You’ll Never Be the Same

 

Daybreak. The village of Bethsaida. The air is hot and dry and still. And something is astir. Jesus has come to the “house of fishing”.

You hurry down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Your husband and his brother have been fishing long before daybreak. You carry with you a clay jar full of water and a cloth.

Along the shore are baskets of fish. The village women and merchants have come to purchase the salted tilapia. You know that your husband will reserve some for his family and for the widows. And though there over two hundred boats on the water, you spot your husband’s and his brother’s boat.

At the edge of the water you hear “The time is fulfilled! God’s Kingdom is arriving! Turn back and believe the good news!” Jesus, walking along the shore, is coming toward you.

Trying to get your husband’s attention, you wave. He and his brother are busy casting nets. You shout. “Look! Jesus is coming this way!” Your husband finally hears your voice and turns toward you.

Jesus walks up to you. From the same vantage point he calls out to your husband and his brother, “Follow me! I’ll have you fishing for people!”

At once, your husband and his brother let go of their nets and bring the boat to shore. At once, they begin to follow Jesus along the shoreline. You follow them, two steps to their one, with the clay jar of water. You soak the cloth in the water. With it your husband proceeds to wipe his brow and then his beard to remove the crusted salt – sweat from his brow. You hand him the clay jar. Dehydrated, he gulps half the water down and then hands the jar to his brother.

Further down Jesus calls “Follow me!” to two men mending their nets. You know them – James and John, the sons of Zebedee. The brothers leave their boat and their father and the hired servants behind.

At this point, you’ve run out of breath and are not able to keep up. You call to your husband, “I’m going home. My mother is not feeling well.” Your husband acknowledges but goes on, determined to keep his eyes on Jesus.

As you watch him and the fellowship of fishermen continue down the shore, you remember the words of the prophet Isaiah that were read in the synagogue last Shabbat:

The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame

Zebedee calls to you. “I will have my hired hands take care of your boat. I will sell the fish you husband caught and bring you fish for you and the widows.” You thank him. Carrying the clay jar and the cloth you head home pondering all that has happened. Every woman in Bethsaida knew what Mary had said about Jesus. Something begins to stir in your heart.

An hour or so later your husband and his brother are at the door. They tell you that they are going to Capernaum with Jesus and are not sure when they will return. You give them some bread to take with. Before your husband takes off, you stop him at the door. “Could he be the one? He’s talking about a kingdom. I don’t want you getting killed. What’s his plan?”

Your husband responds. “Woman, there is only one way to find out.”

Sweat runs down his temples to his beard. The midday sun is blazing. You hand him his mantle, which he throws over his shoulder. He races off with his brother Andrew. He calls to John and James who are already fifty paces ahead of them and Jesus is ten paces ahead of them. He wants them to wait up. Your husband is a big man with a big heart and is impulsive to a fault. He takes strides in all directions. And today, you wonder what will become of him and the fishing business as he takes off in a new direction.

On your way home you stop and give the widows the salted fish and to hear rumors. You learn that many were repenting and were being baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, Jesus among them. And that when he came out of the water there was a dove and a large booming voice that said “You are my son! You are the one I love! You make me very glad!” There is so much more for you to ponder.

At home you prepare for Shabbat which begins just before nightfall. You sweep and clean your home from top to bottom. You cover the sales money so it is out of sight. You make sure there is oil in the two lamps.

The night settles in. You eat food prepared earlier. You care for your mother who now has a fever. As you wipe her head with a damp cloth you talk with her about Jesus until you can’t stop yawning. You go to your bed. You are glad that you and your husband sleep in separate rooms, for when your husband sleeps, he snores – a nightly ritual even on Shabbat. Tonight, there will be the moaning of your delirious mother.

As you fall asleep you imagine your husband walking to Capernaum. He would walk two hours in the hot sun. Did he have water? Maybe the journey would take less time with the strides Jesus takes. When will he return …?

 

Your husband and his brother and James and John return the next day. They are all at the door with Jesus. He had been told about your mother and her illness. Jesus goes in, takes your mother by the hand, and raises her up. At once, her fever is gone and she was well enough to feed them. How is this possible, you ask yourself? But there is no time to wonder as you want to feed them all. Your heart is brimming with thanksgiving.

Outside your home there is large crowd – people from all over Galilee have followed Jesus. Jesus goes out to them. People with all kinds of diseases are brought to him and he heals them. Inside, the four fishermen sit down on the floor. You place bread and fish and water before them. As you do you ask them for details of what happened in Capernaum. They all begin to talk at the same time, but your husband has the loudest voice and so the rest wait their turn:

“We went into the synagogue and Jesus began teaching from the scrolls….’

“None of us had heard anything like this teaching before. He has his own authority, “John interjected. The other three agreed. Your husband continues.

“We are sitting there looking at each other astonished by what he is saying. You see that crowd out there. There was a large crowd around the synagogue. The people were pressing in from all sides trying to hear him. Anyway, we are sitting there when all of a sudden this guy starts shrieking “What business have you got with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: you’re God’s Holy One!”

“He had an unclean spirit living in him,” James tells you. As he says this they hear another shriek outside. And another. Andrew got up to see what was happening. “Jesus is casting out those spirits right outside our door!” Your husband continues.

“You know what he said to that unclean spirit in the synagogue?” Wide-eyed, you ask, “What?”

“He says, ‘Be quiet! And come out of him! The man jerked and writhed like a snake and then screamed and then the unclean spirit came right out of him!”

“We were all shocked, “John continued. “Jesus not only speaks with authority, he even tells unclean spirits what to do, and they do it! The demons talk like they know who he is. He tells them to shut up.”

“We know who the unclean spirits are, where they come from,” Andrew added. “They are from Belial, the kingdom of Belial.”

Noticing two centurions keeping an eye on the crowd, your husband asks, “Do you think that the coming kingdom Jesus talks about will rid us of the tyranny of the Roman dogs?

James is quick to respond, “I hope so. Right now, he appears to be overthrowing the kingdom of Belial.”

“I’m good with that!” John chimes in. “Look around. Those spirits wreak havoc on everyone and everything. The Essenes at Qumran have been battling them for years.”

Nodding in the direction of the two centurions, James wondered out loud, “If Jesus has power over the kingdom of Belial, shouldn’t the Romans be shaking in their caligae?”

Your mother, upon hearing this, went out and offered the two centurions water from the clay jar, which they guardedly accepted. She then offered Jesus some and invited him in for a meal and a place to sleep for the night. He accepted.

Very early – the middle of the night, actually – Jesus got up and went out. You woke your husband and he roused Andrew and James and John. They went looking for Jesus. When they found him praying, they said, “Everyone is looking for you!”

“Let’s go off to the other towns around here,” Jesus replied, “so that I can tell the news to people there too. That’s why I came out.”

 

The next morning you hurry down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Men have been fishing long before daybreak. You carry with you a clay jar full of water and a cloth. You want to do what you can to prepare the way of the Lord.

 

 

 

Adapted from Mark Chapter 1

The Dead Can’t Help (Or Hurt) You Now

Having some time off of work this holiday season, I was able to watch the “ghost” TV programs on the Discovery and Travel channels. In doing so, I wanted to see how the supernatural was being depicted. The fact that there are paranormal themed TV programs with many viewers tells me that the metaphysical is still of great interest to people despite the logical overrides handed down from the Enlightenment. With this post I will present my impressions of these programs and offer my perspective.

Impressions: There are several ghost-hunter programs. The hour-long programs show a group of paranormal investigators using electronic devices to track down ghosts. They assume that the phenomena their clients are experiencing are the dead interacting with the living. They will interview those experiencing paranormal activity and search historical records to make their case and to explain what they capture electronically in terms of the dead. Historical records are used to lend ‘credence’ to their assumption – if dead, then ghosts and the phenomena witnessed.

Another show, The Dead Files, goes a step further than the ghost hunter shows while using the same assumptions. Per the IMDB blurb:

An investigative series that pairs Steve DiSchiavi, a retired Homicide Detective with the New York City Police Department with more than 21 years of active service with psychic communicator Amy Allan who has an established sixth sense and an affinity for channeling the dead. In order to not influence the other, the partners initially explore each case on their own. Steve interviews the residents/employees and investigates the history behind the property (prior ownership, murders or other crimes that occurred at or around the property, etc.) to verify the veracity of the claims, and Amy does a walk-through of the building and expressing any feelings, emotions, or other impressions she feels, with any leading items such as photos, personal items, religious items, etc., having been previously covered or removed, so as not to influence her impressions. She also works with a forensic sketch artist to sketch any entities she claims to witness. They then link up at the end to compare notes with those they are trying to help.[i]

The Dead Files would have the viewer believe that Amy Allan has special knowledge and ability. The show opens with her stating “I see dead people. I talk to dead people”. In the Reveal ending of the show, Amy’s findings are ‘corroborated’ by the detective, whose background findings, of dead people and past events, lead the viewer to accept the reality they have laid out. The detective’s findings are always curiously aligned with Amy’s walk-through physic findings, as are their clients. I have never heard her predict the future other than saying to the clients that the dark force she ‘sees’ will kill if them if they stay in the house.

This show, like the others ‘ghost’ shows, attempts to bring resolution to those experiencing paranormal activity. But, again, The Dead Files goes a step further. The detective will turn to Amy for the resolution. Amy will suggest that the clients move or bring in a medium or a shaman or a reiki master psychic to deal with the dark forces.

My perspective: Despite the use of historical records and despite the use of a former homicide detective and investigators, these shows provide no evidence, no causal link, whatsoever that dead people are interacting with the living. These shows deal in assumptions, in circumstantial evidence: if dead then ghosts; if ghosts then the phenomena witnessed (always negative). Evidentiary support is immaterial – literally.

The noises, voices, objects moving, etc. are presumed to be the activities of dead people making themselves known. Paranormal activity on these shows, as I have said, is attributed to the dead and rarely to demonic activity. The premise of these shows is to solve unexplained paranormal phenomena in haunted locations across America … and attribute it to the “familiar spirits”.

That there is no evidentiary support for the dead interacting with the living, a misleading disclaimer is posted during the show. It says, in effect, that nothing depicted in the show constitutes evidence of a crime that would hold up on court. During my viewings I heard no crimes being discussed. The revealing disclaimer tells us that the bad guys, the dead – the shadow figures – provide no material support for their existence (and their maleficent behavior) that would then allow them to be pinned with a crime. I see the disclaimer as manipulation of the viewer, to get him or her to suspend their reason and to accept that there are deeper and specially divined things going on in each episode. What’s more, Amy has studied psychology.[ii] She would understand manipulation using the fear appeal technique[iii].

Manipulation is what is behind The Dead Files. The viewer is led to assume that the dead interact with the living. The viewer is led to assume that Amy Allan has psychic ability to communicate with the dead. The viewer is led to assume that the involvement of a former homicide detective brings credibility to both of the above even though no bit of credible evidence is provided to substantiate the claims made by Amy Allen. As I watch, I am reminded of a shell game that uses psychological tricks to convince potential players of the legitimacy of the game. The three cups set before the viewer are the client’s experiences and the case work of the detective and Allan’s impressions. The ball, the susceptibility of the viewers, is placed under a cup. The cups are shuffled back and forth for almost the whole hour and then, during the Reveal, the ball is found under the Allen’s cup, as the viewer was ‘convinced’ by closely watching the shells. TV entertainment works only if you feel playing the game is rewarded in the end.

As the title of the show predicates, the dead are making themselves known. So, when people contact the show for help, they already assume (and are setup to go along with the scheme) that dead people are doing just that.

Can’t see the forest for the flimflam. During The Dead Files opening the former homicide detective tells us what he knows: “Every home has a secret … every person has a secret”. And the show has a secret. It Is not inconceivable that the detective is wearing a microphone and is recording the interviews he conducts with the spooked clients. This deception would allow the caveat at the show’s opening – that Amy and the detective never speak before the Reveal – to be true while setting up the viewer with a pretense of legitimacy. The two don’t have to communicate when a tape recording, another type of medium which receives ‘impressions’, is recording the phenomenon experienced by their clients. The Amy Allan sketch by a forensic artist could be easily created via the tape-recording impression. The detective details out loud the locations and experiences of their clients during his interviews.

Dead men tell no tales. Why would the dead communicate with Amy or the clients? And what have they been saying? It would appear that the dead are up to no good. In every show I’ve watched, Amy’s repetitive ‘impressions’ from the dead are disturbing and negative – this and that entity wants to unsettle and terrorize the client and may harm them. This show is the New Age version of the Walking Dead.

Based on the words of Jesus, in his story of the rich man and Lazarus[iv], the dead want the living in the heavenly realm to interact with the living in the earthily realm. But that is not going to happen.

In this account, the poor and afflicted man Lazarus died and “was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom”. The rich man also died, was buried and was now being tormented in hell. The rich man wanted Abraham to have pity on him. He asked Abraham to send Lazarus to “dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue! I’m in agony in this fire!”

Abraham makes clear that their situations are now reversed: the poor once-suffering man who was aware of his great need during his earthly life is now being comforted. The rich man who knew all the comforts of the world and was not aware of any need during his earthly existence was now suffering and in great need of relief. The balance sheet of good and evil received by these men had been has reversed. And there was no way the rich man could reconcile the books in his favor, as Abraham tells him:

“Besides that, there is a great chasm standing between us. People who want to cross over from here to you can’t do so, nor can anyone get across from the far side to us.”

The rich man, no longer trying to ply Abraham for mercy for himself, wants his five brothers to be warned so that they will repent and stay away the torture-chamber he is experiencing. Abraham tells the rich man that they have Moses and the prophets. “Let them listen to them.”

Apparently, the rich man, though a Jew and a believer in the God of Abraham, had avoided taking to heart the words of Moses and the prophets during his earthly existence and ended up in torment. So, knowing what he now knows, he thinks a supernatural visitation would do the trick.

“No, Father Abraham” he replied, “but if someone went to them from the dead, they would repent.”

Abraham, again, sets the record straight:

“If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets neither would they convinced, even if someone rose from the dead.”

Even if the dead were raised and went about issuing warnings nothing would change in the brother’s attitude or with their sense of need. They would only be entertained, like the viewers of ghost hunter shows.

(Let the reader understand: The story of the rich man and and Lazarus is not about God favoring the poor and condemning the rich. It is not about materialism or lack of charity or about assigning the poor to heaven and the rich to hell based on their life situation. Rather, it is about each one, whether rich or poor, understanding what they truly need and what is the fulfillment of that need. A great chasm is created when one chooses the righteousness of God, as revealed in Moses and the prophets and ultimately in Jesus and when another presumes a form of righteousness based on a blessed life. Both the rich and the poor have the same challenges as posed by Jesus: “What use is it to win the whole world and lose your life?”[v] and “Blessings on the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours”.[vi])

The dead will have their day to speak before the throne of God. They won’t be speaking on TV.

I don’t doubt that what the client’s experience as related in these ghost shows is real. What is not real and has no supporting evidence is the assumption that the dead interact with living. There is a sense of sentimentality and humanism in assigning the poltergeist phenomena to the dead. And, a sense of dealing with someone your own ‘size’.

If the dead do not communicate with the living, then what does?

Unclean spirits, the Sons of Deceit, have been around since after God called creation good. They know what we know and they have been around to know about the dead. With that knowledge they can play all kinds of mind games with humans. The show’s correct title should be The Demon Files.

The dead are not poltergeists – lost souls caught between this life and the next. The dead do not produce phenomena. Poltergeists are the things that produce the phenomena witnessed by the clients. Poltergeists are the unclean spirits that have existed all around us since the beginning of mankind. They interact with humans, as witnessed by the clients in the shows mentioned above. The Kingdom of the Occult by Dr. Walter Martin provides incite into these unclean spirits:

Poltergeists (demons masquerading as humans) are usually imaginative in creating their manifestations: they slam doors, walk up steps, throw objects around a room, moan, cry, touch people, and materialize as dark clouds, red eyes, figures, or colorful moving orbs of light. If they succeed in catching someone’s attention, they often speak to the targeted individual audibly or through digital recorders, Ouija boards, or automatic writing, crafting tales of tragedy and woe designed to foster sympathy in the hearts of listeners. In some cases, foul smells or ice-cold temperatures manifest along with other phenomena.[vii]

Amy Allan’s impressions and ‘ghost’ phenomena are not from the dead but from demonic spirits. So, Amy Allen’s (and the ghost hunter’s) attribution of poltergeist phenomena to the dead is not helpful. In fact, it is incredibly harmful to the clients and to the viewers as are Allen’s ‘remedies’ to resolve the paranormal activity, discussed at the end of the show.

As mentioned above, Amy’s recommends that members of the psychic community – shamans and reiki masters and the like – be summoned to clear the house of the dark forces. Per Amy, emancipation comes through gnosis – the gnosis of the psychic. Yet, no one should ever invoke those who are in touch with unclean spirits to clear their house. Why would the satan destroy his own work?

Jesus, after casting out a demon from a man, was accused by some in the crowd that day of doing so with the aid of Beelzbul, the prince of demons.[viii] Jesus made it clear that if this was so, if the satan drives out the satan, then the satan’s kingdom would be split down the middle and come to ruin. “But,” Jesus told them, “if I’m casting out demons because I am in league with God’s spirit – well, then, God’s kingdom has arrived on your doorstep!”[ix]

Jesus knew their thoughts. Those who had accused Jesus of working with the satan wanted to rid the house of Israel of him. In this context, Jesus told a parable about the “strong man” – the satan – and the stronger man – Jesus – coming to plunder his kingdom on earth:

“Look at it like this. Suppose you want to break into a strong man’s house and steal his belongings. How are you going to do it unless you first tie up the strong man? Then you can plunder his house to your heart’s content If you’re not with me you are against me. Unless you’re gathering the flock with me, you’re scattering it.”

Why would Satan destroy his own work especially when he can use psychic mediums, shamans and the those who communicate with the ‘dead’ to increase exposure to his kingdom and scatter the flock? And, why use those involved with unclean spirits to clear the house of …unclean spirits? Jesus, in the same Matthew passage above, warns those listening that cleaning their house (the house of Israel) of unclean things and not filling it with God’s spirit will cause them to be worse off.

“When the unclean spirit goes out of a person,” Jesus continued, “it goes wandering through waterless places looking for somewhere to rest, and doesn’t find anywhere. Then it says, ‘I’ll go back to my house, the one I left.’ When it gets there it finds it standing empty, clean and tidy. Then it goes out and collects seven other spirits to join it, spirits worse than itself. They go in and take up residence there. The poor person ends up worse off they were to start with! And that’s what will happen to this wicked generation.”[x]

Satan’s forces may retreat for a time because of some newly found resistance of the owners but repossession comes if the space it left is not filled with Gods’ spirit. What the satan loses one way he may gain another way if we do not react to the situation in the correct way. All hell may break loose.

From a previous post:

“…these spirits are restless and never sleep. These disembodied spirits are able to dwell in humans and animals. We learn that they cause havoc: “the spirits of the giants afflict, oppress, destroy, attack, do battle, and work destruction on the earth, and cause trouble”. They are the ones Jesus casts out (again and again) as he begins His kingdom on earth.[xi]

The unclean spirits – the Sons of Deceit – play tricks. They can appear as angels of the light, making icons weep and troubling the waters. They seek to scatter the flock. They will do anything to keep one’s eyes off of Jesus, the King of the Universe.

Unclean spirits are the demons in democracy, motivating people into wild excesses and having them demand that others be controlled. They revel in taking what is good and perverting it as in the constant and pervasive noise (so-called music) in so many venues today. Read C.S. Lewis’ classic The Screwtape Letters to get a sense of how the demonic spirits work.

From my reading of The Revelation of John, I see demonic activity increasing just before the Lord returns, just as it did in the years before he was incarnated. Anti-Christ forces will increase as they see their day of reckoning coming on. All of the forces of evil, those dark forces in the spiritual world and those who have embraced evil and want nothing to do with God, will do battle against the Lord.

If you are experiencing poltergeists and demonic activity then do not seek paranormal investigators. Don’t play the demonic spirits game. You will only make matters worse. Instead, get a priest and holy water involved. Surround yourself with prayer. And make sure to get rid of Ouija boards, tarot cards and the like that invite in the darkness. The strong man’s armor can be removed but you will have to put on the armor[xii] of the stronger man and be filled with God’s spirit. The dead can’t help you now.

 

[i] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2012511/?ref_=ttep_ql

[ii] https://puzzups.com/amy-allan-bio-career-childhood-net-worth-body-measurements-boyfriend-marriage-divorce-children/

[iii] https://www.psychologium.com/7-ways-to-manipulate-someone-to-do-anything-you-want/

[iv] Luke 16: 19-31

[v] Mark 8: 34-38

[vi] Matthew 5:3

[vii] Dr. Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Occult, Psychic Phenomena, (Thomas Nelson), 244.

[viii] Luke 11: 14-15

[ix] Matthew 25-28

[x] Matthew 12: 43-45

[xi] The Serpent’s Apprentice(s)

[xii] Ephesians 6: 10-18

The Letters

 

September, 2019

My Dear Agnus,

I may be among the last of those who write letters. Handwriting is personal and so I hope my words will be received not as the words of a deacon, but as your brother.

The last time I saw you Agnus, at the funeral for Nicholas, I perceived bitterness behind your grief as we spoke that day. You asked “Where is God in all of this?”

The tragedy that took your son was compounded by his claiming to be an atheist before his death. Together, these events must have caused you considerable anguish.

What succor can any observer give to the one who has suffered such a loss and heartbreak? What comparison of those who have also suffered loss can one make to lessen your grief when your sorrow and pain are profoundly yours, and yours alone? And, imagine, what support a spouse gives to her husband who has suffered profound losses when she says to him that he is better off dead?

Job’s wife, knowing where God ‘was’ in all that had happened, ‘comforted’ her boil-encrusted ash heap-seated husband with “Curse God and die!” In effect she said “Why maintain your notions of God and your devotion to Him when He does this to you?”

Job, also knowing where God ‘was’ in all that he suffered, responded to the “foolish” words with his own reckoning of the situation: “Should we accept from God only good and not adversity?” I wonder at the reckoning of Job, after suffering devasting losses: “the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” Job wasn’t putting a positive spin on his situation. Rather, he was letting God be God.

And what of value are clichés like “time heals all wounds”? The wounds may heal, but the scars remain, as they do for our Lord and Savior. Pain, loss and suffering make their marks, as you well know.

As I write this I have before me the photograph of you and Nicholas at his fourteenth birthday. What joy and promise I see in both of your eyes. How will you remember him on his eighteenth birthday this Saturday?

Do you blame yourself for Nicholas saying he became an atheist? Don’t. I have mentored many such young men. Approaching adulthood, they are dynamic. They believe they know all they need to know and what they don’t know you can’t tell them. They begin to reject familial authority and the fixed rules and identity imposed on them. They will chose a path opposite of what they know. When they receive a driver’s license or go off to college, they believe they can drive off without limits.

Your Nicholas didn’t have time to harden his heart against God. Had he gone on to the university he may have begun to harden his heart, as immature Christian faith is often weaned on the religion of ideology.

The picture I have in my mind as I mentor these young men: they are like the lost wandering sheep that the Shepherd goes looking for. You committed Nicholas to the Good Shepherd as an infant. When he declared himself to be an atheist, the Good Shepherd went looking for him asking “Where are you Nicholas?” The Good Shepherd did not give up on him.

Most likely Nicholas, not yet understanding the nature of God, saw something in the nature of life. The world offers many shiny objects to lure a young man away from the fold.

Be assured, Agnus, that you are continually in my thoughts and prayers. Help me to see through your eyes.

Love,

Tom

 

September 2019

Dear Tom,

Forgive my email reply. My stationery, which I used to thank those who gave flowers in remembrance of Nicholas, has run out except for a mismatched envelope.

Thank you for writing. This past year have been a blur. The loss of my only child and the loss of my marriage the year before has drained life out of me and filled me with wormwood and gall. That is what my new friend Ann calls it.

I saw Nicholas change after the divorce. He became moody and distant. It didn’t help that Bill and I often fought the months before we separated. I was crushed when Nicholas asked both of us “Where is God in all of this?”

I will remember Nick’s birthday with a few friends. They are folk from the church I now attend. They are giving me a memorial tree to plant in my yard.

Agnus

 

October, 2019

Dear Agnus,

A memorial tree is a symbolic and an enduring way to remember Nicholas. What kind of tree did you plant?

You mentioned in your last email that Nicholas was affected by what was going on in his homelife. Changing aspects at home would intensify the growing dynamics in his young life. It would spur him to look elsewhere for greener pastures. But the Good Shepherd knows his sheep and cares for them wherever they run off to.

All that has happened has changed you, as well. Our sister tells me that you are now attending a Universalist Church. This concerns me, as I know of their pluralist beliefs.

How is your health? I worry about you.

Love,

Tom

 

October, 2019

Dear Tom,

I planted a redbud tree in my front yard. I can see it from my chair by the window. My friends from church helped me plant it. They say it will produce rose-colored flowers.

You mentioned the church I now attend. At the church I attended for many years, the one where Nicholas was baptized as an infant, after the divorce no ever one ever invited Nicholas and me over for a meal. I felt judged, unclean and worthless because of a failed marriage. I felt isolated, like I didn’t exist. I felt like a leper.

There was one old woman at that church, I won’t mention her name, who rankled me. She had the gall to imply that what happened to Nicholas was a judgment for my divorce. “These things happen for a reason” is what she said. Why on God’s green earth would someone say this? At that point I had had enough of that can of wormwood. I wasn’t about to lose my sanity and so I looked elsewhere.

Nicholas refused to go to church. He was spending time with his father who also didn’t attend church. Bill said that he has more fellowship on a golf course on Sunday mornings than in church. I don’t even know what fellowship means at this point. My old church had become a valued-members only country club of sorts.

I met the folks from the new church at a rummage sale. They invited me over for coffee. So, I took my baggage and started going to their church.

My health? I don’t sleep. I wake up from dreams so real I begin to cry. I see the old woman and Nicholas standing at the end of my bed. They are turned away and Bill is walking away.

Food and a glass of wine and a few new friends are my only comforts.

Agnus

 

November, 2019

Dear Agnus,

I understand your reaction and your desire to walk away. That woman had no business saying those things. The church, where the lost and lonely and broken should find hope and fellowship and healing, is often the place where the most rejection and hurt is incurred. There are, as you may have encountered, broken people who believe they know the mind of God and can diagnose other’s lives through their own distorted lens. I am reminded of Job’s friends and their counsel.

Now, it may be that this woman had also experienced loss or hardship or heartache and assumed that God was chastening her and that became her frame of reference to project onto others. It may be that, like many in the church, she gets involved with people only viscerally and never enters into a deeper relationship with them. There are those who are not solicitous about a person’s spiritual and emotional well-being as it would involve having to get involved. I don’t want to project any of this onto her or impugn her character, as I only know of her. I don’t know her. One cannot know the mind or intentions of another or the mind of Christ, for that matter, unless they are intimately acquainted with the person. Still, that woman had no business saying those things.

I think many see the church not as a Mash unit where the wounded are cared for and nursed back to wholeness. Rather, they see it as a soapbox for their views. Years ago I left a church where the congregation voted on church matters. That was a nightmare. Many who voted had already converted their political commitments into moral principles. As such, they had become conduits of the world and not of the Holy Spirit.

My main concern is you. How are you holding up? I am glad you found some folks who invited you in. I hope this letter finds you well and in better spirits.

Love,

Tom

 

November 2019

Tom,

I received your letter. The church isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and neither am I for that matter. Maybe the old woman just woke up on the wrong side of the bed that day. I know I did.

These days all my focus has narrowed to getting by day to day. I try to make sense of it all. It seems life is one of those patternless crossword puzzles in the newspaper. There are clues and no structure or a place to start. There are answers that connect at one point but after I work on it the puzzle ends up being a disconnected mismatched jumble. And the solution is a Want Ad.

Now that Christmas is approaching and I will be without Nick, I have a question for you Deacon. Why would God send his son into the world when he knew that his son would brutally die? That is a world of hurt that I know all too well. Why all the suffering? What does it accomplish?

I may get around to buying stationery someday. Right now, email is what I can handle.

Agnus

 

November 2019

Dear Agnus,

I can relate to the crossword puzzle example you gave. More than once I have a puzzle almost completed but there are a few clues that confound me. I have to search to find the word suggested.

You ask a deep theological question that is much like the patternless puzzle. Both begin on a template as a mystery that bids the partaker to search for answers, as you are doing. Mysteries cannot and should not be assessed on their face and be rejected outright as too difficult or pointless.

I have long wondered why Jesus didn’t just come down to earth and feed everyone and heal everyone and keep people from suffering and death. Why did he have to suffer to make things right for the world and then allow suffering to continue?

I have been reading Russian authors for a while now – Chekov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn. What I like about these Russian authors is that they were not afraid to pose deep questions in their works. The things of the spirit were of great importance to them. Their writings depict the torment of the Russian soul especially as it is affected by suffering and loss and evil.

My favorite is Chekov. His writings depict the prosaic side of Russian life and the hopelessness pervasive in the lives of his characters. His stories are not of the Hallmark/Disney sentimentalist twaddle so popular today. He writes the about the way life is without moralizing.

Here, as an example of their writings, I will quote Ivan, one of the brothers in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov:

“And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price.” (5.4.21)

Ivan Karamazov, a deep thinker, poses suffering as a theological problem: if sweet innocent children suffer, how can there be a just God? With this conundrum he reveals what is behind Russian nihilism and atheism he sees all around him – sentimentality and a false sense of sympathy for mankind.

The Russian nihilists and atheists he speaks of see children suffering, so they assume that if there is a God that he is unjust and not worth their time. They walk away from God bearing a hatred towards Him and his divine purpose for life. They take on a false moralism which denies all values including the sacred. They will hold an abstracted God accountable but not themselves. They will not stomach the tears of children nor will they stomach the sacrifice required of them to alleviate the tears in this world. In fact, as history shows, they go on to sanction Progressivist revolutions that create untold sufferings and tears.

Have I answered your questions? No. Not yet. I am relating that the patternless puzzle, the mystery, has troubled mankind since the days of Job. The Psalmists and the wisdom literature authors in Scripture reflect on the meaning of life amidst suffering and hardship and loss. These writings offer clues that suffering can be redemptive as they turn to God for healing and justice instead of indicting him. Maybe the old woman spoke from this perspective.

Each individual puzzle, yours included, can be redemptive as one seeks the Source for answers. The church should be a resource of redemption, of grace and a healing balm. But it is often the resource of sentimentality and a false sense of sympathy for mankind as I mentioned above. There are those in the church who see themselves as prophets, as arbiters of who is right and who is wrong and of the mind of God, like Job’s friends. They think they have the answers to the patternless puzzle.

I’ll briefly mention that along with the problem of suffering there is also the problem of evil. Of the Christian view you are already aware. Jesus suffered death on the cross to defeat evil. His resurrection means new creation. That sin and evil continue is a matter of human’s free will. That suffering continues, Jesus’ resurrection tells us that things are not as they seem – that suffering can be redemptive and that death can be overturned so that new creation can take place. The return of Jesus is when he will put things to right.

I’ll just mention a non-Christian view.

An atheist will revere cause and effect science as the tree of life, as the impersonal source of life. This ‘relieves’ them of accountability. Yet, as mentioned above, the atheist will not see human agency as the mechanism behind the cause and effects of evil. Rather they see themselves as the tormented and not as the tormentors. This is more to say on this subject but would be of no comfort for you now.

How are you spending Christmas? Will you be alone? If so, I will come out. Let me know right away so that I can book a flight. I should have asked sooner.

For your sleep I recommend exercise. It will alleviate your mood and help you sleep at night.

Love,

Tom

 

December 2019

Tom,

I received your letter and your Christmas card. The card is beautiful. Thank you.

Of the things you wrote, that whole ball of wax, I can barely take it in. The church has been both a blessing and a bane to me. Now I see myself as part of the bane. My focus has been on myself and words spoken and not spoken to me.

You and I were raised in a church with petty rules. No dancing, no movies, no talking in church. Remember the sign that hung over the choir loft? Be still and know that I am God. How can anyone be still when so much suffering is going on?

Later I attended a free church where I thought I would be free from judgment. I think it is called grace. No way. I traded the Be Still church for the Shut Up about your problems put on a smiley face and carry on church. I came home depressed and crying so I went elsewhere. I told you about my last church. My last straw is the church I attend now. They accept anyone and anything. They teach universal reconciliation – that all humans will eventually be saved. I want to believe this for Nicholas’ sake but I can’t. Why wasn’t everyone saved and suffering stopped right after Jesus died on the cross? Why is there still evil and trouble in the world. It seems that people must still make a choice to be saved or not. You mentioned free will. It seems that universal salvation would mean that there is no difference between good and evil. Alls well that ends well, I guess is what they think.

They also teach about finding yourself within yourself. I found enough in myself I don’t like. If God thinks like me and the rest of these people, we’re all in trouble. Your letters got me thinking about all this.

Anyway, I sit by the window looking at the memorial tree covered in snow and wonder when the redemption part kicks in. I sit here with this feeling of something gushing up inside me like a flare was set off inside me and I can’t contain it. What could this be?

The church does give me the chance to work at a local homeless shelter. I brought in some of Nicholas’ clothes. I was so happy when I saw a boy wearing the shirt I bought for Nicholas.

Rose said that she is coming out for Christmas. She is bringing her kids. That will be a blessing. There will be noise and life in my home again. I will have to clean the house. This is no vale of roses.

How are you spending Christmas?

Agnus

 

December 2019

Dear Agnus.

Your email was a great encouragement to me. My concerns for you have greatly diminished. I don’t see you being taken in by your church’s pluralism. As you have stated, the church accepts anyone and everything. It teaches all religions as emanating from a divine origin and therefore all religions are true and therefore worthy of toleration and respect and considered on equal footing. As such, the church synthesizes universal principles of many religions to form a universal truth. The church wants to be known for being inclusive. You will encounter all manner of false teaching to make inclusion and toleration possible.

The Universalist church will teach about God and Jesus and immortality and, as you mentioned, that things will work out at the end, that no one will suffer eternal torment. The church implies with their teaching that evil and sin make people victims and therefore no one should have to suffer eternal punishment. Their teaching questions how the redeemed can enjoy heaven while even one soul suffers in hell. The sympathy card is played.

The Universalists are like the prodigal son’s older brother. He deems himself on higher moral ground than his father as he witnesses his brother repenting and returning to their father of his own volition. He believes he deserves the sympathy of his father for just being himself.

Like the atheists I have mentioned in a previous letter, the Universalists have taken on sentimentality and a false sense of sympathy for mankind and imbue it with false moralism and cheap grace. They do not let God be God. Rather, they let a god of their own making, as synthesized from the world’s religions, be their graven image.

But there will be no synthesis of good and evil. There will be no marriage of heaven and hell. In fact, there will be The Great Divorce. If you get a chance, read C. S. Lewis’ book by the same name. As Lewis depicts, the choices we make take us down divergent pathways.  We either choose a path of good that becomes an even greater good as we continue to make good choices and stay on its narrow way or we choose a broad path that leads towards ever greater evil.

In the story you will read of the proud, the stubborn, the willful and the angry.  There are those who demand their rights.  There will be those whose feet hurt them as they walk on solid ground for the first time and there will also be the “bright solid people” who move about the “High Country” without effort.  And finally, there will be those who reject Joy and solid Reality to return to “grey town” on the same bus.

Universal salvation teaching reckons the ‘victim’, the ‘tormented’, as having power over God, as being able to hold God hostage and being able to force God’s hand to enact salvation from eternal punishment regardless of the choices made. This implication is mere sentimentality and nothing more. God gives each what they have desired with their free-will. I’ll quote Lewis from that same book:

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”

 

Now, enough of this talk. My pipe just went out.

It appears that redemption is already “kicking in”. The shirt you provided that boy is an act of redemption and re-creation. You gave new life to the shirt and to the boy, so it is also an act of resurrection. Resurrection is the hope of Christians. You will see Nicholas again. In the meantime, keep doing what you are doing.

What you are experiencing as you sit in that chair by window is what Paul wrote about in Romans. The entire creation, not just you and I and the Russians I mentioned, but “the entire of creation is groaning together and going through labor pains together, with groaning too deep for words. The Searcher of Hearts knows what the spirit is thinking, because the spirits pleads for God’s people according to God’s will.” God knows what is going on inside you by his spirit which indwells you. The spirit is pleading on your behalf so that God will work all things together for good. The Comforter is with you.

Rose will bring the gift I have for you. I hope you receive this letter before Christmas. I am spending Christmas Eve and Christmas day at church to receive the Eucharist. After church on Christmas Day I will be having dinner with a couple my age. Then I will go home and watch Alistair Sim in A Christmas Carol with my parrolet Henry. He’s good company.

Love,

Tom

 

Christmas Eve 2019

Tom,

I received your letter just today. Thank you! Still smoking that old pipe?

And thank you for the wonderful gift. It gave me a spark of joy. Rose says it is a copy of the Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. Isn’t this the same painting that hangs behind your desk?

I am sorry this will be a short email. I have a houseful right now. We’ll talk soon. Maybe you should stop smoking that pipe. You’re 82.

Merry Christmas Tom.

Love,

Agnus

 

January 2020

Dear Agnus,

I see in that painting Father Christmas and the greatest gifts being reconciliation and redemption.

I see myself, as I was a prodigal who returned to the father. The suffering caused by my waywardness to myself and to others, including a loss of dignity and relationship, was redemptive in that I saw myself as I was and in need of the father and his love to put things to rights. My Father in heaven suffered being un-fathered by me for a time but he never changed Who He was in my absence. He never said to me “do this and be that” and then I will accept you back. He did not become like the older brother with his strict moral order as the parable relates. Our relationship, not rules, was his priority.

I see Nicholas being comforted and back home. I see you beholding that scene and being filled with joy.

I will come out to see you in February. At 82 this will be my last trip. My age ‘kicked in’ a while ago, so my travel days will be over after this trip

If you’ll be asking me questions, I will have to bring my pipe.

Love,

Tom

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Annual Meeting

 

Friday

After driving six hours from Chicago, Joe Smoltz arrived at the Splendent Hotel. It was Friday night. An intense two days of meetings would start first thing in the morning. As the Midwest manager of a national chain of appliance stores, he was required to attend the annual “Strategic Management” sessions. The four area managers, when gathered at a bar after previous sessions, called them “Pat ‘em on the head and kick ‘em in the butt” meetings, as the sessions would invariably come down to putting fire in the bellies of the managers with the owner’s version of “Strategic Management”.

Joe found the hotel, an austere looking ten-story structure, in the middle of a high-tech office park. He parked his car and walked into the lobby. The first thing he noticed was the utter cheerlessness of the place. It was like he had walked inside a cube, a sterile cube. The white-walled two-story lobby was empty except for a few chairs, a front desk and a staircase. The massive window on the street side framed the skeletal form of another ten-story building being constructed across the street from the hotel. In the middle of the lobby was a staircase to the second floor. Its design looked as if it had been taken from an Escher drawing. The huge spare lobby had no flair and no ornamentation. There was not a plant or tree in sight. There was only floor, bare walls and the massive windows offering a view unworthy of the windows. One painting, a swoosh of color, hung above the front desk. The place looked familiar to Joe. The owner had chosen similar-styled hotels in the past for their annual meetings. The octogenarian was all business, just like the hotels he chose for their meetings.

“Ugh! Let’s get this over with,” Joe grumbled.

After checking in, Joe rolled his suitcase over to the elevators. The four elevator shafts at the center of the atrium were a vertical column within a four-sided stack of rooms. Between the elevator doors was a sign: “Elevator Testing Today”. That is odd, he thought. “What am I supposed to do with that information? Is something going to happen? Will I be stuck in this thing? What if I one of my service guys went over to a customer’s house and placed a “Dryer Testing Today” sign on one of our customer’s dryer and then he left with no further instructions?”

He thought for a moment and then smiled.

“That would be a great slogan for our stores: “We don’t leave our customers hanging out to dry. No Doubt Dependability!”

Joe pressed the up arrow. He got in the opened elevator and pressed “7”. The elevator closed its doors and began to shuttle him upwards. “Oh, thank God!” he thought, “No elevator music.”

“Hello Joe. Remember me? You’ve led a lousy life Joe. A lousy life. Three marriages and three divorces and countless sexual affairs. Your kids want nothing to do with you. Endless frustration with your lack of self-control. A lousy life, Joe. A lousy life. Go to the tenth floor and …”

Joe shook his head the voice stopped. “You again. Go away! All that is behind me now. I am a different man.”

The elevator door opened on the seventh floor. Joe got out and looked back at the elevator. “Go back to where you came from.”

Joe walked to his room, limping and his head whirring. The constant white-noise chirring in his head began about two months ago. He had thought at the time that the incessant hissing might just be an electrical noise from one of his appliances at home. But when he left the house and sat in his car, the intruding hiss was there. And, it was loud. Joe didn’t know why it had started. All he could do was name it: Tinnitus. And, his knee? The bone doctor couldn’t offer any precise explanation for what was going on with his knee.

“It could be arthritis” he was told after the doctor had taken X-rays and found nothing affecting Joe’s left knee. “Unspecified Chronicity” was written on the exit form. Joe was given a script for an anti-inflammatory pain killer and an order for physical therapy. “The body gives no senior discounts,” Joe thought when he left the doctor’s office, expecting another medical bill.

Using the pass key, Joe opened the door to his room and switched on the light. The hotel room had the same stiff angular character he had seen before in the hotel rooms booked for him for his annual meetings. Lines and boxes. A black credenza ran the length of one wall, from the entrance closet to the curtain. At the curtain end was an angular lamp with a USB charging port. To fill the void above the credenza there was an 85” large screen TV.

“Let’s get this over with.” Joe placed his suitcase on the credenza and hung up his sport coat and pants.

After washing his face, Joe reviewed the hotel services menu on the TV. There was a restaurant and bar just off the hotel lobby. He put on a sport coat and went out to the elevator.

When the one of the elevators arrived, he walked in and pressed “L”. The doors shut and the elevator proceeded down.

“You’ve led a lousy life joe. A lousy life. Three marriages and three divorces and countless sexual escapades. Remember the affair you had with the youth pastor’s wife. And, right in the parsonage? What do you have to live for? This lousy sales job?”

Joe’s tinnitus did nothing to block the disturbing noise in his head. He shook his head and looked at his watch. Maybe the other sales managers had arrived and they would be at the bar.

The dining room was empty except for the rather rotund woman tending the bar. She was leaning against the back bar. Her arms were folded across her chest and she had a scowl on her face. Above her, like three thought bubbles of “Clash”, were three muted large screen TVs showing college football games and a NASCAR race. Joe sat down and ordered a bourbon straight up and a sandwich.

Earlier in his life he would have judged the woman, thinking her repulsive and not worth his time. He would have assumed that the scowl on her face was her way of saying ‘Don’t put me in a box. Don’t mess with me. I’ve been through enough’.

But now, Joe reserved judgement only for himself. He saw her as a woman who needed a mirror that reflected more than this world has to offer.

Joe took a sip of his drink and looked around. The restaurant bar area had the same stark quality as the lobby. There was no artwork and no plants, only space with boxy fixtures against white walls. “A coat of Warm Apricot would warm up this place.”

Beyond the rectangular bar, square tables with stiff chairs were set along the right angle of two banks of windows. The windows faced the same new construction as the lobby. Another ten-story layer of containers being built for get-in-and-get-out business just like this hotel. Joe thought.

The bartender placed the sandwich before Joe. She released her scowl for her only customer. “What brings you to Splendent?”

“I’m here for the annual sales meeting. I am the Midwest manager for a chain of appliance stores.” Joe looked at her. She could see that his eyes were bloodshot.

“Did you come along way?”

“I drove from Chicago. It rained the whole way. My name’s Joe.” He put out his hand.

“Amanda.” The woman reached across the bar and shook his hand.

Joe couldn’t help notice her bare shoulders and the black lace top with sleeves that reminded him of bats. A skull tattoo was on the back of her hand.

“Amanda. That’s a pretty name.” Joe winked at the woman and she squeezed out a smile.

At that moment an Asian couple came into the bar and asked for a table. Amanda told them “Sit anywhere you like.”

Both Joe and Amanda stared at the couple. The young man was wearing a black sport coat and tie and black slacks. The young women wore a black skimpy dress that barely covered her bottom. She was taller than the young man. Her six-inch heels made it so. Both Joe and Amanda looked away when the couple turned and asked for a menu.

Joe finished his sandwich and his drink. He paid his tab and asked Amanda if she was working the rest of the weekend. She said she was. He handed her his business card. “If you need an appliance, I can set you up. I have a store in the area.” Amanda thanked Joe and said that her mom might be interested.

“I also have friends in the paint business. So, if your mom needs to redecorate, I can get her a good price on several gallons of paint.” Amanda looked at Joe and wondered if he was being nice to her so he could sell her something.” She thanked him and put the card in her purse.

Joe got up and grimaced as he placed weight on his knee. He wished Amanda a good night. “Amanda, that’s a pretty name.” He left her a handsome tip.

Joe found his way to the elevator and saw that the “Elevator Testing Today” sign was still there. “Hmmm. Let’s get this over with.” Joe pressed the up button and an elevator door opened. He got in and pressed “7”. The doors closed and the elevator began to shuttle upward.

“Go on Joe. Invite Amanda to your room. She is sweet on you. Did you see how she looked at you when you said her name? It’s been years since you were with a woman. You owe it to yourself. Anyone can go to their room and watch porn. Hook up with Amanda and you’ll have at least one relationship in your sorry life.”

Joe looked over the elevator. “What is it with this contraption? I’ve had plenty of people telling me how I should live my ‘sorry’ life. Do this, be this and not that. And now this elevator from hell. Argh!”

The door opened and Joe limped over to his room. He went in. The constant chirring in his head, the electric hiss, was the only sound he heard. He got undressed and turned on the TV.

After searching for something watchable he found a western. He watched Shane until his eyes closed and sleep and the pain pill overtook him.

 

Saturday

The alarm sounded at 6 AM. Joe shut off the alarm and sat up. “Let’s get this over with.” He got up, showered and dressed for his meeting. He went down to the breakfast buffet where he met Haze the restaurant manager. She was a likeable young woman with a nose ring. She asked Joe if he was enjoying his stay. “Its had its ups and downs so far.” Joe chuckled and decided not to go into detail. “The buffet looks good and the service so far is great. Hazel, Huh? I haven’t heard that name in a long time. I like it.”

Joe filled his plate and sat back down. He hadn’t seen the other managers yet. He wondered if they would arrive this morning. He would have liked to talk with them before the meeting and gauge the atmosphere he would be walking into. Sales had plateaued in his market and that would not go over well. He pondered how he would present his numbers. Two of the managers, the west coast and east coast managers, were vying to become national sales manager. They would cozy up to the owners again this year. Joe had no interest in the position. It meant more travel and being away from home. His only ambition, as he told himself over and over again, was to keep from screwing up his life any more than he already had.

“… I was no angel, that’s for sure. I didn’t know any PK who was. Even Peter, adopted by the Lord, denied him three times. I did the same in my three failed marriages.” Joe felt self-disgust rise up in his stomach. “I had to sit through all of dad’s sermons. Never-ending sermons about never-ending judgment. Getting numbers of people saved from judgment was his business. I wanted to be saved from the sermons and the judgment that grew in the hearts of those who heard the sermons, like that woman who scolded me with “Fly right!” after she learned that dad’s little angel had messed up his first marriage. There was no clemency for a PK, especially not for one who squirmed outside the bounds set by the mini providences surrounding me. They still surround me. Little wonder that I responded with anger and rebellion and with the same black and white judgment of those around me.”

Joe looked at his watch. He had another hour before the meeting started. He got up and grabbed another plate of food and sat down. Haze brought him some more coffee. As she poured a young couple with two children came in and reviewed the buffet.

“Have any kids, Haze?”

“Not yet.” Haze walked over and welcomed the family. Joe returned to his thoughts.

“Mothers birth boys and Fathers birth men,” is what dad often said from the pulpit. But dad didn’t birth me the man. But I understand dad. He was day and night busy with the church …. I followed in his footsteps. But not as a minster, whoa! never as a minster, unless you can call selling a coat of paint as redemption for one’s home and selling a new a washer as salvation from unwashed clothes. Work your passions, work for your family…”

Joe checked his watch again. It was time to head over to the meeting.

Outside the conference room a small buffet was set up with coffee and sweet rolls. Inside the room was a chalk board and an easel pad. The west coast and east coast managers were huddled around the owner and apparently sharing funny stories, as the they both laughed at each other. Someone was writing the day’s agenda on the pad.

The south manager walked over from the elevator and came up to Joe. “What the heck is going on with the elevator, Joe? What does Elevator Testing mean?

“Stick around and you may find out.” Joe shook Roy Lee’s hand. “When ‘d you arrive?”

“Just this morning. I wanted to fly out last night but my flight from Atlanta was constantly delayed due to heavy storms in the area.”

“You ready for the next storm?” Joe nodded toward the conference room.

“My numbers are not stellar. How about yours?

“Same. We better go in and get this over with.” Joe led the way into the room. He greeted the owner and company’s namesake, Archibald Whitlock Sr.

“How are you Mr. Whitlock?”

“Call me Archie Joe. Every year I tell you the same thing. Call me Archie.”

“You’re right, Archie.” Joe turned to greet the other two managers who had taken seats on each side of Archie.

At the table the managers began sharing brief personal updates about family. Joe shared that he waiting to become a grandfather now that all his kids were married. And, that he bought a parrot to keep him company.

Taylor, the west coast manager, burst out laughing. “A parrot? Wow! I bet you have interesting conversations with the bird.”

Joe retorted. “Perot can say Archie Appliances.” With that the owner smiled and called the meeting to order.

Archie began with a greeting and introduced his son Archie Jr., “the company’s new national sales manager”. West Coast and East Coast looked at each other with an expression of “How can this be?” Joe thought the announcement a pat on the head for Archie Jr. and a kick in the pants for those two.

Archie Jr. had a Rod McKuen look about him. Beneath his disheveled sandy blond hair, he bore a melancholic disposition. He wore a turtle neck and sport coat and slacks that must have just been pulled out of the dryer. By his looks it would be hard to take him seriously. Here was Joes’ National Sales Manager and his new boss.

Archie Jr. was handed the meeting by Archie Sr. In a slow ponderous voice, Archie Jr. began by pointing at each word on the flip chart as he spoke it. “Where …Are … We …At?”

“This will be a long day,” Joe thought, “a long lousy day”. The three other managers looked pale and antsy. West coast threw his pen on the table before him. East coast stared at the wall biting his lip. South furrowed his brow and began straightening a paper clip. “When was the next break?” was on each of their minds.

During that morning session that droned on for what seemed a lifetime, the managers learned that Archie Jr.’s background was in finance. He was a numbers guy. And, by the look of his trousers, Joe thought, he didn’t know squat about what they were selling. He didn’t know about the Archie No-Wrinkle Dryer. Joe realized where his thoughts were going and stopped them. He withheld any more judgment, as he had been wrong about so many things in the past.

Then came an endless array of pie charts and Joe grew rankled. He hated meetings to begin with. But pie charts? The business of sales was a relationship between people and not between a red slice of pie and a blue slice of pie. People – him and his customers – don’t belong in pie charts. These charts were like the porn he used to take in – objectifying. Joe sat through the presentation of graphs and charts passively engaged. A growing disdain welled up in him at the thought of his work, his passion, being reduced to a cut and paste graphic.

The group broke for lunch. The managers almost ran out of the room. Each hurried to a quiet corner of the atrium to make phone calls to their stores. After the calls they searched the internet for “Archibald Whitlock Jr.” Their area reports would be required in afternoon session. What else did they need to be prepared for?

Joe went outside for a walk. The conference room had become suffocating. Outside, the whirring in Joe’s head was replaced with the sounds of traffic and construction. Autumn wind buffeted his ears and blew construction dust into his eyes.

Joe had a lot to think about. Archie Sr., who grumbled about every nickel and dime spent, would still ask the managers, “Do you need anything?” But now Sr. was taking a hard line through his numbers guru son who said “Here’s what numbers tell us.” Sr. was silent. Jr. had a spreadsheet. And Joe had prepared for the question “What do you need?”

After almost an hour of pacing the long sidewalk along the hotel Joe headed back to the conference room thinking Here ‘s what I need: Let’s get this over with.

The east coast manager, Charles, began the afternoon session. He had no charts. He passed out a handout showing each store’s numbers for the past year. There were stores that had improved sales and there were stores that were just getting by. He suggested that the slow down at the latter stores was due to many folks in his area dealing with job losses, rising housing costs and high sales and property taxes. He went on to suggest that financing options should be over two years instead of one. He sat down.

The south area manager, Roy Lee, also brought a handout showing his managed stores numbers. Like the east coast area, some stores’ revenue had bumped up and others had plateaued. He talked about the areas that had been hit by floods and hurricanes. Neighborhoods and houses were destroyed. Rebuilding was going on and there was a substantial need for their appliances. Agreeing with Charles, he stated that it was essential that their financing options should be over two years instead of one, as many folks had to wait for Federal assistance and insurance monies. He went on to say that keeping employees was a priority, as they knew the appliances and the customer base. He had to pay higher wages to keep them, thus cutting into the bottom line. He sat down.

Joe was up next. He began by congratulating Archie Jr. on his being selected as national sales manager. Archie Jr. perked up and looked over at Sr., who then winked at him in approval. The other managers nodded, barely moving their heads. Joe began, also passing out a handout.

“What these not-so-stellar figures don’t show are the number of satisfied and repeat customers we have. Warranty repairs costs are down. Customer satisfaction is up. We are getting good reviews online. The upside is that the customers in the Midwest are happy with their Archie Appliances. The downside is that because the appliances work so well repeat sales have long a long turnaround. So, for new sales, I am working with housing developers to have them place our appliances in new homes.

Joe then proposed refrigerator magnets with an 800 number and the slogan: “We don’t leave you hanging out to dry. Appliances and Service You Can Depend on.”

He went on to say that he visited the factory in the past year to learn how the appliances are made and to hear firsthand about warranty issues. He said that he goes on installation and service calls as often as possible. He then turned his laptop screen to face the group. On it was a slide show of clients standing next to their appliances, all with big smiles. The last photo was of Perot. “And this is my communications director.” With that the three other managers moaned. Archie Sr. smiled once again. Archie Jr. looked perplexed at first and then he eked out a smile

Before he sat down, Joe said that he agreed with Charles, the East Coast manager, about the cost of living and making financing a priority. “The Chicago area, in particular, has very high property taxes. Many people are just getting by.” He turned to the South Area manager, Roy Lee, and said that he agreed with him about keeping experienced employees. He stated that employee satisfaction was just as important as customer satisfaction. Wages also had to go up in his area. Joe sat down.

The west coast manager, Taylor stood up. “How do I follow Perot? Good points, each of you. Here are my numbers.” He proceeded to pass out his report.

“I’ve included a forecast for this next year. The demographics of my area show many lower income folks are moving into the middle class in the areas I listed. The federal tax break has given them some buying power. As they move up, they want to upgrade and buy appliances. The financing Charles and Roy Lee both mentioned is essential for my customers. They want to build their credit rating. By giving them flexibility in financing that can happen. We should also update our nationally televised commercial. My wife Betty says it lacks verve. Maybe the commercial can say “You know you have arrived with Archie in your home”. The spokesperson could be a butler named Archie and there is a cartoon parrot which says “Archie Appliances at your service.”

Joe said a loud “Yes!” Charles was excited too. “Yeah, that might work. There are plenty of annoying spokespeople on commercials right now. But, adding an animal would make sense. People love animals.” Roy Lee saw his chance to voice his approval. “What we have on TV now is a failure to communicate.” The group looked at Archie Sr.to see his reaction. His face unchanged, Sr. looked over at his son. Jr. was biting his lip. No comment.

Taylor continued.

“I like what Joe said about the housing developer market. That will bring new sales. They will of course want discounting for the quantities involved. And, Roy Lee, you are right about our employees. Perhaps we can offer them help with regard to health insurance. We should be able to work with a health care provider to lower our costs because of the number of employees we have nationwide. I see growth but it will take some new initiatives to make it happen. Taylor sat down.

Archie Sr. stood up. “Thank you for your reports and your comments. You have given me a lot to think about. How about you Archie?”

“I learned a lot today. I have a lot to think about.”

Archie Sr. adjourned the meeting by saying that tomorrow his son would present a solution to one of the issues addressed that afternoon. Outside the conference room, the managers gathered in one corner of the atrium to talk about the night’s agenda: dinner and then a gentleman’s club. Joe said, “No, thanks. Been there, done that.” He’d see them in the morning.

Joe returned to the conference room to talk to Archie Jr. Archie Sr. came over to Joe.

“Joe, I was impressed by your presentation.”

“Thank you, Archie.”

“Joe, I’m getting too old for this game. Today proved to me again that my ways are …dated. Fifty years ago my passion was to own my own business. I worked all kinds of hours to grow this company. And, I had to provide for a growing family. So, I didn’t have much time to fool around, as they say. I was very demanding of those around me. Failure was not an option. Archie, here, took the brunt of my time away from home. And now I’m a tough old codger who can’t change my ways …Well, you know me and the background of this company, Joe. I’ve told startup story hundreds of times. I brought Archie on to pass the mantel to him when I retire in six months. I would like you to take him under your wing and show him the day-to-day business during this time.”

Joe watched Archie Sr. put his hand on his son’s shoulder. Was he asking Joe to birth the man?

“I’d be happy to, Archie. In fact, I came back to ask him to come to Chicago and spend some time at the stores there. We can also take a trip to the factory in Indiana. I can show him how we build what we sell. He can meet the people who build our appliances. He can see firsthand what goes into the manufacturing costs.”

“Excellent. Archie, you up for that?’

Jr. looked at both men and saw them looking back at him. “Yes, sir.”

Joe then asked Jr. if he would like to join him for a drink later. Jr. said he would. Joe, famished from not eating lunch, dismissed himself.

“See you in the AM Archie. I’ll see you later Archie.” Joe walked over to the bank of elevators. He noticed the “Elevator Testing” sign was still there. He walked over to the front desk.

“Are they still testing the elevators?’

The woman at the front desk said she would call her manager and find out why the sign was still there. Joe thanked her and returned to the elevator. “Let’s get this over with.”

Joe pressed the up button and a door opened. He got in and the door closed and began its shuttle upward.

“Joe, remember all the times you spent at gentleman’s club …the times you enjoyed women and wanted them. Remember the lap dances and the prostitutes you made love to. Go on. Go out with those guys, Joe. Nobody will know. Besides, all you have in your life is a parrot. This guy you are meeting later is a milquetoast. You need to be around real men. Go on, joe. Go on. It is normal. You need it.”

The elevator opened on the seventh floor. Joe got out. The whirring white noise in his head was oddly comforting to him right now. In his room he washed his face and changed his shirt. All he could think of was eating, so he hurried and went out. A cacophony of voices rose up from below. He looked over the railing.

On the atrium floor entourages in colors chosen by brides and newly-classified monochromatic men converged. It was Saturday night and marriage receptions were taking place. It occurred to Joe that on every Saturday night of his annual meetings, wedding receptions took place in the hotels chosen by Archie Sr. Was it coincidence?

He took the elevator down. Some the wedding party rode with him, thankfully, Joe thought.

Crossing the lobby Joe saw Archie Sr. sitting in a chair. His Wall Street Journal was lowered. He was taking in the flourishes of human activity surrounding him. Joe only knew Archie Sr. from their annual meetings and his phone calls to Joe. This was new impression of Archie and made Joe rethink his boss in terms of being human. Apparently, the prosaic old codger needed more than numbers could supply.

As Joe crossed the lobby he noticed signs posted. “Welcome to the Reception of the Nuygens” “Welcome to the Reception of the Hobarts” “Welcome to the Reception of the Clivens. The Splendent was no longer an empty shell.

Joe’s stomach growled loudly. He entered the bar and sat down. Amanda greeted him with a drink napkin.

“Long day? Bourbon up?”

“Yeah, yes, please. It started out lousy but things turned around. One more meeting and I’m going home.”

“Where’s home?

“Chicago.”

“I’ve heard they have great pizza there.”

“Yeah, great pizza and great hot dogs. You can tell by my potbelly. Say, something is different about you”

“I changed my hair. It was black and I returned it to its natural red. I asked the hairdresser to give me a more relaxed look. I thought I looked a little too severe before.”

“It’s a great look for you, and that smile wasn’t there last night.”

“Yeah, change for the better. What can I get you?’

“I’ll have the rib-eye and a cup of soup.”

“Coming up.”

Joe looked around. An older couple sat at a bar table watching the football games on the screens above the back bar. Other than the couple the place was empty. Sitting there it was easy for him to recall the many times he sat in bars alone during his road trips. It was easy for him to recall what he did when felt isolated and alone. Thinking about It made him sick inside and anxious to get home and back to work.

He checked his phone and found a message from Kim. She sold a washer/dryer unit to a young couple. They were expecting to meet Joe when it arrived at their home. Here was something he could bring to the table tomorrow.

Amanda brought his drink and said she would return with the soup.

The bourbon, double-oaked, went down smooth. Sitting and the strong drink helped to lessen the pain in his knee. He had hobbled from his room to the bar. The soup arrived and Joe asked for another bourbon. After a couple of minutes, the steak arrived. He had to slow his eating. He was so hungry he had woofed down his soup.

As he finished up, Archie Jr. arrived and sat down next to Joe.

“Did you eat, Archie?”

“Yes. Thanks. I went to dinner with dad …someplace nearby.”

Amanda placed a drink napkin in front of Archie. “What can I get you?”

“A glass of Chardonnay, please.”

Well, Archie, your dad must have a lot of respect for you to make you the national sales manager and eventually the CEO.”

“Yeah, well, maybe. I am the oldest and my two younger brothers joined the Navy. So, to keep the business in the family, I was the chosen one. I was initially looking at a career in mergers and acquisitions.”

“Your financial background will be a boon for this company. Each of us managers are so busy making sales and running the store operations that the books are not given their due diligence. “

“Well, I have an idea that I will share tomorrow. I’ll want your feedback.”

“You’ll get it. By the way, how do you like this hotel?”

“It serves it purpose. There is nothing charming about. It is rather cold and business-like for my tastes. I see of a lot the same minimalist thing in LA. – expose the essence of a subject through eliminating all nonessential forms, features, or concepts. Minimalism uses the fewest elements to create the maximum effect.

“Are we the subject?”

“I think the architect is the subject.”

“Non-essential features? Like a coat of warm gray paint on the walls and terra-cotta floors?

“The colorless the better for the unforgiving minimalists.”

“Minimalist, that’s the term for it? How do you know this?”

“I read Architectural Digest. Architecture is kind of a hobby for me. Helps me to refocus. Numbers are unforgiving too. I like classical forms and not the stark boxes being built today. And, this hotel is the latter.”

“Fascinating. I have a lot to learn. Archie, I hate to cut this short but the steak I just ate is making sleepy. It was great getting to know you better. I better head up to my room and get to bed. I have a long drive home tomorrow after our meeting.”

“I appreciate your meeting me for a drink, Joe. I was fairly certain that the managers would be very upset by my father’s announcement.”

“Well, I, for one, think it is a change for the better. I’ll see you in the morning.”

With that Joe paid his bill and told Amanda that it was nice meeting her. He then hobbled back to the elevator. The whirring in his head was replaced by the loud music coming from a wedding reception. The throbbing in his knee and the “Elevator Testing” sign were still there.

“Let’s get this over with.” Joe pressed the up button.

“Joe, Joe, lousy -life Joe. You want flair in your life. You can make it happen. Otherwise you might as well take your boring lousy life up to the tenth floor and toss it off. Your friends and family have abandoned you. You’re a worm in their eyes. They would have forgiven you if you were forgivable. The lousy life you led is unforgivable. You are left to your own devices now, Joe. Joe, Joe, lousy -life Joe.”

The elevator opened on the seventh floor. Joe exited and held the door open. “Your day is coming …minimalist.” Joe let go of the door. “Joe, Joe, lou …”

The party’s music reverberated up to the seventh floor. And we can build this dream together, Standing strong forever, Nothing’s gonna stop us … Nothing’s gonna stop us, nothing’s gonna stop us now.

In his room Joe took his pill and went to bed thinking about everything that transpired that day. Soon, thoughts of his past crept in … He didn’t need a voice to tell him that he had lived a lousy, roguish and profane life for many years. There was Joe by day and Joe by night for a long time. That was until he had a breakdown. Then he made long overdue changes …

That night he had a waking dream. He had committed suicide and knew that he would know he had committed suicide for eternity. Nurses would come and look at him in lying in bed. They would wrench their faces in horror and run in terror. Joe would sit up in bed and make faces at them and mouth words. But they couldn’t hear him and were scared off.

Joe woke up and looked around the room. Whirring. Only whirring. He laid his head back down and fell back to sleep.

Then another dream. Joe was on a stretcher being lowered down. His friends were lowering him down. When they stopped Joe felt a hand on his head and heard “Friend, your sins are forgiven. Get up and walk.” His friends were not happy at all. They wanted a different outcome. But Joe felt elated.

Then the alarm sounded.

 

Sunday

The next morning the hotel was still and the hiss in Joe’s ears pronounced. The wedding guests were sleeping. Joe opened the room’s curtains. He could see the boxes where people worked.

The coffee maker started Joe got in the shower. The dreams, both so vivid, colored his thoughts as he showered, shaved and dressed. He put on his sport coat and headed downstairs to the breakfast buffet.

Exiting the elevator, Joe took a few steps toward the lobby and then stopped. He turned and noticed that the “Elevator Testing” sign was gone. He went over to the front desk.

“I see that the “Elevator Testing” sign is gone.

The young woman at the front desk told Joe that someone had come early in the morning and had removed it. She was told that one of the elevator service men had left it behind on Friday after they tested the elevators. A lot of people had been asking about it, so her manager made a call last night.

Joe smiled and thanked her for taking care of it. He told her that he would be checking out later that morning. His next thought was breakfast. The smell of bacon was in the air.

At the breakfast buffet in a large room next to the bar Joe saw Haze. Her cheerful smile was a welcome sight.

“Good morning Joe. Coffee and orange juice?”

“Yes, thank you.”

Joe began to fill his plate. He decided that he wouldn’t eat again until he got home that evening.

Haze brought the coffee and juice to Joe’s table.

“You’re from Chicago?”

“Yes, do I look the part?”

Haze laughed. “No, Amanda told me. She mentioned that she got to know you the past couple of days.”

“Yes. We talked. I go to know her a bit.”

“She said that you sell appliances …Archie Appliances.”

“That’s right.” Joe pulled a business card from his coat pocket and handed it to Haze.

“Do you sell kitchen equipment to hotels? Corporate is building a new hotel near the airport next year.”

“Yes, we do. We offer commercial ranges, broilers, fryers, ice machines, freezers, hoods, ovens, bar refrigeration. Have them call me.” Joe handed her several cards. “We work onsite with the contractors who install the equipment. The website shows all of the equipment well offer. The prices shown are individual prices. We can bundle the equipment and offer a discount.”

“Wow! Thanks. I’ll pass it on. In our last meeting I told my manager that our chef was not happy with what he had to work with. Apparently, the last time, somebody had purchased the equipment without talking with him.”

“Here’s another card. Have the chef call me and we can talk about what he needs. Oh, and I have friends in the paint business. They can offer great paint at great prices. Have them call me and I can make it happen.”

“Will do. More coffee?” Joe said and yes and then noticed Charles and Roy Lee walk in. They looked in bad shape. A few moments later Taylor straggled in. All three looked hungover. Haze greeted them and asked if they would like a table. They noticed Joe and said that they would sit with him.

The three brought their plates of food over to Joe’s table and sat down.

Joe greeted them. “You guys look in bad shape. Did you paint the town last night?”

“Yeah,” Charles rubbed his forehead, “Taylor is on west coast time. He wanted to stay out later,”

“These annual meeting are killing me.” Roy Lee was pinching his temples.

“It was the five Southern Comforts you had at the club …” Taylor held his stomach until the nausea passed. “You were so lit up last night, Roy Lee, that you kept saying that you heard voices in the elevator. You …” Taylor stopped when the nausea came back. “Uhhhgg. Ishhhh-kabbible.”

Charles continued for him. “You freaked out when you saw that sign by the elevators. You said we were all gonna die if we took the elevator. You wanted to take the stairs up to the sixth floor.”

“I think I did die. I feel like death warmed over.” Roy Lee moaned.

Joe knew how they felt. He had had many mornings feeling as they did. But today, his head wasn’t pounding.

Haze came to the table and asked if they would like more coffee.

Joe said yes. And then seeing his chance to rub it in he said, “Maybe these guys would like a Bloody Mary.”

Each of them waved off the offer. Charles said, “Hell, no,” and continued.

“I am not looking forward to another meeting with our new National Sales Manager. The guy drones on and on.”

Taylor agreed. “I don’t think I can sit through another three hours of that guy. We are supposed to end at noon. We have planes to catch and, Joe, you have a long drive home.”

Roy Lee, who looked about ready to pass out, said they should tell Sr. that the three of them got food poisoning last night and maybe then Sr. would let them go early.

Taylor chided Roy Lee. “Maybe we can tell him that we all died in an elevator crash and that we just returned from the dead for the meeting.”

Joe laughed. “You guys look the part.”

While the other three were finishing their breakfast, Joe said he had to finish packing, He settled up with Haze and said goodbye.

“How was your stay, Joe?” Haze asked.

“The food was good. The service was great. The people here made all the difference. It was nice meeting you and Amanda. You have my card. I can come down and meet with your chef and corporate to talk about what they need. It was great meeting you.”

“It was nice meeting you, too,” Haze replied. “I hope your knee gets better.”

With that Joe hobbled back to the elevators and to his room. He packed his things and rolled his suitcase over by the door and headed downstairs for the nine-o’clock meeting.

At the conference room just off the atrium, Joe saw the same small buffet with coffee and sweet rolls just outside the room. He decided to pass on more food. Inside, Archie Sr. and Jr. stood talking. Nothing was written on the flip pad except a phone number.

When Joe walked into the room Archie Sr. greeted him. “Joe, how’d you sleep? The music was so loud I couldn’t until after two.”

“Yeah, the music was loud. But the pill I take for my knee must have knocked me out.”

“Knee trouble, huh? My wife’s got issues with her knees.”

Archie Sr., seeing his three managers dragging their feet as they walked across the atrium to the conference room, said, “The music must have bothered them, too. They look worn out” Archie Sr. looked over at Jr. “Maybe we should finish up early so these boys can be on their way and get some rest” Joe couldn’t help but smile.

With the four managers seated, the meeting commenced. Roy Lee sat with his elbows on the table and holding his head in his palms. Taylor sat back in his chair rubbing his stomach and looking at the trash can. Charles kept twisting his head and neck. Joe sat there trying not to look at the other three managers. If he did, he would break out laughing at the hilarious situation that Archie Sr. had presumed.

Archie Jr. began, this time sounding more self-assured.

“I heard what you said yesterday about financing. As you know large home improvement retailers sell everything from hardware and paint to appliances and yard goods. They offer a credit card and financing is handled through the card. The card keeps them coming back. I propose the same financing with an Archie Castle Card. ‘Castle’ because your home is your castle. The card could be used to purchase our appliances and could also be used to purchase home furnishings and remodeling at our other family stores, Archie Accents, run by my sister Analise.”

Joe interrupted. “That’s a great idea. And, I have a friend in the paint business. He has stores. Maybe his stores could be tied in with this card. Then a shopper could paint their castle.”

Archie Sr. looked over at Jr. “Check out what Joe is saying, Archie. We could bundle home purchases and roll out discounts and financing through the use of the card.”

“Will do.” Archie Jr. began again.

“I heard what you said about our TV commercial. It is rather lackluster. I will talk to our ad man and get something going. You guys will be the ones to approve it.”

Hearing this, the three otherwise silent managers perked up.

Charles took his hand from his temples to say “Now we’re talking!”

Archie Sr., seeing his three lethargic managers, told Jr. to keep going.

Jr. went on to talk about a health insurance plan that might work for their number of employees. He mentioned setting up the employees with an IRA and the company matching a percentage of the employee’s salary into their account. “Employees are our greatest asset. They know what we sell and they know the customers.” Jr. went on to talk about the sales numbers for the past year and to say “going forward, the numbers will take care of themselves if we do right by our customers and our employees.”

“Lastly, the number on the flip chart is my personal number. Call me with any concerns.”

Archie Sr. stood up and thanked his son. He walked around the table and shook the hand of each manager telling each one to “Work with my son. Give him the benefit of the doubt.” Then, to the group he said “Roy Lee has invited us to Charleston for next year’s meeting. I am looking forward to that. I’ll get some more golf in. Have a safe trip home.”

The four managers exchanged “goodbyes” and headed on their way. Joe went to his room, grabbed his suitcase and breathed a sigh of relief. The meetings were over. And, the hotel Roy Lee would pick would be quaint and comforting and not business as usual.

At check out Joe was asked about his stay. Joe commended Amanda and Haze for their great service.

Joe drove home with his head whirring, his knee throbbing and with fire in his belly. He would again drive past fields of corn and soy beans and wind turbines. He would once again pass the large black billboard with white letters that read, “HELL IS REAL”. Back in Chicago he would pick up Perot from his former paint business partner Bill, who watched the bird while Joe was away. He hoped Bill had not taught Perot any of his curse words. He really hoped that Bill had not taught Perot the pet name Bill once had for Joe: “Good times Joe”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

Insider Knowledge

Maybe you’ve encountered me. I like to be noticed. I am that passing shadow and that clipped voice in a box that spooks the ghost hunters on their TV programs. I’m the cold presence they encounter. What did they expect? I have no molecules to bounce around inside of me to keep me warm. I love absolute zero and the limelight doesn’t affect me as does, you know, the searing light. I dwell in the dark recesses of the universe and come around to revel in the revolting. And, more importantly, to tell people what they want to hear. That is my specialty.

I work with psychics and with those who presume to hear from the dead. And with philosophers. I am the lifeline for their game show. And, what a game it is: humans ante up their souls so they can win esoteric knowledge. What a piece of work is man! Little wonder that Hamlet is one of my favorite plays.

Who could ask for more? Murder, revenge, a ghost, hemming and hawing soliloquys, a disloyal mother, friends with secret motives, suicide, poison, madness, carnage, and a morose and grieving Prince. You know Act One. Prince Hamlet’s friend Horatio, along with two sentries, is visited by a specter that resembles the late King Hamlet. Learning of the visitation from Horatio, Hamlet resolves to see it for himself and make his own judgement. He knows that my Master likes to deceive the grieving with familiar forms. When the ghost appears to Hamlet, he tells Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother Claudius. Hamlet must avenge his death. In the moment, Hamlet agrees to avenge his father. After being sworn to secrecy about all he has witnessed, Horatio says the encounter is unbelievably strange. Hamlet tells Horatio to welcome the strange as he would a stranger. How inclusive!

Then, reminded of his time studying in Wittenberg with Horatio, Hamlet tells Horatio that “There are more things in heaven and earth, my friend, Than are dreamt of in our philosophy”. That’s where I come in. The play ends as it should – bodies everywhere. Let the good times Roll! Left to his own devices, man is a piece of work!

Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this. I communicate to the spiritualists and theorists what I know. It is easy. I’ve been around for a long time. I know things that have happened. I’ve heard what everyone else has heard. Someone dies and I can speak to medium about what I know about him or her. I can play dead. What fun! This knowledge works well with the ghost hunters. I toy with them. Ha-ha-ha! There have been many times when humans think that they have felt spiritual forces. But it is just a bunch of emf. But I’ll take credit for it. I like the attention.

Speaking of attention, I’m the one that pushes and scratches those who live with me. I infest house and lives …and ideologies. Some will sweep me out of their lives for a time but I come back with new tricks and new guises. I can take on many forms, or, I should say, personas. History has recorded my work.

Maybe you know me as “The end is what you want and the means is how you get it” Saul Alinsky or as “Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime” Lavrenty Beria. Maybe you know me as the positive materialist who holds that all things, including consciousness and mental state, are the result of material interactions. I am quite involved in those material interactions. The pursuit of happiness, whether by idealism or material necessity, doesn’t happen without immaterial me.

Now, I don’t need to work with atheists. They are already on the right track. They have their reason and no need for the likes of meta-physical me. The conditions of their everyday existence are proof enough that there is no God. So, they resign themselves to the laws of nature and adapt to them and give way to those laws. They end up lonely and pounding their head against the wall. I don’t have to get physical with them. They do it to themselves.

The atheist cannot prove the beauty of a woman, yet, he will demand proof of the Antagonist’s existence from his minions and that is where I come in. How so, you ask? Alinsky said it best: “Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.” Seeing the Antagonist’s minions foul up with my help, the atheist becomes all the surer that his or her descent into pure reason is where he will find answers. And, once he or she dons implacable autonomous reason (I’m thinking in Halloween terms) they won’t need to get involved with the gooey and merciful Antagonist. I’ve already been there and done that. Things didn’t work out in my favor. But you Atheists, hang with me and before you can snap your fingers three times, you will put on the Imago de Diabolus, the likeness of my High Master. “Will you win his favor?” you ask.

I may be cold-hearted but my Master, his disposition colder than Absolute Zero, warmly welcomes the proud self-assured atheist.

My Master knows that atheists cannot accept mysteries unless they are solved in a movie or at the end of a book, or solved before their very eyes. My Master knows that they refuse to hold in tension any thought which presents itself outside of cold logic. Because of their wonderful quality of unending skepticism, they revere solipsism, science and reason, and the readily explainable. My Master is their lifeline in this game. He explains everything right when they need it. No waiting. The Antagonist draws things out into mystery and keeps you on hold indefinitely.

Some of my best work is done with humanists and social scientists. I use Progressive ideology along with consensus and sentimentality to persuade them into thinking that humans are perfectible, that one day man will reach the pinnacle of human perfection because of their exalted efforts (and if only they were in charge). Their motto: Fortschritt, Fortschritt über alles! (nb: I am working on the chosen people as I pen this.)

The young and inexperienced are the best targets for, ahem, smoke and mirrors. They dream of happiness, regeneration, of utopia. Like moths to a flame, they gather around the prophets of secular humanism. They did so for Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. These heroes of the religion of Revolution offered the utopia of uniformity and universality. They delivered on their promises. Humans were uniformly and universally dealt with, just as I had hoped. Healthcare is my newest moth-gathering flame. Control healthcare and you control people. Another Alinsky saying.

And that is how I work the old – with offers of healthcare. But some of the old are already set in their Antagonistic ways. If they refuse my offers of help then I say ‘He that is not with me is against me’. I walk away and shake the dust off of my Ways and Means Handbook.

The Antagonist has many followers in name only. I call them FINOs. They are fine with a religion without evil. Ha-ha-ha! They even believe in universal salvation! I love it! These FINOs love the amorphous and homogeneity above all else. They are not much different than the Progressive humanists and social scientists. And though they congregate differently from them, the FINOs also believe that there are no limits to human perfectibility. Therefore, they do not oppose the forms of culture I offer.

Kudos to the humanists, the social scientists, the FINOs and the central planners who work to fulfill the mission statement of My Master: reduce humanity to a state of uniformity and universality – the brotherhood of man and all that. And that is why I sow seeds of discontent. I stir up the pot, so to speak. How better to create a unity of the disgruntled than to divide humans into “me, good and you, bad” groups. Again, Alinsky best described my ways with the unwilling and obstinate: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. And of course, I get them to see that difference means hierarchy and all hierarchy is oppression, especially the hierarchy of that realm of hideous and cruel light.

Lawlessness is the only proper response to hierarchy. So, I want you to banish all law-enforcement, judges, priest and pastors, et al. from existence and to unleash the gates of …prisons. You shall know me and my ways and you shall be free.

Of course, I cannot recommend the Antagonist to you. As the Master’s muse I can only sing the Master’s praises. But I do commend the fact that humans have wills and make choices. This makes my job doable. For with the right choices, one can reach the perfection I have planned for them.

Caveat. I don’t deal in consequences. I don’t have to. Humans let the chips fall where they may. They are inclined to do what they feel and to not pay attention to consequences. I am good with that. In any case, they will end up blaming others or society or the Antagonist for their problems. Ha-ha-ha! What fun!

I’m in my element when I create dilemmas – no escape dilemmas. The only solution being to beat one’s head against the wall or the revolver. Either solution will have you blaming the Antagonist and asking “Why am I here?” I’ll tell you why once you stop beating your head against the wall.

You are here to know the power to control others that is available to you. And, I am not just talking witchcraft and magic arts. You’d be interested to know that I am also talking social-economic-political power. And if you are hungry, I will offer you socialism and the brotherhood of man to feed you. If you fall down and break something, I will offer you universal healthcare. It pleases my Master to give you good things and …to remove the confusing things from your sight.

As a non-binary values adjuster, I alter signs and symbols and any of the inherited forms and distinctions associated with the Antagonist. I offer a new sacred ordering of things. One recent example.

Just last week a transgender cyclist won a woman’s cycling championship. And this was not the first time. Ha! The other women in the race whined of unfairness, saying that science was on their side and that men have a physical advantage over women. But science and reason have nothing to do with it. The ends, a new sacred order of things, justify the means – out-cycling your opponents. And what right do they have in reproaching the champion? None! The champion was right to call them out: “You have an irrational fear of trans women.” Ontology trumps anatomy!

“Deal in lies?” you ask. Of course, one should deal in lies. With lies you don’t cross a line. You move the line that someone else put there. With a lie you create a safe space for yourself. Very utilitarian. You can now do this online.

Social media is a Master-send. So, I try to claim every square inch of screen I can. For one thing, I get women to expose themselves on social-media. And why not. Social mores are oppressive, created by dead white men. And by now you know that self-image is a very important part of being on social media. It is also in my line of work. When you are not showing pictures of the food you are eating or pictures of your bikini-self, you will want to portray your ever-day respectable self as you call out others for their evil ways. Be prepared, though. Some on social-media will want to tear down your self-image. Be in their face to protect your self-image. Demand affirmation of yourself against all hearsay.

Enough about you. It is Halloween. I have to diddle some Ouija Boards and knock on some wood at seances. You know. The usual tricks and treats. “Give the people what they want” my Master says. So, I’m off. I must pick up my costume. Nothing ghoulishness. I will be going door-to-door as an aborted fetus.

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Homecoming

 

The airport was especially crowded. Parents were waiting to pick up their college kids for Thanksgiving break. Alyona waited for her youngest daughter Sophia. She checked the flight information screen. The flight was on time but the plane was sitting on the tarmac waiting for a gate. When the plane finally pulled up and the passengers began deboarding she looked at each passenger coming out from the boarding ramp. She thought he saw Sophia. The eyes were the same as Sophia’s but this person looked so different.

This person walked toward Alyona. “Hi mom.”

Alyona stood for a moment looking at her daughter and then embraced her. A look of disbelief was still on Alyona’s face when she let go of Sophia. “You look so different!”

The first thing Alyona noticed was Sophia’s pixie haircut. Her long naturally blond hair had been cut short and died jet black. The second thing she noticed when she hugged her daughter was the tattoo on the side of her neck. It was a creeper, a vine with colored flowers that originated somewhere below on her torso. Alyona put her hand to her mouth to contain her thoughts: “Those three piercings she’s wearing on her face could come off but the ink …”

What did come out: “Wait till your…” but she stopped herself. “Sophia was home now”, she reflected, again with her hand pressed to her lips. “And by the looks of her, home is where she needs to be”.

Sophia put on her backpack and looked at her mother. “I wanted to look different than then the lily whites on campus…Mom! Don’t you know that plastic straws are destroying the earth!” Alyona had been sipping a coffee drink waiting for Sophia. Alyona took a long sip and then threw the cup into the trash.

“Looks like I’ll have to schedule a stagecoach for your return to campus, Sophia. C’mon, let’s get your luggage.”

With Sophia’s luggage and art portfolio case in hand they walked to the car and drove home.

Alyona began the conversation in the car: “How’s your artwork coming along?”

“Good. I am working on a graphic novel about climate change. The main character – I named her Zara – has a degree in climate science. She comes home from the university after graduating. She attends city council meetings every week. She tells the council that the way to fight climate change is human recycling, you know, eating people. The people laugh at her so she takes things into her own hands, so to speak.”

“That sounds gruesome. How did you come up with this?”

“There’s a lot of environmental activism on campus. That’s how I heard about a scientist in Sweden who’s advocating eating human flesh after a person dies …to save the planet.”

“We’re having turkey again this year. We’re not eating your dead grandmother.”

“Mom, I’m serious. There is a climate emergency. If we don’t do something the world will end in our life time. I read a study that says parents should have fewer children to reduce CO2. Overpopulation and overconsumption will bring on biological annihilation of wildlife. I ‘m going to have only one child.”

“You’re my last. I don’t want to be accused of CO2ism and “biological annihilation” of wildlife. Whew! I wish there was more common-sense activism on campus.”

Sophia screwed up her face and said, “Mom, you don’t want to be a climate denier. Those people have no common sense.”

“Listen, Sophia, your grandparents are coming for dinner tomorrow. Spend some time with them. And don’t forget. We go to church on Thanksgiving morning. So, get in the shower early tomorrow.”

“Mom, I’m not going to church tomorrow. I’ve decided that I don’t want to be among a bunch of dominionists who care about saving souls but not the planet. Besides, my friends at school don’t believe in God and neither do I. I’m above all that nonsense. I’ve found something better to do with my life – climate activism. Instead of sitting sit around praying and singing old songs and listening to sermons I can do something that matters, something about the planet.”

“Wait till your…” Alyona stopped herself once again as she parked the car in the driveway. Her brows were now furrowed and she began biting her lower lip. Seeing his wife’s face as she entered the house, Aleksey, Sophia’s father, thought it had to do with Sophia’s changed appearance.

“Who’s this? I thought you went to the airport to pick up our daughter. You brought home a stranger.”

“See for yourself. It is your daughter.” Alyona said this with her eyebrows raised and her hands raised, the palms of her hands facing up.

“Well, I’ll be.”

“Hi dad.” Sophia hugged her father. “It’s just grown up me.”

“There’s something growing on your neck.”

“Yeah, dad. I have a tattoo to remind me of the need to save the planet.”

“I seeeeee? The planet needs saving? You’ll have to tell me all about this.”

“Yes,” Alyona injected, “tell your father everything.”

 

Before dinner that night Sophia talked with her father. He sat and listened quietly. He was stunned and perplexed at the change that had come over his daughter. He wondered about the point of departure from what she had been taught. Was it her friend’s influence? Her profs? He was glad that she had become assertive and was no longer the unassuming young woman she had been. He had hoped for that. But she come into her own or into another’s?

After an hour of hearing Sophia talk about her climate activism and about her graphic novel and about her new found atheism, he said, “Well, we’ll talk more later.”

Before he left the room, Sophia prodded him. “You’re not a denier are you dad?”

Aleksey turned to face Sophia. “I don’t deny that humans affect the climate but that effect is miniscule and not catastrophic to any extent. And, I don’t deny that there is a God and that eating human beings is not the answer to any problem.”

“Dad …. c’mon. You’re an engineer. You understand data and the data points to a climate catastrophe.”

Aleksey returned to the couch and sat down. “Sophia, climate data is based on computer models and those models provide projections based on assumptive inputs. You know the saying ‘garbage in, garbage out’. As an engineer I use formulas and data – constants -that provide proven outcomes. The outcome is predictable. Climate science is not iterative in that respective. The scientific method involves experimentation. Scientific observations have to be repeatable to be validated. Climate scientists cannot control all the variables that effect climate. And though there have been many observations made in very different circumstances on different instruments by different observers, the observation must be validated with past results and successful future predictions to test for falsifiability. If it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.

Climate science ‘experimentation’ is based in computer modeling and virtual reality. Climate change projections have never been validated by experimentation. You can’t conduct an experiment on a natural system such as the Earth’s climate system in the same way you can conduct a controlled experiment in a physics or chemistry lab. As I said, climate science modeling is based on many assumptions, …like, the climate is unchanged without the effects of greenhouse gases and that the sun’s intensity is the same day after day and that any change in the climate is caused by humans emitting trace amounts of “greenhouse” gases into the atmosphere. And yet, some climate scientists still make their world-ending claims. They don’t say “maybe this will happen”. They say “It will happen!”

And, Sophia, if you take God as a constant out of your life’s equation and His validation the outcome will not make sense. You will end up inputting variables to force the outcome you desire. Your friends will, no doubt, approve of your values but they will not incur any consequences for their outcome. But you will. Their attitude will be much like the climate scientists who point to evidence in their own science journals. Without God, at some point Sophia, you may even begin to despair of life itself. These are hard words but they needed to be said.”

Sophia looked at her dad indifferently, thinking to herself “I am above all that. You’ll see.”

Dad, looking as if he had seen the future he just described, was no longer able to talk. He got up and told Sophia to go into the kitchen and to help her mother with dinner.

“Dad doesn’t understand what’s at stake,” Sophia thought. “This is a backwater town. I’ve seen the future and what really matters.” She set down her sketch pad and walked into the kitchen carrying her attitude with her.

“Mom, do you need help?” Alyona, at the sink, turned to see her daughter. She relaxed her furrowed brows and put on a smile.

“Soph, snap those green beans for me please. They’re for my casserole. Tonight, we’re having burgers and fries.”

“Mom, I’m a vegan now. I’ll just eat a salad. Can we make a tofu turkey tomorrow?”

“Listen, Missy, we’re having turkey tomorrow. Consider it less turkey CO2 in the air.”

 

The next morning, the air crisp and clear, Alyona and Aleksey drove off to church. Sophia slept in. She had been up late texting her friends. She wanted to make sure her resolve didn’t wane. On the kitchen counter, Alyona had left a list of things for Sophia to do to prepare for the Thanksgiving meal. After an hour-and-a-half Alyona and Aleksey returned home. Sophia was still sleeping. The list was untouched.

Sophia finally wandered into the kitchen in her pajamas. Mom, frustrated and yet compensating, told herself, “Sophia is home”.

“Hey, kiddo, we have a lot of work to do. Grandpa Mo and grandma Jean will be expecting dinner at one o’clock sharp.”

Sophia looked at her mom with cow eyes, hoping for some latitude.

“I’ll have some coffee and get in the shower and then I’ll help.”

“You’d better hurry. Dad is cleaning the house and I need your help.”

Sophia left the kitchen with her coffee and a cinnamon roll and proceeded to her room and then to the shower.

The smell of sage and roasting turkey began to fill the house. The familiar aroma brought back memories of family times for Sophia.

At noon Grandpa Mo and grandma Jean were at the door. Dad, still wearing an apron, greeted them.

“Hi dad. Hi Mom. Did you have a good drive over?”

They both responded. “Oh yeah, except for the guy who drove the speed limit in the inside lane. He wouldn’t move out of the way. That’s why we’re a minute late.”

“Well, the turkey is in the fast lane. It will be ready to cut into at one.”

“Good. I brought the wine.” Grandpa handed dad the wine.

Grandma walked into the kitchen and set down the apple and pumpkin pies she had made. She gave Alyona a hug and asked, “How’s my granddaughter?”

Alyona looked at her mother-in-law with pursed lips. “Well …she’s …she’s …she’s home. Thanks for making the pies. I’m sure glad you brought the wine. I could use a glass right now. What’s this?”

Grandam showed Alyona the multi-colored afghan she had made for Sophia.

“Beautiful!” came Alyona’s response.

“Could you use some help?” grandma offered.

“I sure could. I left Sophia a list of things to do while we were at church but she slept in and didn’t do any of it. She’s in the shower right now. …the same old Sophia and the new Sophia are in the shower right now.”

Not sure what to make of that, grandma put on an apron and started peeling potatoes.

In the living room, dad and dad were laughing. Grandpa Mo had begun telling his corny jokes.

“Why can’t you take a turkey to church? Because they use such fowl language!”

“What did the dry cleaner say to the impatient customer? Keep your shirt on!”

“I am reading a book about anti-gravity. It is impossible to put down.”

Aleksey put his hand on his father’s shoulder and responded in kind: “What did the baby corn say to the mama corn? Where’s pop corn?” Grandpa had a good laugh.

“Hey, where my granddaughter?”

“She’s in the shower. You won’t recognize her. She has a new look and a new attitude.”

Grandpa looked at his son quizzically. “Nothing a few bad jokes can’t cure, I’m sure.”

After fifteen minutes Sophia emerged from the bathroom. She was wearing a robe and her black hair was spiked out in all directions.”

“Hi, grandpa.” She called into the kitchen. “Hi, grandma.”

Grandpa looked her over and said, “Say, that’s a new look for you isn’t it?”

“I’m just catching up with the times.” She hugged him

Grandma came out of the kitchen, “Dear, what have done to yourself?”

“Grandma, it’s just a new look. I cut my hair short.”

Grandam looked at Sophia’s neck and said “Hmmm”. “Here, I made this for you.” She handed Sophia the afghan. “This will keep your neck covered.”

“It’s beautiful, grandma! Thank you!” She hugged her grandmother and walked to her room.

Grandpa Mo and Grandma Jean looked at each other and shook their heads. Grandma spoke. “Life as we know it is coming to an end.”

 

Before calling everyone to the table, Alyona looked over the place settings Sophia had put down. The table set and the turkey resting on the stove, mom lit the tapers. The flames reflected in the silver and the goblets. Looking up from the table and outside she could clearly see the Autumn Blaze Maple trees along the property line. Through the kitchen windows, fogged from the cooking, they appeared as an artist’s palette smeared with oranges, reds, and yellows. As she looked, stiff khaki-colored leaves from the neighbor’s lawn tumbled across the lawn, lifted by the cold wind. Alyona called everyone to the table.

Everyone was finally seated after calling Sophia to the table several times. Dad asked grandpa Mo to give thanks. Heads bowed, except for Sophia’s.

“Father, it was written long ago that the earth is yours and the cosmos and all who live in it. Nothing happens without you knowing it. In your providence you see a sparrow that falls to the ground. We give Thee thanks for keeping an eye on us sparrows this past year and for sustaining us. Make us wise stewards of the bounty we enjoy. And may everything that has breath praise You. We ask for your blessing on this wonderful-smelling food. Amen.”

Dad echoed the “Amen” and said, “Let’s get these dishes passed. I’ll go slice the turkey.”

Grandpa, with a twinkle in his eye, looked over at Alyona. “I was hoping for a glutton-free meal.”

Grandma looked over at Alyona and rolled her eyes. “Your father-in-law… Go easy on the potatoes, Mo. Save some for Sophia.”

The dishes began to be passed and the wine was poured. Mouths were too full to talk. Only “Mmmmms” could be heard and heads nodding “Amen” could be seen.

Minutes later dad returned with a platter of turkey. Grandma said that Alyona had outdone herself, “The food is delicious!” Grandpa and dad seconded.

From the table each could see the maple trees in the yard framed by the picture window in the dining room. The trees were overlaid with November sunlight. The trees, resplendent with fall color, seemed to respond to the sun’s attention by fluttering their leaves as standards in the wind. Seeing this, grandpa recounted his and grandma’s recent trip to the Smokie Mountains. “I got in some plein air painting. There were so many hues …reds, oranges, …the yellow birches and shagbark hickories were golden.”

While grandpa talked, Sophia ate with her eyes glazed over. She was deep in thought. She imagined the world coming to an end and her family eating turkey and engaged in meaningless conversation. “I should never have children because of what I know about their future.”

Grandpa noticed her despondency. “Sophia, how is school? Do you like your art teachers?”

Sophia perked up. “Good. I like Professor Nulin, my graphics art professor. He’s helping me with the narrative for my novel. He says that we have lost our way and must return to the narrative of the indigenous people who lived in ecological equilibrium long ago. He thinks we need to become more human by learning to live in balance with nature and to have a reverence for nature as they did. He says that to be human is to live as they did, in harmony with the cycles of nature. He thinks we need to take down civilization to a pre-civilized world to do this. He says that the religions of the world lead folks away from the divinity of the land. He says that industrialization is destroying the planet and creating climate change.”

Grandpa wiped his mouth. “Wow. That’s a lot to digest. It seems that climate change research has moved into the arts and social sciences. How’s your graphic novel turning out?”

“Oh, fine, grandpa.” Sophia went on to describe the narrative. “…and Zara is the main character. She has a band of Climate Change Confronters. I’ll show you the panels I’ve created after we eat.”

“That would be great. It sounds like you have given it a lot of thought. My old art professor, Mr. Smithers, who always wore argyle sweater vests that looked like a diagonal checkerboard, would lecture us with his glasses perched on top of his bald head. “Class,” he would say, “to create art of lasting value, it must be created within the enduring context of humanity and give dignity to the human drama. “You must read history and good literature if you want to understand that context!”

He conveyed to us that art should help us to see the world as it really is and then the viewer’s imagination can move him beyond immediate initial emotion to a consideration of the sacred and redemptive. He warned us about fantasy. “Works of fantasy”, he said, “mimic and mock reality. They begin with emotion and end with emotion, leaving the viewer frustrated and empty – with a diminished sense of objectivity. They are created to make you feel something for the sake of feeling something. They deal in sacrilege and the profane”.

Grandpa continued. “Look around. There is a surfeit of fantasy today – in pornographic images, in movies, on TV …. I saw a commercial for a movie the other day. It had graphic images depicting a specter of world-ending apocalypse and superheroes swooping in to save the world. Kids today eat this stuff up and can’t get enough of it seems, by the many previews just like it …”

Seeing Sophia’s arched eyebrows, Dad broke in. “I think it is time for some pie.”

The meal over and the table cleared, Alyona brought out the coffee. Grandma brought out the pies she had made.

Grandpa, taking his son’s cue to change the subject, asked, “How’s you work going, Aleksey?”

“I was made the responsible engineer for a greenfield project. We will be installing a new substation, transformers, circuit breakers and transmission lines. The project will take a year to complete.”

“Does it involve renewable energy?”

“Not in this case. This project is basically power distribution. But our company does do engineering for wind farm and photoelectric clients. We also work with businesses and institutions who want us to design “island” microgrids using wind and solar. The ‘islands’ can be switched to distributed power as needed. Soon, there will be microgrids using small modular nuclear reactors – SMRs. Those projects will involve both our nuclear group and our distribution group.”

Alyona, hearing the details about Aleksey’s company for the first time, asked for Sophia’s sake, “There is so much talk about fossil fuels today. Is your company involved with fossil fuels?”

“Our fossil group engineers CO2 capture projects …what you don’t hear talked about, Alyona, is that greenhouse gases make up only one to two percent of the entire atmosphere. Nitrogen and oxygen make up a majority of the atmospheric gases. And, CO2 comprises only about three-and-a-half percent of that one to two percent of greenhouse gases. Of the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, humans cause only about three to four percent of the annual CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. So, the anthropogenic effects are real but minimal.”

Aleksey stopped for a moment and finished his pie.

“And don’t forget. Without carbon, there would be no green bean casserole. Sunlight and carbon are required for the greening of the earth, for photosynthesis. And, to answer your questions, yes, our company has the anthropogenic effect of engineering and distributing clean energy. Nuclear plants alone provided fifty-five percent of the country’s clean energy last year. Renewable natural gas is also gaining in use.”

“It sounds like you and Sophia have things in common.” Grandpa wanted to restore transmission with the brooding Sophia.

Dad looked over at Sophia. Sophia looked over at her dad, her eyebrows again arched.

Dad looked over at his wife. “We do. But I think we will need to redirect some energy, dad.” Alyona looked over at Sophia and gave her a reassuring smile. And dad felt that there was more that needed to be said.

“It occurred to me as you were talking dad that what makes the enduring context that you were mentioning even possible are the physical constants in the cosmos which make life possible. These constants could not have happened by random chance. Not all scientists accept that premise, of course. Some choose a multi-verse theory as the random ‘creator’ instead of God. But scientists of all worldviews agree that the physical constants of the universe, which made possible the precise fusion of the carbon element on which life depends, are finely-tuned. It’s as if, as one scientist said, that the universe must have known we were coming.”

Grandpa wiped pie from the corner of his mouth. He looked as if he was about to say something. Everyone looked at him, hoping that he would not ask another question. They were all full and had started pushing back from the table when he began to speak.

“All this reminds me of the two goldfish in a bowl. One goldfish asks the other, “If there is no God who changes the water?”

With that and a smile everyone got up from the table. Alyona began to clear the dessert plates. Dad and grandpa offered to help. Alyona asked Aleksey to help in the kitchen while she and grandma talked. “Sophia, show your grandfather your art work.”

Sophia went to her room and came back with the graphic panels she had created. She sat down and sidled up to her grandfather on the couch. She talked about the narrative: indigenous people were in tune with the land and with the seasons; indigenous people were uncorrupted until the white man came along and began destroying natural resources with his greed; industrialization is wreaking havoc of the earth and poisoning the atmosphere; indigenous people considered the earth sacred; true religion is that which cares for the earth; we need to return to a dark green religion. She went on to explain to her grandfather who Zara was and her band of disciples -the Climate Change Confronters. “They will challenge, protest and do whatever is necessary by any means necessary to restore the mother earth to its health.”

“Sophia, you put a lot of thought into this. Your work shows a lot of promise. I like your draftsmanship. Have you thought of going in the direction of representational art? I think you would enjoy realism. I know of an atelier where you could learn. I know the owner. He lives on a farm about thirty miles from grandma and me. I’m sure he would take you in.”

Sophia looked puzzled, not sure if grandpa understood the direction of her work. Seeing the look on her face, grandpa responded to her narrative.

“Now, what makes you think that God would allow mankind to destroy His creation? You know the story of the flood. God stopped the destructive indigenous people before there was any talk of CO2. I think that there is a bigger picture that you need to take into account.”

Sophia sat there still looking pensive. “Maybe, but I still think mankind has lost its way. The planet needs to be saved from anthropogenic effects.”

“You are right about that. But then, God knew we were coming and He was prepared for the worst mankind could do. He ‘engineered’ a solution.”

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Diner

 

The first day of autumn Matt walked over to the diner. The air around him was an admixture of warmth and chill as day and night and now the seasons began to converge. He carried with him a copy of Prank, Chekhov’s own selection of the best of his early work. Matt thought the stories were hilarious, as Chekov poked fun at the quirky humanness he witnessed in all strata of Russian society.

The diner, just off Main Street, opened at 6 am. Matt left his place at 6:30 for some breakfast at the fifties-style haunt. Turning on to Main Street from the street where he lived, he could see that sunlight was beginning to find its way around the dark buildings. The advancing sunlight and the yellowish light from the street lamps made it possible for him to see the black and orange “We will crush the Titans!” painted on the store windows by high schoolers for homecoming:

Turning off Main Street and walking half a block Matt came to the diner. If anyone looked in the street window, he would see a counter which stretched from the cash register on the right to a small dining area on the left. The worn laminated counter with a dull chrome ribbon along its edge ran the length of the window. Near the entrance the counter holding the cash register began its run parallel with the sidewalk. Moving left, the counter then curved into a horseshoe shape out toward the street and then went straight again for five feet and then curved out into another horseshoe toward the street. Swivel stools with red vinyl tops were posted around the serpentine counter.

If anyone would walk in, they would see the cash register and a framed black and white photo on the wall next to the register. The diner had a street picture taken when it opened in 1952. Walking along the counter, they would likely hear the red-haired Colleen say “Good morning!” And, they would see the owner and cook, a white-haired Greek, looking out through the order window. If anyone walked in during the summer, they would meet Aleixo’s three high-school aged daughters and learn that they were into cross-country. They worked at the diner during their summer vacation.

Matt walked in and sat down on a stool at the corner of the first horseshoe counter. From there Matt could see three men, retirees by their in-no-hurry look of them, sitting around the other horseshoe counter drinking coffee. The scene was a familiar one, one that he encountered every time he came: old men sitting at horseshoe number two drinking coffee and talking about politics, their trucks, their projects at home and about women as Colleen listened and refilled their cups. “This is America, Matt thought. “Land of the free and the home of the diner.”

Colleen walked over to Matt with coffee and a glass of water. “Here you go hun.” Do you know what you want or do you need a menu?”

“I know what I want. Two eggs over easy, hash browns, pork sausage and English muffins.”

“Got it.” She walked over to the order window and called out, ‘Order.”

Colleen, a wisp of a woman in her early fifties, had a craggy face that bore the deep lines of someone who spends a lot of time in the sun. She always wore her hair pulled back, out of the way. Today she was wearing a tee shirt that said, “Love has four paws”. Matt had learned during one of his diner meals that Colleen had four large dogs and no children. Now, as she walked away with the order, Matt saw the decorative rivets on the back pockets of her jeans. A signature look for the sunny colleen.

From past experience it would take about fifteen to twenty minutes to get a plate of food. At this hour in the morning Aleixo was busy in the back room getting thing ready for the day’s meals and perhaps feeding himself. No matter, Matt thought. Coffee and a good book would pass the time.

And from past experience the old men sitting at the other horseshoe would be talking and Matt would again listen in while reading. They were talking when another man came and sat down with them.

This fourth man had a white beard that came down to a point. He wore a ball cap on top of his short stature. By his demeanor he seemed feisty and ready to spar. As soon as he sat down and his coffee poured, he began to talk politics. He had something he wanted to get out:

“This president,” he pointed to the newspaper, “is a mob figure … he should be impeached …the whole administration is corrupt … “

The three men he was sitting with may have been politically conservative or just neutral on the topic or maybe they had heard this all before. They didn’t nod their heads when the fourth talked. They simply drank their coffee and let him have at it.

“You won’t believe this. My daughter went in to surgery for a knee replacement. During the surgery her blood count became dangerously low but she had refused a blood transfusion because the donor might have eaten meat. I had to go get the hospital minister to convince her to have the transfusion. He told her to take it or die.”

This time the three listeners, with puzzled looks, shook their heads. And Matt wondered how anyone would give up their life for veganism. No ideology was worth that.

Colleen brought over Matt’s breakfast and poured more coffee into his cup. A few minutes later Aleixo came out of the kitchen and sat down with the four men. When he picked up the newspaper the fourth began another litany of invectives and then added his own political ideology.

“Did you hear the mayor of New York say that money is in the wrong hands? I agree with that. The rich don’t need all that money. Just think what could be done with all that money in the right hands. The rich and the corporations are screwing the little guy …”

One of the men put his coffee down and replied, “With the large rat population in New York it’s not surprising that one of them became mayor.” The other men laughed but the fourth not at all. He put his coffee down, rose up straight on his stool and began to point his index finger as if to lecture the group when the diner door opened and someone walked in.

When the door opened Matt felt a chill go up his spine. Had it turned cold outside? Matt turned to see. A young man came in. He was wearing a black hoodie and had a canvas satchel clinging to his side. His left hand was holding a handkerchief to his face as if he were about to sneeze or cough, like he was carrying something contagious. He walked past the Matt and the group of men and looked into the dining room. No one was sitting in the booths.

“Good morning!” Colleen greeted him. He said nothing

“Would you like a booth?” Again, he said nothing. The five men were looking him up and down trying to figure him out.

As the man walked to the counter between the horseshoe counters Matt could see the man’s searing black eyes darting back and forth, looking for who knows what. The man lifted the strap of the satchel off of his shoulder and put the satchel down on the counter. He lifted the flap.

“Can I get you some coffee?” Colleen offered. The man said nothing. He dug his hand into the satchel. Would he pull out a book?

He pulled out a gun.

One of the men began to plead with the man. “Son, don’t do this. You are young. What are you? 22 years old? You have your whole life in front of you.”

With the handkerchief still over his mouth the man shot back, “Shut up old man. I’m 24. And I’m not your son.”

“What’s your name, son?”

“That’s for me to know and for you to find out. And don’t call me son, old man. I want everyone to put their wallets on the counter and pass them to me very slowly. You (pointing the gun at Colleen) go open the cash register and bring the drawer here. Now!”

The men proceeded to take their wallets out of their pockets and place them on the counter. Matt did the same. Colleen opened the cash register and brought the drawer over to the counter where the man was standing. The man wanted her tips, too. But Aleixo interceded. He told him no one had finished their meals. There were no tips yet. “You have all you are going to get from us.”

Then Aleixo, trying to mediate the situation but not sure what to say, asked, “Why are you doing this? Do you need money? I have three daughters … Maybe your dad needs the money.”

“He has plenty old man. But he cut me off anyway. He cut off my allowance. I have rent due and food I have to buy. I have a student loan I have to repay. My dad cut me off. Now, you guys will have to pay up.”

With that the man gathered up the wallets and the cash from the drawer and stuffed them into his satchel. He closed the flap and then ran out the door and down the street. The men left their seats and went to the window hoping someone had see the man. But the street was empty and the sun, still behind the building across the street, cast a large shadow across the street and onto the diner.

Standing at the window, one of the men said, “That kid will make someone a good jail-mate someday.” Another wondered, “What did that kid study a university?” And the third man said, “Probably himself.”

The fourth, back in sparring mode, said, “See! That’s what I’ve been talking about…”

The other men waved him off and one of them said, “Enough, already. Let it be.”

Colleen called the police. Two cars showed in just minutes. The officers came in and began questioning each one. They asked if the diner had a security camera and Aleixo said no, he didn’t think he needed one. Everyone who came in was friendly until today. “Just local people come in.”

The officers filled out their report with each question asked. What was the height and weight and look of the suspect? What was his age. What was he wearing? What was stolen? When they had finished, they gave a copy to everyone. Each of them would have to deal with their loss. Aleixo wondered out loud if he could file an insurance claim. One officer thought he could.

The officers called in the robbery and gave the suspect’s description to the dispatcher. A squad was sent out to search the nearby neighborhood. Before the officers left Aleixo offered them some coffee. They thanked him and said they wanted to drive around to see if they could catch the guy. Aleixo thanked them and said that they could come for a free breakfast anytime. With that the officers left.

And though no one felt they had been in any real danger of being shot, the whole episode shook them to the core. The men wagged their heads in disbelief and disgust. Colleen was so shaken that she paced back and forth behind the counter as if to shake off the feeling of terror that clung to her. Matt, who had finished his meal, was frustrated that he couldn’t pay for it. Aleixo said “Don’t worry about it. We’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

The three diners walked out still wagging their heads. The fourth, the man with the pointy beard, followed talking in a strained high-pitched voice about how tuition should be free and then kids wouldn’t have to take things into their own hands. The three men ignored him and drove off.

Matt walked slowly home carrying the Prank and a copy of the police report. He would have to call the credit card companies and his bank and inform the state that his driver’s license had been stolen. He would tell them that his money and his identity were in the wrong hands.

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

Iran: Sheep Among Wolves

 

“I will magnify Myself, sanctify Myself, and make Myself known in the sight of many nations; and they will know that I am the LORD.”‘ Ezekiel 38:23

 

“The Iranian awakening is a rapidly reproducing a discipleship movement that has grown into the largest church in the world. It owns no property, no buildings, no central leadership, and is predominantly led by women. Hear their stories.” – Dalton Thomas, director of the film.
FAIstudios Announces New Film “Sheep Among Wolves Vol. II”

 

A leader of the Iranian underground church explains their goal is not planting churches but rather making disciples, the majority of whom are women…

“Disciples forsake the world and cling to Jesus ’till he comes. Converts don’t,” the leader said. “Disciples aren’t engaged in a culture war. Converts are. Disciples cherish, obey, and share the word of God. Converts don’t. Disciples choose Jesus over anything and everything else. Converts don’t. Converts run when the fire comes. Disciples don’t.”
Iran has world’s ‘fastest-growing church,’ despite no buildings – and it’s mostly led by women: documentary

 

The Payment Plan

 

Roni made one more call just before the end of his shift at 10 pm. The west coast number was in the queue. Someone picked up. A young girl answered.

“Hello.”

“Hi, this is Roni. Is your mom or dad home?”

“Mom, someone’s on the phone!” When the girl yelled into his headphones Roni yanked them off of his ears and held them away from his head.

“Who is it?” It was the voice of the mother in the background.

“Who are you?” The girl queried.

“I’m Roni with American Resources.”

“Roni ’merica rescores.”

“What? Let me have it. Hello?”

“HI I’m Roni of American Resources. I called to tell you of a special offer…”

“No thanks.” The phone clicked off.

10 pm. Roni removed his headphones and signed out. His shift at the call center was done for the night.

He had one taker that evening. A woman in Hawaii. When she picked up Roni heard a piano playing in the background. He started with his usual opening and then asked, “Is that a piano playing that lovely music?”

The woman said yes. She was giving someone piano lessons.

Hearing that Roni said, “I’ll be brief. You have been chosen to receive a special offer.” Roni sped up.

“The card is only made available to qualified folks. I won’t be long. The card is a valuable resource as it is accepted in almost everywhere. Parity Platinum doesn’t charge penalty interest. That’s a potential lifesaver for cardholders who occasionally miss payments due to liquidity issues. And when you use it you earn points, when you shop, when you eat at restaurants, when you travel… That sounds like Debussy. Is that clair de lune.”

“It is. Are you a musician?’

“I played the trumpet for many years. I bet it is a beautiful day there.”

“It is. There’s a breeze coming off the ocean.”

“I’ve neve been there, I… well, you’re in the middle of something. I better be quick about this. Are you interested in the Parity Platinum Card?

“OK.”

“I will need to verify some information and then read you the terms and conditions and then we will be done. OK?”

“OK.”

Roni spent the next minute verifying her name, date of birth, address, and her occupation – Piano Teacher. He then read the terms and conditions on the computer screen, a full page of fine print. He only stopped to catch his breath in the middle. The 29% finance charge was read off in the same rapid-fire monotone as the rest of the legal boilerplate. When he had finished, Roni asked her if she accepted the terms and conditions. She said yes.

“Thank you, Ms. Hampton, for accepting this offer. You will be very pleased with this valuable resource in your wallet. Parity Platinum Card welcomes you. And, thank you for the beautiful music. Your card will be mailed to shortly. You should receive it in the next 10 to 18 days.”

The call ended. Roni caught his breath as he removed his head phones and then signed off. The telemarking manager, Tyronne, who listens in on the telemarketer’s phone conversations, gave a shout out to Roni. Roni learned from Tyronne that he would receive, at the beginning of his next shift, a certificate: Quality Award for Presentation Performance. He understood this to mean that he basically said every word of the legal contract and left nothing out. He also learned that this meant a small bump up in his next paycheck.

Roni grabbed his jacket and headed to the door and out to his car. Outside, he lit up a cigarette. He smoked it facing the call center and away from the glare of the white LED parking lot lighting, which bothered his eyes. After six hours staring at a computer screen his eyes were burning. He took several long draws from the cigarette and then flicked the remains to the curb. He wanted to get home and get to bed by 11. He had to get up at 6:00 am for his full-time job. The half-hour drive home would be under the same discomforting lighting. He knew that the glare and the high blue content of the lights would affect his sleep, making for another restless night.

The next morning Roni began his daily routine. He put on coffee and went out to the patio for a smoke. He scrambled some eggs and then got dressed. He needed to be at RRR at 7:30 am.

Roni and his two brothers had taken over the family business – Resolution, Reset & Recovery Corp. – when their father retired. The debt recovery service had its own automated call center. Roni supervised the ten employees who dealt with those who picked up. He listened in on the phone conversations just as Tyronne did on the calls of the employees at FirstOne Telemarketers.

Roni’s younger brother Ruben purchased bad debt at a discount from other collection companies who had no luck making a recovery. The third brother, Rohn, managed the business, making sure that payables and receivables were taken care of. The fourth brother, twelve years younger than Rohn, was told to stay away from the business. The three brothers were the owners and they didn’t want a young upstart around telling them what to do.

Though the three brothers had been handed a going concern, the brothers were jealous of Raphael. Their father had given him money for his education. He wanted Raphael to become an investment banker. The three older brothers were given no money by their father for an education. The early days of the business were a financial struggle. There was no extra money for education. Beyond this, Raphael seemed to cocky, too sure of himself, too privileged. So, they kept their distance, despite their mother and father’s desire for family unity. They voiced their concerns when the family gathered for the holidays.

That day at the office, a Friday, the hours dragged on for Roni. The lack of good sleep didn’t help. And out of the five hundred automated calls placed, only two debtors picked up the phone. These were offered payment plans and a chance to pay off their credit card debt over time. At three in the afternoon Roni received a text message: “Hey, want to come by for a beer after work?” Roni texted a reply to Marty, “Sure”.

Marty was Roni’s apartment neighbor. Marty liked to talk politics and Roni didn’t. Roni thought politics was boring. All that who’s the bigger hypocrite back and forth was irksome. Most of the politicians wanted to pick your pocket anyway. So ‘n So will save the planet if you vote for him or her and turn over your income to them. Who needed that? With having to pay alimony and child support and growing credit card debt, Roni wanted no more hands in his pocket. Making ends meet was the only politics he cared about. He would have a beer with Marty and turn in for the night.

At five pm Roni’s day was almost done. The automated calls would continue till 9 pm on the west coast. Those who picked up could leave a message where to contact them. Each response would be noted to show a debtor’s willingness to pay. Before the employees left for the evening, Roni checked with each one to fill out the schedule for the next week. The employees were part-timers. Some had classes to attend. He also praised Charisse for the way she handled her call and secured a payment plan for their client Parity Platinum Card.

Roni then checked in with his brothers. Rohn, looking depressed, said that they were about to lose their biggest client Parity Platinum. Roni told him that RRR had just secured a payment plan for Parity. “No matter,” Rohn responded. “They have contacted a bigger firm.” Ruben also looked depressed. “With the cash flow the way it is, it has been hard to buy bad debt. This will make things worse.” The three of them looked at each other and shook their heads. Roni finally spoke. “If dad finds out he will blow a gasket.” The two brothers nodded. “And, if that pip squeak brother of ours finds out he will have a good laugh at our expense.” After several silent minutes Rohn threw up his hands and said he would make calls on Monday. “There has to be more business out there …or, we will have to lay off some of these kids. We can’t keep taking out loans with no receivables.”

Roni left the office crestfallen. He didn’t want to lay off anyone but business is business – making ends meet. Now between the ends, things were becoming dire for Roni. He had used his credit cards to get by thinking that at the end of the year there would be some payout from the profits that he could use to pay them off. Now the chances of that looked slim to none. “Debt has no pity”, he thought. “I don’t think dad will either with the choices I have made.”

 

After changing clothes, Roni walked out his patio door and headed over to see Marty. Marty was on his patio drinking a beer.

“Well, look what the cat dragged over.” Marty chided Roni when he saw him. Roni gave a half-smile in return. Marty offered, “You look like you could use a beer.”

“I could use a beer and a chaser.” Roni plopped down on a patio chair and lit up a cigarette.

“Wow, a bad day?”

“You could say that “, Roni replied looking at his phone. Another call he didn’t want to take.

“Well, if we had the right people in power, then us working stiffs wouldn’t be so stressed out.”

Here we go again, Roni thought. The garbage man dishing out political garbage.

Marty handed Roni a beer and then went into his apartment for something stronger. He came out with a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses. Marty poured whiskey into the glasses. He handed one to Roni and said “Cheers.” Roni clicked his glass with Marty’s, leaned his head back and downed the shot. Wiping his mouth and knowing that his reply would only prod Marty to continue the political mumbo-jumbo, but feeling irate about the day’s bad news he spoke anyway. “Even with the ‘right people’ in power there isn’t enough money in the world to pay to fix the bad choices people make. Besides, there is always cost incurred when you use other people’s money.”

“With money in the right hands we could put a dent in it. That’s why I am voting socialist this time.”

Roni cringed. He knew he shouldn’t have replied. He had other things on his mind. His phone buzzed again. The same caller he didn’t want to answer.

“Hey, how’s your business doing?” Roni was glad Marty changed the conversation but it led down an even less desirous path.

“We’ve hit some bumps in the road. Our biggest client is leaving us for a bigger collection agency, one with (quoting with his hands) a “better reputation”.

“I thought you guys had it made in the shade.”

Roni was quick to respond. “Someone moved the shade.” He gulped down some more beer and lit up another cigarette. Looking at it he thought, “If I kicked this habit, I could repay my body for the six years I’ve been smoking”. He took a long drag and thought ’but not today’.

“Hey, you know what I found on my route today? In the dumpster was a plaque with a gold crowbar stuck on it. The plaque said LEVERAGE EVERYTHING. Do you know what that means?”

“Yeah, it means you put yourself out on limb where someone can come along and cut off the limb.”

“That’s weird. Hey, how’s your other job going there, Shylock?” Marty goaded Roni. Roni smirked.

“Just swell, I make $12 per hour and talk to people I wouldn’t otherwise talk to. It’s a job, a part-time job that’s all.”

“You are offering credit cards at 23 to 36%? Yikes. How can anyone catch up?”

“I offer people a choice. They can choose to use it or not. They know the terms. I’m not a loan shark, if that’s what you are implying.”

“No. I’m just giving you a hard time. The rich will have a hard time, too. The rich will know ‘the terms’ when my candidate is elected.”

Roni’s phone buzzed again. He didn’t pick up. The caller left a message.

Roni lifted his glass. “I could use another shot.” Marty poured another for both of them. Roni knocked it back and thought of a reply for Marty.

“With socialism, the usury is your freedom. The percentage of the freedom taken from you keeps going up. And when your freedom is gone, they come for a pound of your flesh. That’s been recorded in history.”

“Yeah, but this time…”

Roni shifted in his chair and turned toward Marty. “I better be off. I’m seeing my kids tomorrow and I have to get the place cleaned up a bit.”

“You’ve been divorced for six years now. You need a woman. They say ‘Love conquers all.”

Looking at his hands, Roni scoffed, “Love conquered my checkbook.”

Marty looked over at Roni. “For the love of Pete, man, you look awful.”

“I have a lot on my mind right now. Thanks for the beer and the shots.”

With that Roni walked back to his apartment where he listened to the phone message. It was from Endal Debt Recovery. They were calling to set up a payment plan. Roni had missed several payments. He was out on a limb and the limb was being shaken. Now he faced a tough choice: he could go with Endal and their payment plan or he could call his younger brother Raphael, ask for loan and come up with a repayment plan. Either way, the minimum payment would be at the expense of his pride.

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

The Assignment

 

Minutes before the final bell, Miss Hailee handed out a sheet to her third-grade students. The wide-ruled copies held only the heading I am looking forward to summer vacation… She walked down the rows of desks and passed one to each student.

“Class, this year we have been learning to journal. On this sheet I want you to describe how you are feeling about your summer vacation and why you feel that way. Use the adjectives from the word search I am handing out to describe your thoughts. Use your best handwriting. Write complete sentences. Turn these papers in tomorrow, first thing. There will be no letter grade. I will be reading them to see how well you express your thoughts.”

The students stopped fidgeting and grabbed their backpacks. They stuffed the sheet into it along with their pencils and corrected papers. The dismissal bell rang. The third-graders scrambled for the door, talking to each other about their summer plans.

Miss Hailee watched them leave. She clearly enjoyed her assignment. She could tell that the eight and nine-year old children enjoyed being in school and that they loved their teacher. And she loved the untainted boyishness of the boys and the unsullied girlishness of the girls. These children expressed emotions openly and without guile. Their personalities hadn’t yet become compartmentalized. Their imaginations, like potter’s clay, could be easily shaped by careful hands. They are animated, responsive and for the most part, well-behaved. Apart from having to correct them for talking in class, passing notes, not raising their hand to answer and having to lecture the boys teasing the girl who said she was a horse and whinnied and ate the white pasty glue and having to lecture Laura about the glue, discipline was minimal. Teaching them was a joy, for they were teachable.

When the last student was out the door, she erased the black board and pushed her chair into the desk. She gathered up her teaching plan and the student assessment sheets for the Check System. She placed them in a pouch and slung the pouch over her shoulder. She walked out of the classroom and headed to the parking lot and home.

At First Bell the next morning not one student was tardy. Their papers were in their hands being waved like flags. The chance to talk about their upcoming summer vacation had them wriggling in their chairs, one leg on and one leg off their chairs.

Miss Hailee brought the class to order. “Please sit straight ahead with both legs on your chairs. We only have a short day today so I need your full attention. I will now collect your papers.”

She walked down each row and each student handed her their paper. She looked at each to make sure it had the student’s name on it. The papers, backpack-crumpled and smeared with erasures, were filled out.

“Class, today we will talk about the math you will be doing in fourth grade. But first we will do language and reading. After lunch you will present your science project to the class. We will now have our morning meeting.”

Miss Hailee reminded the students of the class rules using a poster board created by the students. She then asked them “What did you do well as a researcher for your science project?” After hearing several responses, she asked, “What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?” Everyone answered that question at once. As things quieted down, she asked the students if they had good news or bad news to share with the class. Several said the good news was summer vacation. Another said they have a new dog. Another said his birthday was in July. A girl shared that she wrote the bad news in her paper. Miss Hailee told her she would read her paper in private and would talk to her about it with her in private tomorrow. Then came the Word of the Day: question.

After lunch the students shared their science projects with the class. Miss Hailee asked each presenter “What questions did you have during your preparation? When all was said and done Miss Hailee praised the class for their work.

At 12:50 the dismissal bell rang. “I will be reading your papers tonight. Tomorrow, your parents will be bringing in treats for our last day of school. I’m sure you will be on your best behavior.” The students filed out.

Again, Miss Hailee watched them leave. Again, she erased the black board and pushed her chair into the desk and gathered up her teaching plan. On her way out the door she stopped at the school’s office and handed in the student assessment sheets she had completed. Putting her feet up and reading the student’s papers was on her agenda that night.

 

That evening Miss Hailee ate the chicken pot pie she had prepared the last weekend. She poured herself a glass of wine and sat down on the couch with her feet up and the student’s papers on her lap. She began, recalling the face of each student as she read. She expected positive happy thoughts in these papers. The first paper did not disappoint:

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… I play baseball with my friends. Dad and mom said that me and Bill are going to a Cubs game. Yeah! Salty popcorn is the best. Summer is the best. Dad gives me purple popsicles. They make a big mess on my shirt. I play outside until mom calls me.

The happy life-affirming thoughts continued. The students wrote of Great America, playing soccer, trips to see relatives, trips to national parks, friends, fun in the sun, family plans, family picnics, church picnics, camp, fireworks, nature hikes, riding bikes, swimming… They had used the adjectives from the word search!

But there were several papers whose writers were not looking forward to summer. There was in their forward glance an admixture of disappointment and pain caused by things imposed on them and a faint tinge of hope in … the plans to make do?

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… me mom and my sister are going camping. Mom did not tell my dad. She said dad has to work. Mom says she has to get away. We will have smores and go swiming in the lake and have a fire at night. The fire makes me sleepy. I don’t like moskeetoos. They are nasty. I wish dad could come camping. Mom said it was better this way.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… mom said I will have a new baby sister. I am so excited. I told Elise. She said that her mom had a baby but her mom said no to the baby. I will let Elise play with my new sister this summer. Elise is my best friend. She is sad. I will make her happy.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… not much. me and Todd will be moving to a small house with mom. Dad has a boyfriend. His name is Phil. Mom and me and Todd is surprised. I will ride my red bike a lot with Todd.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… it is hot. The hot makes me sweaty. Dad said people make it so hot. This makes me angry. I play outside to it gets dark. When I come in I have chocolate ice cream. Mom says I am stinky. She gives me a cold shower before bed. I sleep with the windows open. My room is cool. Dad snores loud.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation…no I am not. Mom and dad said divorce. I know what that means. Mom and dad live in two places like Anns mom and dad. I have to visit dad now. My summer is ruined.

I am looking forward to my summer vacation… I am going to visit grandpa and grandma for summer. They have a farm in Iowa. Mom said that when we come back she will be a man. Me and dad question mom. Dad said mom is confused. Summer with grandpa and grandma will be fun. Grandpa will take me on his big green tractor. Grandma said she will make me a fruit pie. They have noisy dogs. I want to stay with them forever.

 

“Oh, lord,” Miss Hailee thought as she put her face in her hands. “How will these children cope? The assignment imposed on these kids by their broken families will break these kids. What can I say to the kids tomorrow?” She wept. “I have tried so hard to give these kids the best of me. To give them the means to take on life. After this summer some of them will return inhibited, anxious, hard, resistant, overwhelmed and, …unteachable.”

These were adjectives she never wanted to apply to her students. Outside the classroom all of the inherited forms and distinctions were being taken away from children. The child’s reference point – their family, the symbol of stability and sense – was being torn up and reassembled into nonsense. The traditional words and signs used to make up a child’s conceptual framework were being converted into gibberish. And teachers were forced to be enablers and accomplices and wardens of the claptrap.

In her imagination Miss Hailee prescribed an Emotional Bank Account poster for the parents. She would show them the deposits and withdrawals they make into their kid’s lives. She would make them read it out loud on the last day. And although she knew about the swift and exacting judgment of political correctness, she did not fear political correctness. But she did begin to imagine repercussions on her students if she held their parents publicly accountable. The reality was that she could do nothing outside the classroom door to affect change to the parent’s withdrawals and deposits into their child’s emotional bank account. Inside her classroom she could be to her students a symbol of continuity and of all that is good in the world.

With a yawn and a soul cried out, she retired. Day was gone. Night was upon her. In a matter of hours, she would be standing before them with words. But not with reassuring words that things will be all right this summer. She could only offer disconnected affirming teacher words.

The First Bell of the last day of school rang. The students found their seats but not their composure. They were ready-set-go for summer. Anticipation had their hands and feet constantly moving. Miss Hailee let them have space for the bubbling over excitement as long as they respected her and each other.

That final morning Miss Hailee talked about what they had learned during the school year. She went on to praise the students for their eagerness to learn and their hard work. She did this while walking along the counter where each student’s remaining graded papers and the posters and plaster of Paris bowls the kids had made during art time were neatly stacked. She reminded them to take these things when they leave.

The first mother arrived outside the door and peeked in. The girl in the third row squealed when she saw her mom. Soon there were three more moms at the door. Then ten, then twelve, then twenty moms and some dads waiting to come in. Miss Hailee opened the door and said “Welcome, come in. We are a full house today.”

Desk were arranged for the treats the moms had brought. The kids tried to show their moms their pile of school work as the mom tried to set out the treats they had brought. The hubbub was expected and relished by Miss Hailee. The school year was ending with merriment. The sugar in the treats made sure of that.

With the mom’s and dad’s and kid’s mouths full of cupcake, candy corn and cookies, Miss Hailee spoke.

“I am very proud of these students. They worked hard. They behaved well. They achieved much. I have high hopes for them going into fourth grade. Behind you are your child’s schoolwork and art projects for you to take home. I have included a list of books for summer reading.” Looking at each of the students Miss Hailee said, “Your parents can read these books to you and there are some you can read yourself with some help. Looking at the reading list she continued.

“On the list I have included an illustrated retelling of Treasure Island for children, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Anne of Green Gables and The Secret Garden. Each one is adapted for young readers. And I’ve included a story I have authored and had illustrated: Summer at Sad Shores, a Livingston Family Vacation Adventure.”

Miss Hailee looked around at the anchor charts the class had used during the year. With last words to present, she again looked at the faces of her third-graders. “The word for the summer is hope. I want you to look up the meaning of the word hope. I am hoping that you will find hope in your summer reading.”

With that she said, “Have a great summer everyone.” The parents and children were free to go.

Before Marta and her mother left, Miss Hailee pulled them aside and asked them if she could talk to them in private. Marta’s mother, a woman with dark bags under teary eyes, looked deeply troubled, as if more bad news would devastate her. She did break down in tears out in the school yard where the three of them talked.

Miss Hailee had learned from Marta’s paper that her father had been arrested and was in jail. Miss Hailee understood why Marta had become detached and listless the last two weeks of school. But what could she offer them? She wanted to deal with each student familiarly but the established protocol was to shunt any “issues” over to the school’s counselor.

“I can’t imagine the weight that has been placed on both of you.”

Seeing the crucifix Marta’s mother was wearing around her neck and looking around to make sure no one was around, Miss Hailee spoke. “Listen, what I am about to say has nothing to do with school or with me as Marta’s teacher. I say this as a friend. Sometimes …. (Miss Hailee took a deep breath) …Sometimes God allows a heavy burden to be placed on us so that we can feel his hand underneath.”

Marta’s mother, now barely able to speak, replied, “This burden is too much. Marta and me are alone.”

Miss Hailee hugged both of them. “You are not alone. I will be your friend. I will give you my phone number and my email address. Here … “

She wrote them on the back of one of Marta’s papers and handed them to Marta’s mother. “This is not a teacher-parent conference. This is me as your friend and I will help you two through this.” Marta gave Miss Hailee a long hug.

“Thank you, Miss Hailee,” Marta’s mother hugged the teacher.

“Call me Sandra, please.” Miss Hailee hugged her once more.

“Will Marta be able to see her dad often?”

Marta mother wiped her tears from her face. “Yes. “

“That is something you can look forward to this summer, Marta.”

Marta looked up at her teacher, her dark eyes glistening with tears for her mother.

“Has Marta ever ridden a horse?”

Marta looked at her mom who couldn’t speak. “No,” Marta replied.

“Then that is something we can look forward to this summer. My father has a farm with several horses.”

With that the three of them walked around the school building to the parking lot.

At the car Miss Hailee said, “How about a picnic this Saturday and we can talk more. Please call me anytime. You are not alone. Your assignment this summer Marta is to see your dad when you can, ride horses and have picnics.”

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved