not one to be deterred. Though neither she nor Father knew the extent of Jean-Pierre’s spiritual odyssey, they knew he was perpetually numbered among the unemployed. This did not go down smoothly with Father, who, despite Mother’s pleadings, abruptly cut his younger son’s financial strings. Jean-Pierre’s conversion to a Utah cult, he raged as he paced the house, was the tipping point.