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CURIOUS BY NATURE, Benny Good was always intrigued by new ideas. The idea of salvation was not of course new to him; he had run across it from his years with the Amish and his months with Reverend Barnabas. Neither was the idea of sex new to him. But the idea of combining sex with salvation—this was what caught his attention and kept him in the questionnaire room with Arielle past ten-thirty, discussing the possibility of joining her new cell group devoted to the teachings of Christian Tantrism.
“Early retirement is now the buzzard word.”
Mildred and Thelma Blossum stopped to catch their breath in front of Le Wanderlust, a travel agency in Kirklande Centre. It was early Thursday morning before work, and the two women were doing one of their occasional puffarounds, dressed in faded joggers and worn Keds and clutching tiny barbells to their chests.
“You know what Ithink about that subject,” replied Thelma.
Yes, she knew Thelma’s thoughts on the topic of early retirement. Letting a man stay home day in and day out was about the same as putting arsenic in his chicken noodle soup, in terms of effectiveness. If he was fooling around and had good coverage the arsenic might not be a bad idea, but otherwise it wasn’t recommended, unless of course you happened to enjoy working your fingers to the bone in the checkout stand at Safeway. Those were Thelma Blossum’s thoughts on the subject, always followed by “take it from somebody who knows.”
MISS HOLY LAND
The sun beats downon a vast desert. A range of mountains is visible on the horizon. In the distance a car moves slowly over the sand dunes, left to right, followed closely by a camel.
Narrator’s Voice:(Solemnly; offscreen) And there was a famine in the Holy Land. And Abram took his wife Sara and went down into Egypt to sojourn there.
Driving the car, a battered Yugo, is Abram, a twenty-nine-year-old schlemiel dressed in the traditional desert garb of the Middle East. On the seat next to him rests a leather saddlebag. Seated atop the two-humped camel, sidesaddle, is Sara, a voluptuous young woman of nineteen, also dressed in a traditional desert robe. The camel is burdened with her extensive trousseau—suitcases, hat boxes, etc.
Last night, after putting the finishing touches on that twelfth and final story, I couldn’t sleep.And it wasn’t because of the fact that I’d remembered, with the help of what Mom used to call my “overactive imagination,” that things had turned out badly. It was because the whole thing still didn’t hang together. Months ago, when I’d sat on that Gomorrah motel bed, surrounded by the ghosts from my old attic—the books, the family history, and the photographs—I figured I’d be able to find the pattern. But as I lay there awake with my wife sleeping happily at my side, I was just as puzzled as I’d been when I came up with the idea of writing a dozen stories about my Inverness life.What was the point of it all? Or as Uncle Edgar would’ve put it, what had been God’s plan for my life?
Once settled in, I emailed the headquarters of Summum, asking a few innocuous questions about their organization. Who was in charge? What was their current membership? How often did they meet, and on which days? I told them I was working on an article about their founder, Corky Ra. I received a reply from the outfit, wanting to know for what publisher I was doing the article. I immediately wrote back saying I was a freelance writer with an interest in comparative religion and that I’d send the finished piece to whoever was most likely to publish it. They again responded, saying Summum would gladly answer my questions, with the proviso that I sign a copy of their enclosed media agreement. After reading the agreement and noting that it stipulated that I agree not to provide the content of the article to anyone without the “expressed” written consent of Summum, I politely wrote back that I wouldn’t sign it because I couldn’t agree to this condition, while thinking that neither could I bear the shoddy, unlawyerly wording.
Wielding my cane, I sallied forth into the world beyond my private quarters.
I turned left and proceeded down a long hallway, where I continued my meditation on “Miss April,” pleased that the enigma of my sexual orientation had been resolved.
Narrator’s note to reader:
My pleasure came, not from my discovery that I was heterosexual, but from the fact that I had solved the enigma of my erotic orientation. Had I discovered that I was homosexual, I would have been equally pleased.
Description of hallway:
Similar in color to the walls of my apartment. Neither too broad nor too narrow. Concrete floor camouflaged by an industrial-quality rug. Equipped on each side with a hand railing of inferior and delicate construction. Empty, save for a pair of elderly white females, one in a wheelchair, the other pushing her charge along with great difficulty, both of them approaching me.
Limping down the hallway, supported on my right by a hand railing and on my left by my stout cane, I could see from the presence of intermittent doors that my own apartment was part of a larger complex. From this I surmised that I was a resident in some kind of institution, a conjecture consistent with the appearance of the two elderly ladies.
As I advanced, I involuntarily compared the Miss April of my recent meditations with the approaching pair of Miss Decembers. This comparison elicited in me an audible chuckle, which grew by degrees into a mammoth guffaw, which, in turn, caused the two ladies, now but fifteen feet away, to look up.
Imagine my bafflement when, after the briefest of glances at my person, these same ladies emitted a pair of long, concerted shrieks. These shrieks were attended by a sudden change in their itinerary, from a slow but steady advance toward me to a rapid flight in the opposite direction.
The ladies’ reaction to my presence gave me pause. I stopped to consider the cause of this reaction. In my careful and methodical way, I recalled, standing in that hallway, the events of the day, beginning with my awakening, proceeding through my various discoveries, and ending with my act of crossing the threshold of my apartment door into the larger world. I was quickly able to discount as possible causes of their incredulous reaction a substantial number of those events, and, by the process of eliminating most of the others, to settle on the simple fact that I had, during my initial foray into the bathroom, neglected to locate the Old Spice deodorant and apply it to my person.
That neglect, I hastened to assure myself, was not my fault. Indeed, it was quite understandable, in view of the fact that immediately after locating the Old Spice, I had learned to my chagrin that I had no teeth. The shock of noting a resemblance between my face and the ghastly visage depicted in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, I concluded, was the culprit. This shock had caused me to neglect to apply the long-lasting deodorant, an omission that had caused the malodor, which, in turn, had caused the ladies to take exception to my presence in what they might have regarded as their own private hallway.
Upon further search through the corridors of my short memory, however, I came to discount this theory explaining their excessive reaction in favor of a theory I found stronger, simpler, and more compelling, a theory based upon a newly-discovered fact.
Nature of newly-discovered fact:
I was still naked.
Room 345C of the Church of the Wide Open Door was the size and shape of a small concert hall and was furnished with well-padded seats. Benny arrived late and seated himself at the rear. The senior minister, a young man named Sean, was listing the ministries a prospective member might choose to join. If your interest happened to be politics, he explained, there were cells of Christian Republicans and Christian Democrats, as well as a fellowship for the Christian Independents. If your interest happened to be the abortion issue, there were cells for both pro-lifers and pro-choicers, and oh yes, he remembered, a new cell was just getting underway, calling itself the Christian Confuseds. The audience, following the script, laughed. True to its eighteen-month tradition of non-judgmental openness, the minister went on, the church sponsored chapters of both the National Organization of Christian Women and the Christian Promise Keepers. There was also a wide range of Christian support groups, for recovering alcoholics, substance abusers, sex addicts, wife beaters, husband naggers (laughter), gays, straights (more laughter), Jews (nervous laughter: was the minister being anti-Semitic?), Catholics (he was building up to something!), and oh yes … Baptists (an explosion of mirth that landed a quarter of the audience on the floor).
The day before we graduated from the eighth grade, GaryAlbrecht and Bobby Joe Runningwater and I decided the occasion called for a party. So next morning Gary borrowed his big brother Cat’s ’38 Ford and we all left notes on our kitchen tables telling our folks not to worry, we’d be responsible for our own meal and be back home by the ten-thirty curfew. Our plan was to drive to Pocatello for a celebration, maybe have some Aero Club Beer and Lucky Strikes for supper, and then start back home a little after midnight.
We had to change our plan, because after we trotted across the stage to fetch our diplomas and they handed out awards for Best Dressed and Best Sense of Humor and Best Athlete and Most Likely to Succeed and juvenile crap like that, I happened to think that we only had restricted licenses, meaning we needed somebody who could drive after dark. So I invited Billy Bauman along. But this didn’t sit too well with my pals, because BB couldn’t always be relied on to keep a secret and besides, BB was BB, a nickname Bobby Joe had pasted on Billy due to the size of his brain. We had to have a strategy session about whether to cancel my invitation. I pointed out the problem with the restricted license but Gary said Cat would kick some butt if he knew Billy so much as touched the wheel of his automobile. I argued that Billy deserved a party as much as anyone, he had spent ten years in grade school and this was his second try at graduation. Gary finally agreed with my kindness but Bobby Joe didn’t.
So I pointed out that we needed somebody who looked old enough to buy the party favors and Bobby Joe finally saw my point and said “Well, okay for this one time but let’s not make it a habit.”
Then we decided that if we were going to get back before morning it couldn’t be Pocatello, it had to be Beaver Falls. So off it was to Beaver Falls with Gary driving and Bobby Joe slouched down in the passenger seat and me in the back with Billy, who was my guest, as Bobby Joe pointed out, so I had to sit with him.
It was in the latter stages of his stint as a prophet that she entered his life.
One morning, as she was walking to her job as a waitress at the local camel stop, she happened to notice him in his back yard, dressed in his sandwich board and hammering nails into boards. Curious, she stopped to kibbitz.
He ignored her and continued his pounding.
“What are you doing?” Elsie ﬁnally asked.
“Building a boat,” said Noah grufﬂy.
“Yeah?” She smiled at him. “Taking up boatbuilding, huh?”
“What’s wrong with being a boatbuilder?” he asked defensively.
“Oh, nothing,” she said. “It’s just that this is the middle of the desert.”
He put aside his hammer. “There’s a lot of job satisfaction in building boats,” he explained. “A recent survey showed that 90 percent of the boatbuilders rated their job satisfaction—”
“Wouldn’t that be a hundred percent? You’re the only boatbuilder around.”
He stopped to recalculate. “Right,” he ﬁnally agreed. “One hundred percent rated their job satisfaction as either ‘good’ or ‘excellent.’ But only 66.8 percent of the camel drivers rated their—”
“So they get a little sand in their eyes.” It was her turn to be defensive. Some of her best friends were camel drivers.