The Right Reverend Cornelius Rash fell to his knees, hands folded against his double-breasted grey pinstripe, and he prayed.
“Heavenly, omnipotent Father, hear Your humble servant this day.”
A voice whispered in his ear-bud, Camera 3-full face. He breathed deeply, cupping one hand over the offending instrument and raising the other to the cheap seats, then he turned to his television audience with eyes closed in his tortured, Jim Caviezel Passion of the Christ pose.
“Make me a channel of Your peace, O Lord, and the voice of Your most Holy Word.”
“Holy Word,” a voice volleyed back from the choir.
“That the words I speak…I speak not of myself, but the Father that dwelleth in me.”
His words flashed up on the Jumbo Tron with chapter and verse –John 14:10. Affirmations rumbled through the assembly.
“Speak for the Father!” they echoed.
“Make of me, oh Spirit, a holy mouthpiece, that I may speak Your will to the multitudes – that heathens may not educate Your youth, nor fornicators kill Your unborn, nor sodomites mock Your matrimonial blessing.”
Words of hate peppered the mouths of the faithful, “Heathens! Fornicators! Sodomites!” Some cried in silent anguish. Others, overcome by the Spirit, spoke in mysterious tongues. “Gawgaw, gollickdaw. Yabobo gadadadot ganoo.” Rev. Rash neither channeled nor understood this language of the chosen few, but he welcomed the spectacle all the same.
“All this I ask in sweet Jesus’ most holy name, ready to serve when so e’er it should please You. For all just prayers are answered at Your bidding and in Your own good time. Amen.”
The crowd leaped to their feet, crying, “Amen,” and waving signs of crimson and white. “Re-Elect God’s Elect. Vote Rash for Congress,” they proclaimed as the praise band launched into Awesome God.
Three months later he stood poised to ascend his earthly throne, smoothing his pompadour and straightening his power tie. He panned the chamber packed with pols and press.
A blonde crooned into a camera, “This is Tiffany Silver, live at the Capitol, where controversy continues to brew following this election’s surprise upset of the incumbent Democratic majority where, for the first time, a man of the cloth assumes the leadership mantle in Congress.”
Cornelius fingered his ring, a diamond-encrusted cross, and said a silent prayer of thanks. His time had come. Truly, God was good. Tiffany talked on about him, and he shivered in anticipation. The voice of Your most holy word, he mouthed to the ceiling with a nod.
“We go now to the swearing-in ceremony of the newly elected Speaker of the House, long-time Republican Representative and famed televangelist, Cornelius Rash.”
He bounded up the steps, beaming, and acknowledged the four points of the compass with arms spread wide. A prayerful bow of thanks, and he placed his right hand on the Bible, radiant as the risen Lord.
“Do you solemnly swear that you will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic?”
He opened his mouth to speak, and out came a protracted, “Ahhhhh.”
He cleared his throat and tried again, “Ahhhhhddddgollala bedormegah.”
He clapped his hand over his mouth, feigned a sneeze and tried once more.
“Ahhhhhddddfefollala pashtopan geeren maydew.”
What? Not now!
“Jimbefooshen melalagebock tefoy…”
“Something is very wrong here at the Speaker’s podium.” Tiffany said. “The House doctor is pushing his way through the crowd to Representative Rash’s side, as he appears to be suffering from a seizure of some sort –a stroke perhaps . . .”
Damn you, God. I still have so much to say.
Tiffany did not understand. No one in the chamber did. Only the chosen few in the television audience, those infected with the Spirit, understood. And they cried in silent anguish.
~ Kansas City Voices, vol. 12 (Aug. 2013)
Tina Lives Large
Tina eyed the veggie chips in Neil’s snack bag wedged between the front seats of the SUV, so accessible and so tempting. She scanned the nutrition label from one of his damn nut bars she’d eaten two hours before, and mentally calculated: 175 calories, plus Granola with yogurt – 180, plus a banana – 175, plus orange juice – 110. Whoa, she’d already consumed 640 calories, and it was only 2:30. And she was hungry again. She reapplied her lipstick and sighed.
“There’s a truck stop this side of Morgantown where we can eat and gas up,” Neil said. “Hoagie’s sound all right to you?”
“God, yes. They have salads, don’t they?”
“Yep, and the best foot-long Italians with sweet onion mayo!”
She buffed her burgundy nails and bit her tongue. Neil was reverting to his old ways, returning to the Land of the Large for his family reunion. She didn’t begrudge him a little treat, but she hoped it wasn’t a permanent rebound after a weekend of overindulgence. The fruit of obesity hung low in Neil’s family tree and she cringed to think what he might look like if he’d never met her –or worse yet, what she might look like if she’d grown up in his home. All the women over thirty wore shapeless, super-sized clothes. It was a regional curse and a fashion crime. Tina was no skinny Minnie, but she’d kept her shape and Neil appreciated that.
“Just don’t ever get really fat. That’s all I ask,” he’d once said. “I was surrounded by big people my whole childhood and I couldn’t handle that again.”
Never, she’d thought at the time. Appearance had been her number one priority since age eight when she’d learned to suck in her stomach. Fashion retail was her life, and she intended to remain her boutique’s best advertisement till the day she died.
While Neil gassed up the Escalade, she headed for the convenience store restrooms. Down the chip aisle and past the Hostess display she wandered, hanging a right at the candy, then a left at the cheesy-dog rollers where she finally spied the ladies’ room beyond the ice cream cooler.
She waited an eternity for a stall, reading packages for the personal hygiene and prophylactic products in the vending machine. Flavored condoms seemed to be a hot seller in West Virginia. A door opened at last and she was stunned to see a size 26 waddle out. The stall held her feminine scent like a old underwear and Tina was glad the space was plus-sized, too.
When she exited, the double sink was occupied by a size 22 trucker doing her dishes. She saw Tina in the mirror and smiled, flattening her ample backside against the wall to make room. She was washing the biggest travel mug Tina had ever seen, attacking it with such vigor her blubbery upper arms wobbled with the effort.
“Wow. That’s a big mug,” Tina said.
“Heh-heh, yeah,” the trucker laughed. “64 ounces. I fill it with coke, just keep icing it down, and it lasts for two days.”
“Wow. That’s something all right,” Tina said.
She sauntered over to Hoagie’s and did some yoga stretches while reading the menu. She really wanted the tuna salad, even though it wasn’t technically a low-fat option, but rationalized it would be okay since she wasn’t getting bread.
She watched the half-dozen customers idly munching their hoagies like cows chewing their cuds, double chins bobbing, bellies bulging over the red Formica table tops. A scrawny girl in a Harley tank top and a bad dye-job glared at Tina, then leaned forward to whisper something naughty to her man, her bare foot rising to his crotch.
Neil appeared at Tina’s side, rubbing his hands in anticipation as he read the menu. “Figured out what you’re getting yet, Honey?” He lowered one hand to her slender waist in a subtle show of ownership.
A size 18 stood behind the sandwich counter wearing a snug purple smock with a nametag that said “Carlean”. She pushed some stray hairs back toward her greasy ponytail with her Saran-gloved hands and took up a knife and a foot-long baguette.
“Welcome to Hoagie’s,” she said. “Can I get you a Hefty?”
“No, thank you,” Tina said. “I’d like a tuna salad.”
Carlean poised the knife to pierce the baguette’s crust. “White or whole wheat?”
“No bread,” Tina said. “I’d like a salad.”
“Oh.” Carlean looked puzzled. “You mean a salad, salad?” She rummaged under the counter for a bowl, and filled it half-way with lettuce.
“Could I have some spinach?” Tina asked.
“We don’t have –spinach,” Carlean faltered.
“Really? You must be the only Hoagies in America that doesn’t,” Tina muttered.
“What was that?” Carlean asked.
“Nothing,” said Tina.
“You want double meat?” Carlean asked.
“Yes, please. I’m hungry.”
Carlean scooped two heaps of tuna onto the lettuce and dug in for more.
“WAIT, NO!” Tina interrupted. “T-two scoops are plenty.”
Carlean shrugged and moved on down the line of fixin’s.
“…olives, peppers, salt and pepper, oil and vinegar,” Tina finished.
“Want dressing with that?”
“Oil and vinegar don’t count?” she asked.
Carlean looked confused.
“No thanks,” Tina said.
“Want to make that a value meal?”
“No thank you.”
“How about cookies? Three for $1.39, fresh today.”
“No, thank you,” said Tina.
"That’ll be $5.30,” said Carlean. “Can I get you anything else?”
Neil ordered his Hefty Italian and a High Top Dr. Pepper.
Back in the parking lot, they munched in silence, she in mincing nibbles, and he in great, greedy gulps. They had an unobstructed view of a rolling Appalachian valley below, and the hills in the distance loomed through the smoky haze.
“God, it feels good to be home again,” he said, reaching for a fistful of chips. “This place is just so –real –the people so nice.”
Tina poked at her salad.
“Aw, Hell!” she said. “Gimme a hunk of that Hefty, will ya? And pass the chips. God I’m starving.” She rummaged through the Hoagie’s bag, tossing napkins left and right. “Didn’t you get any damn cookies?”
The Way of the Buffalo, 2011
Didion Parker zipped across campus on his bronze Vespa, basking in sunlight and stares. Dressed in black from his Tee to his Italian loafers, he worked his public like DiCaprio on holiday, aloof with an air of availability. He hopped the curb in front of the Student Union and parked on the sidewalk, smiling in spite of himself. October’s crisp air and colors stoked an inner fire that threatened his studied cynicism. Doffing his helmet, he raked a rangy hand through his tousled mane and bounded upstairs to the offices of The Dail-E News Feed.
The place was deserted except for Meg What’s-Her-Butt, typing at a common-use terminal – probably writing one of those feeble “Word on Campus” bio-pic interviews Ed always assigned to newbies. Rumor was she’d transferred to Wellham from some lame community college where she did data entry to earn tuition.
Didion had noticed her checking him out on more than one occasion. She was kind of cute in a retro sort of way, but a nose ring or brow industrial would help. That and some tighter clothes. She hid her meager handful under a bulky sweatshirt embossed with her alma mater’s logo. Not even smart enough to be ashamed.
There was no sign yet of Ed, the senior editor. What a sell-out, a business major, of course. Didion would make some changes once he took over The News Feed, which he fully expected to do next year, given the lame competition. He let himself into Ed’s office as if it were already his, calling over his shoulder, “Yo, Meg. S’up?”
“French paper,” she called back.
Didion fired up Ed’s espresso maker. “You can do that later. I have a story that can’t wait. I need your help.”
Meg glanced from her notes to the clock, and back.
“Come on, Meggie,” he coaxed from the door way, staring at her with his squinty Abercrombie eyes, flexing his biceps against the door jam. “You’re such an amazing typist, and I need to beat morning deadline.” The hint of a smile tugged at his lips.
“Meghan,” she said, softly.
“I prefer to be called Meghan.”
“Oh, sorry,” he said. “I didn’t realize. Want some espresso, Meghan?”
“No, thanks,” she said, hoisting a Dunkin’ Donuts cup.
“So how about it?” He straddled a chair and pulled it close to her, fixing her in his azure gaze with his knee grazing her hip.
“Will you help me, Meghan? Please?”
He could see her will dissolving.
“I’ll share my byline with you,” he coaxed. It would be worth it if he could get his story in the morning post and still meet Britney for breakfast.
Meghan sighed and minimized the screen she was working on. “OK. Give me your article.”
“Here are the important quotes,” he said, handing her a single page of bullet points. “The rest is up here.” He tapped his head with the pencil stub he kept tucked behind one ear.
Meghan scanned his notes: Students Unite Against Tyranny. Highlighted passages from a class lecture: N. on the Will to Power…N. on Truth…N. on Politics…N. on the Overman… N. on Freedom.
“Who’s N.?” she asked.
“Nietszche,” he said, winding his antique pocket watch. “The world’s most brilliant philosopher. A man for all times.”
“Nietszche is Peachy…that Nietszche?” She chuckled, turning pages. “My grandfather used to say that, but I’ve never read any of his stuff.”
“Oh, Meghan, you really have led an insulated life, haven’t you?”
She shifted in her chair and opened a new Word window. “Okay, shoot.”
Didion perched on an adjacent desk and lit a Kool Mild.
“There’s a rule against that, you know,” she said, indicating his cigarette.
“That’s for public places,” he said. “We’re alone.” He took a long drag and began spinning ideas in smoke, as if to a coffee house audience.
“Caving to pressure from the Board of Governors, parents, and alumni, the Student-Faculty Council voted last night to revoke a proposed conversion of the co-ed Miller House to a Clothing-Optional Cooperative (COC).”
“Here? At Wellham?” she interrupted. “A nude dorm?!”
“That was the plan, yes,” he said. “Don’t look so shocked, Meghan. Wesleyan’s had one for over a decade.”
She blushed and typed faster.
“With one stroke of the pen, this tiny member of the Wellham community has damned COC to the annals of political repression in the name of social conscience, citing the swell of internet pornography on college campuses nationwide and the growing presence of collegiate sex magazines such as Boston University’s Boink and Harvard’s H Bomb. Yet where is the logic in their paranoia? As the great philosopher Nietszche warned, There are no facts, only interpretations. Furthermore, who is this body of flawed humanity to legislate our mores? Freedom, Nietszche said, is the will to be responsible to ourselves.”
He talked on and on, his words racing through her fingertips.
“Nietszche warned, every specific body strives to become master over all, and, Mighty waters draw much stone and rubble along with them; mighty spirits many stupid and bewildered heads. Now is the time to show that we will not be mastered, that we are not stupid sheep to be led to the pasture of public opinion.”
He ranted for another paragraph and then closed with a public exhortation to action. “Nietszche knew, you will never get the crowd to cry Hosanna until you ride into town on an ass. We therefore urge all students who oppose this reckless denial of our rights to join in a modest demonstration of peaceful protest at the quad this Saturday at noon. Come bare-assed, and we’ll give you an ass to ride.”
He stubbed out his butt and gave Meghan the thumbs up.
“That’s it?” she asked.
“It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what other men say in whole books,” he intoned, quoting his hero.
“I see,” she said. “You can keep your byline.”
“Right,” he said. “Only fair, since I wrote it. Read it back now, would you?”
She did, and he liked it. It was intelligent, witty, and informative. It was a shoo-in for a student journalism prize.
“Thanks, Meg. E-mail it to me, if you would.”
He sauntered back to Ed’s office and downloaded his story into the News Feed layout Ed had prepped the night before. They always set up everything for quick release in the morning after checking last-minute news bulletins – which this story was.
Judging that the Student-Faculty Council meeting was of predominant interest, Didion made an executive decision to move the current front page story on the school’s revised tuition schedule to page two. Surely he had earned the authority as Editorial Assistant. He was doing Ed a favor, really, saving him time in his hectic day.
With a dramatic punch of the send key he posted that day’s edition to the entire Wellham campus a full half-hour before deadline. Grabbing Ed’s monogrammed notepad, he composed a memo in his most artistic script, and taped it to Ed’s monitor.
“Dude – Saved you the trouble of final edit. Thank me later…D.”
Britney was no longer at the dining hall when Didion arrived. None of his crowd was. He’d wasted too much time at the News Feed office. He grabbed a bagel and a bottle of Naked juice, and took his breakfast outside to a bench near his bike. Sitting in the shade of a birch aglow with golden foliage, watching a flock of pigeons scavenge for crumbs, life was good – even if he did have to eat alone.
A pod of seniors exited the Commons walking in the other direction, reading the News Feed aloud from their iPhones. “The pasture of public opinion,” one of them quoted, laughing. It was Troy McCallum, a Lit major who’d been on the News Feed staff two years before.
Yeah, that was a good line, Didion thought to himself, straining to hear more.
“Didion Parker,” Troy said. “Figures. What a pretentious jerk. Doesn’t even spell Nietszche right.”
“Why, sure,” one of his companions said, “Haven’t you heard? Neachy is Peachy. Hah!”
Didion gasped and pulled up the Dail-E-News Feed on his phone, and there it was in black and grey for all the world to see: Neachy this, and Neachy that, like ten friggin’ times, Neachy, Neachy, Neachy. He felt nauseated as Meg’s idiotic comment replayed in his brain. Oh God, was she really that stupid or had she meant to embarrass him?
When he glanced again at the screen it had gone to a 404 Error page. Ed must have discovered the mistake and was fixing it. Excellent.
“Sorry, man,” he texted. “Good catch. Meg’s not as smart as she looks.”
He threw a chunk of bagel at a chipmunk, winging the mangy rodent as it scampered into the road under the wheels of a passing SUV.
An answer pinged back. “We are alone with no excuses ~ Jean Paul Sartre . . .Meg ”
That überbitch! She wanted him to look like an imbecile. That was her plan all along. No wonder she’d told him to keep his byline. She was trying to humiliate him. Why did he have to run into that incompetent, of all people, this morning?
The unfortunate squirrel twitched its tail like a surrender flag, and Didion felt a surge of empathy for this victim of circumstance.
The phone pinged again. An Email from Ed.
“Didion, if you ever hope to work with people, you would do well to study a master delegator like Max Depree, CEO of Herman Miller Office Furniture. The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is servant. You, Neachy, are no more a leader than your little op. ed. essay is a news story. You’re fired for overstepping your authority and harassing another staff member. Remember, Freedom is the will to be responsible to ourselves.”
Didion buried his head in his hands, rocking to ease the cramp in his gut.
“Assholes. All of ‘em,” he yelled to no one in particular. “I can’t believe I have to deal with these morons.”
A gaggle of girls walked past on the far side of the path, giving him the once-over. He scowled at them as a gust toppled the Vespa and sent the pigeons fluttering overhead, raining down a shower of bird turds and birch leaves.
The fall had come for good and all. ~ Imitation Fruit (Aug. 2013)