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 Dinner

 

The Friday afternoon of Labor Day weekend Marvin was finalizing his response to the client. He sat before his two monitors. One monitor held the client comments regarding the marked-up drawings stacked neatly to his left. The monitor on the right held the recipe for beef bourguignon. He was making plans for a quiet dinner Saturday night and the start of a new book.

As a lead engineer Marvin’s desk was inside a cubicle configured with partitions on three sides. The opening in the cubicle faced a wall and an aisle. The cubicle was at the end of a long aisle that traversed the first floor of the engineering firm. His desk was secluded from all the other engineers. This was of no consequence to Marvin for he kept to himself. Detachment from others meant that he could concentrate on his work without being disturbed by any human drama. The only semblance of his life outside the cubicle was a calendar of military planes that reminded him of his time in the air force.

Before leaving for the weekend, Marvin walked over to confer with another engineer. Landry’s cubicle was at the other end of the first floor. As was his manner, Marvin walked with a deliberate military gait without looking at the other engineers along his path. Any engineer seeing him pass might think of Marvin as an animated stick figure. The pencil thin Marvin conserved his motion and his emotions for the necessary.

Any female engineer, and there was one on the first floor who did, would notice that Marvin wore the same grey twill pants, black shoes and a version of a plaid shirt that he wore every day. On his belt hung a TI-36X Pro engineering/scientific Calculator. If asked, he would tell you that it was the same one he had used for his FE/PE engineering exams years ago. He would also tell you that the calculator replaced the slide rule he had carried on is belt during his days at the university. The shirt pocket pen pouch remained from those days.

The same female engineer seeing Marvin walk by also noticed Marvin’s dispassionate single-minded gaze beneath his dark unkempt eyebrows. And, that his disheveled dark hair and a stout mustache that covered his pursed lips gave Marvin an austere manly look, a no-nonsense guise. It seemed to her that the university geek, now in his early sixties, had continued to live in cerebral austerity. The never-married Marvin appeared to be married to his thoughts. This, she supposed, figured in Marvin’s lack of human interface except as required to complete the challenges presented to him.

Marvin conferred with Landry, a mechanical engineer who was months from his retirement and who gave a glib reply when someone asked him how he was: “I’m here and I’m loving it!” At Landry’s cubicle drawings were spread out on two desk tops. There was talk of the reactor coolant pump the client wanted for the nuclear plant. There was talk of length of pipe and the location of the pump, of water head pressure, of horsepower, of vendor drawings, of the calcs required and of a redundant system. They both noted that there was a labyrinth of pipes and conduits to contend with.

Marvin Left Landry’s cubicle after responsibilities were delineated. He then returned to his own cubicle to respond to the client. He sent his client an email outlining the work to be done and stating the date for the sealed engineering drawings to be handed over. On the other screen he looked once more at the beef bourguignon recipe and decided beef stew would be a good choice for a quiet Saturday dinner. He printed out the recipe and shut his computer down. He was weekend ready.

On Saturday morning, as was his manner, Marvin got up at 3 AM. he took his usual two-mile walk. When the sunlight began festooning houses with gold overlays, he drove over to the market to purchase the ingredients for his beef stew. With recipe in hand Marvin then drove over to a nearby liquor store where he found a burgundy that the recipe called for. He also purchased a bottle of aged bourbon that he would later pour into his “U.S. Air Force” engraved decanter and rocks glass.

With a plan to eat at 5 PM sharp, Marvin gathered up the ingredients: chuck roast, carrots, pearl onions, garlic, bacon, beef broth, olive oil, tomato paste, mushrooms, seasonings and the burgundy. At 3 PM he placed the recipe on a book holder. He began the process, methodically and carefully. There could be no room for error. After following the recipe to the letter, he placed the Dutch oven in the oven at the called-for temperature. Dinner would be served at 5 PM.

Just before 5 PM Marvin took the stew out of the oven and let it rest. He set his place at the table and poured into a wine glass the balance of burgundy. He set bread on the table and some butter. The smell of the stew filled his apartment. At 5 PM sharp he placed the Dutch oven on hot pad just before his place at the table. A large spoon was put into service as he opened its lid. Just then there was feverish knock at the door. “Now who could that be?” Marvin growled. He got from the table and headed for the door.

Through the door’s peephole he saw a concave figure of a woman who was nervously knocking again. “All right! All right!” Marvin snapped. He opened the door and became dumbfounded at the surreal sight before him. Somewhere under woman’s clothes and a wig was his neighbor Arturo. Before Marvin could say anything, Arturo rushed in and said, “You gotta help me!” Marvin stood holding the door open hoping the illusion would leave the way it came in.

“What?! …What is all this about?” Marvin had no calculus for what he saw. And he had no patience for any of this nonsense, as his beef bourguignon and a quiet night were waiting for him.

“You see …,” Arturo, frantic, started but he broke off as if to find words that a military man would understand. “You see…” Arturo started again, pushing back a wig curl that kept covering his right eye. “I …I …well, you see, it’s like this.” Again, Arturo broke off as if his next words would seal his fate. “You see, my friend (as if to cushion Marvin’s response) I … I … well, I put on some of my wife’s clothes while she is out at a church gathering with her girlfriends.”

Marvin looked Arturo up and down and said, “I’ve heard it said that in marriage the two become one but I didn’t think…”

“No, No, it’s not like that. I mean it is like that, but not like that.” Arturo thought that by not making any sense that he could persuade the unmarried rational Marvin with some secret knowledge of marriage that he, married to Martha, must possess. But Marvin wasn’t buying it. The food was getting cold.

“What do you want from me? I just sat down to eat.”

“I … I … locked myself out of the apartment. I took the garbage out…”

“Wait! You took the garbage out dressed like that?”

“Ah …mmmmm … ah I did”, Arturo turned eyes away from Marvin as if to hide the truth.

“So,” Marvin responded impatiently, “what am I supposed to do? There’s a simple solution. Call your wife and tell her that you are locked out.”

“It’s not that simple, you see …, my wife has no idea and I don’t want her to know about this.” Arturo waved his hand from head to toe.

“I can see why.” Marvin said sternly. The smell of the beef stew was now making his stomach growl.

“You’ve got to help me. Can you check the windows of my apartment to see if any are unlocked?’ Arturo petitioned Marvin.

“You want me to sneak around outside your apartment and look in your windows? The people around here will think I am as batty as you? And worse! And, besides, you have already made yourself known to the neighbors.”

“I … I …I learned my lesson. I cannot go out again.” Arturo was pacing back and forth as he spoke. The look on his face was one of holy terror.

“My wife will be returning, she said around nine-o’clock. I don’t want her to see me like this.”

“So, I get the privilege?”

“I sorry, my friend, to bring this to you but I have no where else to go for help. You are a smart man. You can think of things.”

“Right now, I am thinking of my dinner which is getting cold.” Marvin folded his arms across his chest.

“Say. What is that marvelous smell?” Arturo turned his face towards the kitchen.

“It is beef bourguignon and I am hungry. You can join me so I can eat. If you remain quiet.”

“Maybe you can think of a plan while we eat,” Arturo continued to ply Marvin’s ego as he sat down. He figured Marvin might respond better to the situation than to his makeup varnished face.

Marvin brought out another place setting and a wine glass and an uncorked bottle of red wine. He never had a guest eat with him before. He hoped that he could eat in silence and gain some semblance of the quiet evening he had planned.

The two ate in silence and finished their meal. The silence was broken when Arturo, noticeably agitated throughout the meal, queried Marvin. “Any thoughts?”

Marvin looked up from his plate. As was his manner he spoke dispassionately to Arturo. “My new found ‘friend’, I have no flow chart that can show me the next step. If you were a deadheading pump, I would have options. I could put in a piloted relief valve or a bypass or an unloader valve downstream system of the pump to allow excess pressure to be relieved and flow to continue through the pump and back to the tank.”

Arturo thought for a moment and then said, waving his hand over his body from head to toe, “This must be my relief valve.”

The red wine Marvin was drinking came out through his nose. Little droplets of red wine now hung precariously from his mustache. He wiped his mouth and got up from the table. As he walked to the kitchen he said. “It looks more like a Catch 22 situation. No entrance without a key and no key without an entrance.”

Arturo winced when he heard those words. He knew his fate was sealed. He went to the window and peered through the slats of the blinds. His wife had not come home.

In the kitchen Arturo helped Marvin put the dishes in the dishwasher. As he did black jagged lines formed beneath his eyes. Mixed with tears his mascara had run, giving him the appearance of a freakish clown.

When Marvin had finished in the kitchen, he told Arturo that he was going out to the patio for some bourbon and a cigar. He told Arturo to grab a glass and join him if he wanted to. “You look like you could use a drink.”

Arturo followed Marvin onto the patio but only after he looked around to see if anyone was looking. Then he ventured out and sat down. There, much like the privacy of Marvin’s cubicle at work, two sides of his apartment and one side of high bushes enclosed the space. The open side was the lawn.

Marvin poured bourbon from the decanter into the “U.S. Air Force” engraved rocks glasses. He handed one to Arturo who then sniffed it. Speaking with a quaver in his voice Arturo said, “Thank you for my last supper,” “Cheers,” said Marvin and he clanked Arturo’s glass.

Marvin lit the cigar his colleague gave at the close of last ASME IMECE congress meeting. Taking a long draw on it and, as was his manner, he looked dispassionately at the open space making mental notes of what needed to be done on Tuesday. Arturo, on the other hand, crossed and uncrossed his legs in nervous rapidity. With each cross and uncross his dress hiked up to mid-thigh exposing more of his hairy legs.

Martha’s dress was a size 8 floral print. On six-foot two 220-pound Arturo, the dress looked ready to burst at the seams. The dress’s three-quarter sleeves came to just above his elbows. They had a solid grip on his upper arm as did the wig on his head. Rivulets of sweat ran down Arturo’s forehead; the wig was so full and so tight that the breeze Marvin enjoyed came nowhere near Arturo’s scalp. Unable to fit into his wife’s shoes with his size 12 feet, Arturo wore her flip flops. The only evidence of them being worn was the thong between the big toe and the rest of the toes.

After crossing and uncrossing his legs once more Arturo stood up and said, “Excuse me. I’m going to see if Martha came home.” Marvin continued his dispassionate gaze into Tuesday.

Arturo went into the living room and peered through the blinds. Martha’s car was in the parking lot. Arturo rushed back to the patio in panic mode and told Marvin. Marvin got up with the hope that he could find the reverie he had promised himself the week before. They both went to the window and saw Martha’s car. But then they saw her taking out the garbage to the dumpster at the end of the parking lot. Arturo rushed to the door, opened it and saw that the door to his apartment was ajar. He ran out yelling “Not a word! Not a word!” Marvin closed his door and then peered through the peephole. He wanted to see the return of Martha.

Martha returned. But instead of going to her door she knocked on Marvin’s’ door. Marvin waited a few seconds and then opened the door.

“Have you seen Arturo? Martha asked.

Marvin opened his mouth and hesitated. With a darting glance at Arturo’s and Martha’s front door he said, “I can’t say that I have.” Marvin stood there in a plaid shirt, grey slacks and black shoes with a dispassionate look.

Martha searched the curious look on Marvin’s face. She wondered if there was a smile underneath his mustache. She had never seen him smile. She then looked over at her front door. It was still ajar.

“OK. Sorry to bother you. Good night.” As Martha walked away Marvin shut his door and breathed a sigh of relief.

Back on the patio Marvin sat down and took a swig of bourbon from his engraved rocks glass. He relit the cigar a colleague gave him and took some puffs. He opened the book that he had been waiting to read: “Chasing New Horizons: Inside the Epic First Mission to Pluto”. After reading for several minutes he took a long draw on the cigar and held the smoke in his mouth. As he breathed out the smoky cloud, he had a thought: “It would be easier to explain the trajectory of a space probe traveling billions of miles from earth to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt than it would be for Arturo to explain his recent trajectory to Martha.”

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2019, All Rights Reserved

If You Call Now

 

Mack had no one to blame. He blamed himself. His dream, well, just listen…

The other night Mack dreamed of being in New York. He didn’t know how he got there. He did remember driving around the Great Lakes. In New York Mack stopped along a highway in town, got out of his rental car and started to look for a store which sells maps. He returned and found that his car was gone. Mack became distressed.

Then Mack saw his car return but it was not working. The battery was missing. Someone stole it. Then Mack’s brother showed up because Mack’s mother was concerned – about both of them.

Mack asked his brother, “Is there a place where I can get a big breakfast?” Mack was hungry. His brother did not know where to get food or a map. His brother stood there. He looked like he wanted to help, but he didn’t offer any.

Then, both Mack and his brother were in a garage where things are fixed, batteries replaced. Mack received his car back working. He is hungry. The dream ends in New York on a highway in town with an able car and not knowing where to go next.

 

When Mack, whose given name is Macauley Andrew Naughton, applied at Central Commercial Chillers he was told that the job required 15 percent travel. But after his hiring, the on-the-road service schedule grew to near 80 percent at times. The fact that Mack had devised such good software to run the chillers within less than one degree of set point now meant that he had to go to the field and install it into every chiller sold by Central Commercial Chillers. After downloading the software, he had to commission the chiller and make sure it did what was promised. So, Mack spent a lot of time on runways, in rental car lots and in hotel rooms. The desk job had become a suitcase job.

Last week Mack was in Kansas. This week Mack was in New England servicing chillers. Tonight, he ended up at a motel in Connecticut. Tomorrow he would service a chiller nearby.

Mack entered the motel room and switched on the TV. He liked the ‘company’. It was all he had.  His ex-wife also sent him packing, something to do with pornography. Being alone was nothing new for Mack. And, loneliness came with the service guy turf, Mack figured. Fill the void with work, food and TV and hit “Restart” every morning.

After a shower and a quick burger at Friendly’s Ice Cream Mack came back to his room and settled into bed with the remote. Flipping through the channels he came a cross a show he liked. The show soon went to commercial.

“…If you call now, you’ll receive one free WonderPan with every order. Only pay for shipping and handling… A surface that cannot be scratched or matched…Someone is standing by now to take your call. Call now.”

The program returned after two minutes of commercials. But by now Mack’s eyes were heavy. He fixed a pillow under his head and watched the TV through squinting eyes.

Another commercial break came. There was a commercial for a sex chat line. Call them, it said, and they will make you feel “spontaneous”. Mack thought about sex on the phone. It seemed to fit his isolated lifestyle. And, sex seemed to be going on everywhere but not with him. His phone sex ears were wide awake but his eyes were almost sleep. The voice in his head told him don’t deny yourself. “But, Tanya, I’m tired,” Mack said and fell asleep.

“…If you call now, you’ll receive one free sex chat with one of our beautiful and sensual ladies. With each sex chat that you purchase receive one free chat the next time you call…. Someone sexy is waiting to talk to you right now…”

 

The chiller service trips had taken Mack to Sonora County Mexico, to Saskatchewan, to Rio De Janiero, and to most of the fifty states – wherever plastic parts were being injection molded and thermoformed. The unique plastic parts he came across were matched by some interesting characters Mack met along the way.

There was New Jersey Rick. NJ Rick was an intense smoker-guy, a middleman who contracted guys like Mack to service his clients. At night Rick liked to go to the strip clubs until the wee hours of the morning. Mack went along once thinking he owed it to Rick for the business. Mack knew better. He would not get those images out of his head. And the next day was brutal.

In Tennessee, there was the Tony, a proud Italian who also did service work. Tony liked to pick up women at the bar and bring them back to his hotel room. Mack found this out one morning. Tony knocked on his motel door and said, “Hey, Mack, you gotta come see this.” So, Mack went and saw a naked woman passed out on the bed. Mack kept his distance from Tony after that. He couldn’t get that image out of his head.

In Terre Haute there was Javier, a six-foot five Mexican. He serviced equipment and women. Javy would go to the dance clubs at night after work. He’d dance, flirt in his muy macho style and then take someone back to his motel room. Mack went along some nights because he was lonely and he was tired of Andy of Mayberry reruns. Javy needed the shared rental car every night, so Mack was dropped off at his motel room before Javy drove his new catch to a nearby bar. Mack couldn’t rid himself of these images.

In De Ridder Louisiana, waking up to the paper mill stench was enough to turn Mack’s stomach. Along with the awful smell, the behavior of his friend Ron unsettled him. Ron was a co-service guy with Mack. There were sites that needed a lot of mechanical help besides software upgrades. Ron did the mechanical work which involved a lot of walking. But this seemed odd to Mack since Ron had a hard time walking. Ron’s permanent limp came about after he fell out of a tree during an acid trip.

Ron, despite his home-grown defect, liked to think of himself as a man’s man – he didn’t just fall out of a tree, he FELL out of a TREE and survived! He would boast about his manliness to Mack and to the women he tried to dance with night after night after work. Ron, like Javy and like Tony, was married when he was at home. All the other times he was in compensation mode – find someone quick or die from loss of reinforced manliness.

During one meal Ron told Mack about his disorder – Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder – so Mack decided that he would drive the rental car from that point on. This meant that Mack was the chauffer for Ron Casanova’s adventures night after night. Mack now had his own flashbacks.

 

The chiller at Automated Plastic Parts worked just as promised – within one degree of set point. Mack had the client sign the service report and then headed back to his hotel room for a shower. After the shower Mack went to Friendly’s for his supper. He didn’t want to have to think or make another decision. He was flat out hungry and all thought out.

Back at his room Mack undressed and got into bed. The TV sputtered light into the space before him. Images came and went. The drone of constant noise weakened his resistance. Mack fell asleep.

 

Mack looked up and saw a stairwell with service men walking up and down the stairs. The men going down the stairs were carrying framed pictures which they dumped in a garbage can at the bottom of the stairs. The men going up received new batteries. And then suddenly, next to Mack stood a man. The man said, “I making a service call. Remember, “If you call now, I will give you a free map. You’ll be driving within one degree of set point in no time.” 

 

Mack woke up with a crick in his neck and vowing to move on with God’s help.

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2018, All Rights Reserved

Jake’s Midnight Dust Up

 

The last day of 2017 found Jake alone in the empty house. The movers had come and gone. Earlier that day Jake sent his wife Rachel off with their two kids to their new home in another state. Jake stayed behind to clean up the house for the new owners. The house belonged to them at midnight.

Rachel was Jake’s second wife. His first wife Leah divorced him after she found out about Jake’s cheating. And, so that there was no more cheating, child support for Jake’s and Leah’s six sons and daughter was deducted from his paycheck. Jake wasn’t proud of what he had done but he was a survivor.

His mother, though, who had taught Jake from his childhood to “get what is yours”, was proud of him. So was Jake’s manager Aram Fields. Aram liked Jake. Jake’s sales record chart was given pride of place in the break room – on an easel next to the water cooler. During the twenty years Jake had worked for Aram, he became Fields Pre-Driven Cars’ top salesman seven years in a row. Jake became family when he married Rachel, Aram’s daughter.

Jake could pitch like no other salesman Aram knew. And, Jake’s mark-up-the-interest-rate-2-or-3 % financing was his specialty. Jake also knew each car’s history and could promote each one as “slightly used but highly prized by its previous owner”. Jake had a way of convincing people to “get what is yours”.

 

Well, that night, while Jake was in the kitchen cleaning the oven, there was a knock on the front door. When Jake opened the door, there stood a man with a tool carrier.

“Hi…uh…I didn’t call you. I…what are you here for?’

“What is your name?”

“Jake.”

“I’m at the right place.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Yes, I am.

“No. I didn’t call anyone. This is still my house.”

“Your house?”

“Yes! Now I have to get back to work. Goodbye…” Jake tried to close the door but the man put his foot in the doorway.

“Hey! Now you are making me mad! Get out!”

“I’m here to fix what is broken.”

“What?! What is broken?”

“Are you sure you didn’t call me?”

“I would know if I called you, wouldn’t I?”

“I have the tools. Let me in.”

“I have my own tools. And, I have what it takes to fix things in my own house.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Hey you! You know what?! My manager Aram thinks I have what it takes. He pays me pretty good to make things happen.”

“You like to be rewarded for your efforts?”

“Yes, of course!”

“I am here to reward you for your efforts.”

“Huh?”

“I can fix what is broken.”

“What?! What is broken?”

“Are you sure you didn’t call me?”

“I would know if I called you, wouldn’t I?”

“I have the tools. Let me in.”

“I have my own tools. And, I’ve been fixing things all my life.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Hey! We just went through all this before. You are wasting my time.”

“I did offer to help.”

“I don’t need help. I am my own man. I’m not just another senior citizen you can manipulate. I’ve been around the block.”

“Look, you bicker with me and you bicker with others. You’re good at bickering to “get yours” and at getting other people ‘theirs’. Tell me your name again.”

“Jake! I told you!”

“I’m at the right place.”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Yes, I am.

The back and forth between Jake and the man went on for what seemed like hours. Neither Jake or the man gave in. Jake, at last, became exasperated.

“Listen. I didn’t call anyone. This is still my house. I’m in charge”

“Your house? What time is it?

“Time for you to leave! Get outta here!” Jake pushed the door against the man’s foot.

When the man saw that Jake was not going to let him in he grabbed an envelope from the tool carrier and handed it to Jake. Then he asked, “You are Jake Houseman? You purchased 763 Peniel?”

“Yes.”

“Your new property…this is what the bank came back with. You purchased the foreclosure with cash but there is a property tax lien against it.

Jake opened it and saw the notice of notice of lien on his new property. His face wrenched.

“Hey, hold on!” Jake grabbed the man by the arm as he tried to leave. “We’ve got to work this out!”

The man said, “Let me go. I have to be on my way.”

“No way. You are staying until we get this business sorted out!”

“I will work it out. You have my word.” Jake loosened his grip and let go.

“Besides,” the man said, “you are no longer Jake Houseman. You are now Jake Newhouse.” The man winked and then turned and left.

“Hey, what’s your name?”

“I knew your father and your grandfather,” the man called back from across the yard.

The man walked past the neighbor’s house and was then out of sight.

Jake stood in the doorway. The rising sun cast his long shadow onto the floor of the empty house behind him. Jake stood there stunned and tired and hurting. After several minutes of looking at the lien and rubbing his forehead, Jake went back inside. He picked up his tools and cleaning supplies. He placed the extra set of house keys on the kitchen table, walked out the front door and then over to his car.

At the sidewalk, Jake, with his face still wrenched, turned to look back at the house.

“I bought someone else’s lemon. What a ball-breaker that guy is! But, I’ll live. Lesson learned. Goodbye house on Jabbok.”

And so Jake saw the sun rise on another year.

 

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2017, All Rights Reserved

~~~

Chagall – Jacob Wrestling with God

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Schoenberg: Die Jakobsleiter: Friede auf Erden, Op. 13. Orchestral version

A Local Sighting, Part Two

 

Part One: Local Sighting

Part Two

 

You’ve just left the pool of Siloam. Your face is washed. Your eyes sparkle. And this time you are leading you mother. You find your way back to your neighborhood with familiar sounds and smells and now with fresh sights connecting the dots through firing synapses. You are almost there and you detect hubbub at the corner of Market St. And Way St.

Your neighbors, gathered, buzzing, are waiting for you. They want to see if you can see. But, they can’t believe their own eyes when you approach leading your mother and you are not hesitating with each step.

There’s a shout. “Isn’t this the man who used to sit here and beg? This is the corner Market St. and Way St., isn’t it?”

“Yes, and yes, it’s sure looks like him,” someone shouts.

“No, it isn’t!” another man shouts back. It’s got to be somebody else. These kinds of things don’t happen, not where I’m from anyway.”

As you approach the crowd you motion with your hand and say, “Yes, it’s me. Here’s my cup.”

“Well, then,” the one from out of town asks you, “how did your eyes get opened?”

“Those around me told me it was the man called Jesus! He made some mud. Then he spread it on my eyes. Then he sent me off to the pool of Siloam to wash. So, I went, and washed, and now I can see! I can see you.”

“And, we see you, but where is Jesus?” several ask you.

“I don’t know. I don’t know where to look. I’m new at this.”

Some men, eyewitnesses in fact, who were scandalized by the fact that Jesus may have broken some particular law on the sabbath, took you to the Pharisees for some jot and tittle questioning. The Pharisees had you start again:

“He put mud on my eyes and I washed, and now I can see!” You looked at them and saw their disbelief. Under your breath you said, “Ignoring reality will not go well for you.”

But they did and it did not go well.

Some of the Pharisees could no longer keep silent. “This man can’t be from God. He doesn’t keep the sabbath!”

Others said, “Yes, but, how can a sinner do signs like these?”

And so, the fact that you could now see had partys of Pharisees seeing things differently.

So, they questioned you again. This time they questioned the genesis of your sight.

“What have you got to say about him? they asked. He opened your eyes after all.”

“He’s a prophet,” you replied. You say Jesus is a prophet because unquestionable good is sent from God.

Doubting Judeans in the kangaroo court didn’t believe that you really had been blind from birth and now could see. So, they called your parents and grilled them.

“Is this man really your son,” they asked, “the one you say was born blind? How is it that he now sees?”

“Well, “replied your parents, who were very concerned about their synagogue status, “we know this he is indeed our son, and that he was born blind, but we don’t know how it is that he can now see, and we don’t know who it was who opened his eyes. Ask him! He’s a grown up. He can speak for himself.”

You knew that your parents knew how you came to see. You knew why they were holding back. They were afraid of what the leaders of the community would think of this yet inexplicable event. You also knew that you were blind from birth and that you were no longer sightless and that someone sent from God applied mud to your utter darkness. Reality would have to be dealt with at some point.

So, perhaps hoping to trip you up, you were called in for a second time of questioning. Some said the sabbath had been broken by Jesus-he did the unthinkable!

“Give God the glory!” they said. “We know that this man is a sinner.”

“I don’t know whether he’s a sinner or not,” you replied. (You never claimed to be able to see into a man’s motives.) “All I know is this: I used to be blind, and now I can see.”

Incredulous, they prodded you again, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

(At this point you recalled the story of Elisha’s servant: Elisha had prayed, “Open my servant’s eyes, LORD, so that he may see.” The LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and the servant looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. “Don’t be afraid,” Elisha told his servant. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”)

Unafraid, you respond, “I told you already and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again?” With a new-found gleam in your eye you decide to throw a hot coal into the inquiry. “You don’t want to become his disciples too, do you?”

“You’re his disciple,” they scoffed, “but we are Moses’s disciples. We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this man comes from.”

“Well, here’s a fine thing!” you replied. “You don’t know where he’s from, and he opened my eyes! We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners; but if anyone is devout, and does his will, he listens to them. It’s never, ever been heard of before that someone should open the eyes of a person born blind. If this man isn’t sent from God, he couldn’t do anything.”

Rattled to the core, the Pharisees denounced you: “You were born in sin from top to toe. You are going to start teaching us?” They threw you out so as to not to be defiled in the sight of God or man. Jesus did the opposite.

Jesus heard that you had been thrown out. He found you at the corner of Market and Way streets talking to your neighbors. He walked up to you and asked,” Do you believe in the son of man?”

Scanning the face of Jesus, you reply, “Who is he, sir, so that I can believe in him?”

 

“You have seen him. In fact, it is the person who is talking to you.”

Now it seemed that all of your brain synapses were firing at once. And this came out of your mouth, “Yes, sir, I do believe.”

You fall to your knees and give God the glory. No one demanded it from you, you wanted to worship the son of man, the one sent from God, the giver of light.

Jesus looked down at you and then around at your neighbors and spectators and said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who can’t see would see, and that those who can see would become blind.”

Some of the spectators were Pharisees, the self-styled purveyors of “a light to the Gentiles”. They heard what Jesus said to the crowd. Indignant, they retorted, “So! We’re blind too, are we?” They weren’t expecting a Kingdom of God inversion, one that would turn their world upside down.

“If you were blind,” replied Jesus, “you wouldn’t be guilty of sin. But now, because you say, ‘We can see,’ your sin remains.

The Pharisees walked off in a huff. The crowd, in wonder, remained around you until sunset.

 

The next morning your father wakes you up. “C’mon. Get up. Now that Jesus has put things right for you there is work to be done. But first, come and see the sunrise.”

 

~~~

The above account is found in the Gospel of John chapter nine. My retelling of the account has been embellished. The scripture passages are referenced from, “The Kingdom New Testament, A Contemporary Translation”, N.T. Wright (I highly recommend this NT translation over the NIV or any other translation.)

Try to Remember

 

The bumper sticker in front of Tom read, “Try to remember what you wanted to be.” Tom thought for a moment and then the light changed. He remembered that he didn’t want to be late for his date with Sherry. Pulling up to the next light Tom remembered that he wanted to be a missionary and a band conductor and a secret agent and a shortstop and an army guy and someone other-worldly, like a saint or an astrophysicist. At the next light he coughed as he said, “I never thought I’d end up as a welder.” 

Tom knocked and Sherry came to the door. “Dinner’s almost ready. C’mon in.”

“Wow what a day. How about that heat? I had to keep lifting my helmet to wipe the sweat off my face. I came home drenched.”

“You did take a shower, didn’t you?” Sherry joked.

“Yes, my dear. I see you did, too.”

“Yeah. I had the same problem you did. Welding that half-inch plate, I couldn’t see for all the sweat burning my eyes.”

“Maybe we should be welders in Alaska.”

“Yeah, and then could eat fresh wild-caught salmon and caribou.”

“You know the way to a man’s heart, don’t you kiddo?”

“As long as we are on the same path, I’ll know the way to your heart.” Sherry smiled.

Tom and Sherry sat down, gave thanks, and started eating the chicken tacos Sherry had prepared.

“I saw a bumper sticker on my way over here.”

“What did it say?”

“‘Try to remember what you wanted to be.’”

“I remember wanting to be Weather Woman on TV. I wanted to tell everyone what the weather would be while wearing nice clothes. I was ready. All my clothes were solids and not patterns.”

“You can tell me the weather forecast anytime you want Weather Woman. I hope I’m on your radar screen.”

“Yeah, you’re a blip.”

“Ahem. I remember wanting to be more than a blip. I wanted to save the world from the bad guys and run fast like Flash and play baseball like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Look at us now. We are both welders. You know, I read in Welder’s Weekly that…”

“Welder’s Weekly?” Sherry looked puzzled.

“Yeah, I am the only subscriber. Anyway, the Bead Column said that welders should date welders. “

“And why is that?”

“They’ll carry a torch for you.”

“I see why you are the only subscriber.”

“And there were bumper stickers for sale, too: “Be the Bead” and “If the Weld Smells Like Pork You’re on Fire.”

Sherry choked on her food. “That last one is hilarious.”

Sherry cleared her throat and said. “Well, you had me at first arc. C’mon. Help clean up. We have work to do.”

After putting the dishes in the sink, Tom and Sherry went to the garage. They set up the gas welders and the welding rods. They worked together creating a sculpture for a nearby church garden.

After a couple of hours, they came in for dessert – Key Lime pie. It was then that Tom gave Sherry the ring and said, “many are called, one is chosen.”

 

Later that night, while sitting together on the front porch, Sherry asked Tom a question.

“Tom, have you ever wondered why you and I were born in this time and place?

“I usually ask that in the middle of laying a bead and the temperature is ninety-degrees. But, what are you thinking?

“When I think of the millennia of time which has passed and the millions of people who have gone on before, I think we were born here and now to be a who we are-man and wife-to continue what God has begun, to continue creation.”

“Well, when you put it like that, welding makes sense in the cosmos. Joining two metals to become one creates something greater than the individual pieces.”

“You’re a philosopher now, Tom?”

“A stitch-er of thoughts, more likely. When I was on the road in New York and Indiana and Louisiana MIG welding together these towering static mixers I told you about I had time to think. There inside a hollow eighteen-foot diameter shell of twelve-gauge steel I realized that I am here for a purpose greater than me and greater than me welding together something that will benefit somebody today but will fall out of use some day. I saw that I am. Why that happened right then, I don’t know. But after what you just said, we make sense together. I better get home. I am exhausted.” 

Sherry looked at the ring on her finger and then looked over at Tom. Tom reached over and gave Sherry a kiss and asked, “Do you know how diamonds are created?”

“No, Tell me.”

Diamonds are made from the residual carbon of the earth’s first land plants. The carbon is exposed to extremely high temperature and pressure in the earth’s mantle. They are pushed up to the earth’s surface by volcanic activity.”

“Did you read this in Welder’s Weekly?”

“No. I read it in A Brief History of Welding.” Tom grinned like Alice’s Cheshire cat.

“So, to reach our Diamond Wedding Anniversary we will be subjected to high temperature and high pressure?”

“There’s only one way to find out and we’re going to go through it together.”

Tom gave Sherry another kiss and said, “See you in the morning. Don’t forget to wear cotton. It’ll be another hot day. Oh, I just thought of another bumper sticker: “Welders keep you in stitches.”

“You are exhausted. Good night.”

 

A year later, Tom and Sherry began marriage counseling with pastor Dave. The wedding date had been set.

During the first session with Pastor Dave, he asked them, “How did you two meet each other?”

Tom responded. “We met at Marsh Technology Center. We were both in a welding class. She flipped my lid.

Dave laughed. Now you have my interest. Explain.

“Yep. It was the first time I put on a welding helmet and I was trying to adjust the tension. Sherry flipped my helmet up and showed me how to adjust it. The tension has to be just right. When you are ready to weld you need to flip the helmet down to cover your eyes. Your hands are full so you flip the helmet down with a jerk of your head.” Tom showed Dave “the flip.”

During that first session pastor Dave asked about their family back grounds. As the session was wrapping up, Dave said, “Everyone who gets married comes to marriage with a lot of baggage. Each of you can share the load of the other but don’t think that the other will somehow resolves whatever issues you brought to the marriage. You own those issues like you own your credit report. It is yours to correct. Your spouse is there to support you but is not there to fix you.”

The second session was about finances. “You each come to your marriage with a certain way of dealing with money. Marriages break apart over how finances are handled. Marriage is a coming together-an intimacy-of finances where you must hold each other accountable. Set up a budget spreadsheet. Set up an accounting of debits and credits using available software. Set up financial goals for a home, for children, for retirement and most importantly-for giving. Remember. You cannot give what you do not have.

Look at each other’s credit report now before you get married. Look and see what each of you has done with their money. Love covers a multitude of sins, but a pile debt sticks out on credit reports. Stay away from consumer debt. It will eat you alive. Become financially savvy.”

During the third session Pastor Dave talked about in-laws–keeping one’s marriage separate, away from meddlesome in-laws. He said that becoming one takes focus. What Tom remembered was “Location, location, location.” What Sherry remembered was the ache in the pit of her stomach.

The fourth session: “long live intimacy.”

“Intimacy is the every-aspect-relationship that you have with your spouse. You have to work this out together day by day, minute by minute. And, don’t compare. Don’t ever read a couple or watch a TV show and say to your spouse, I wish we were like that couple.

Your marriage will face a test of wills. Your goal is to become one. That doesn’t mean the one is dissolved into the other. It means that the understanding, forgiveness and love you each bring to the other is forged-welded, is the better word for you two-to become one stronger whole.

Intimacy is broken when there is no forgiveness. Do not got to bed angry. A root of bitterness likes to grow in that kind of harsh unyielding soil. Do not apologize and say, “I’m sorry. I said it because of what you said.” You might get slapped. Holding grudges will quickly destroy your marriage. If you are angry, take some time to cool off and think about why you are angry. Are you angry because of what happened reminded you of something that happened earlier in your life that your spouse doesn’t know about and had no hand in? Beware. Unresolved anger is self-justifying as means of protection. Unresolved anger places others into exile. True forgiveness removes people from exile and embraces them. You may feel strongly about some wrong done to you. If so, tell your spouse that you are angry and why you are angry. Tell your spouse that you need some time to process your anger and that you do not want to reman angry with him or her. See what happens next. And, deal with your past baggage now so that the present and future are given to your spouse.

Intimacy is not sitting in front of a TV with your spouse. As it says, “make the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” Find a church community which supports this truth. I recommend staying away from TV. Don’t make TV a third person in your marriage”

Tom interjected. “Neither of us own a TV and we don’t plan on having one after we are married. I think of the irony that so many people will go buy organic foods or be vegetarian or try to eat healthy and workout and yet they fill their minds with all kinds of trash from the TV. There is too much in this world to explore and to wonder about for us to sit in front of a box.”

“Good.” Pastor Dave replied. “Now let’s talk about sex.”

Both Tom and Sherry looked at each other and then rolled their eyes up to look at the ceiling.

“My wife Karen will talk to you, Sherry, and I will talk to you, Tom, alone. Let’s go.

Sherry met with Karen. Karen talked about sexual intimacy with a man and how to prolong a man’s excitement.

Pastor Dave talked to Tom. He began by drawing a picture of a vagina and then asking Tom to draw in where the clitoris was. Tom had no idea so, Dave drew it in and circled it. Dave then talked about how women are in no hurry to achieve orgasm but men are. He said that the two becoming one must find a happy oneness.

During the fifth session Pastor Dave talked about having a faith community that will support your marriage. He said to find a church where truth and beauty are combined into the daily life of the church. A church which is all preaching and teaching is missing the inexplicable and the transcendent. Find a church, he said, that loves mystery and encourages adventures of discovery. Find a church where art, music and drama play major roles in worship and teaching and are not considered asides to some pulpit ministry.

Pastor Dave’s sixth session: “When children come, life is turned upside down. Be prepared. Your marriage will be put to the test because everything you are came about during childhood. Having children is like attending a therapy session: the past is brought up and you are forced to confront it as little Tommy Jr. decides he will not obey, no way and no how. Rearing children requires patience you don’t think you’ll ever have enough of. Rearing children requires discipline for yourself and for your children, so know what and how that looks like. Listen to other parents. Learn to set and enforce proper boundaries for your children. Children feel secure when they bump up against sure and solid.

Their wedding day was a month away when Tom and Sherry came to Pastor Dave’s seventh and final marriage counseling session. Tom wondered why he was sweating sitting in Pastor Dave’s air-conditioned office. Pastor Dave surprised the couple by showing them the Princess Bride wedding scene. Tom was no longer sweating. Instead, his Cheshire cat grin reappeared.

“Alright then. You’ll need a sense of humor for your marriage to survive all the stuff thrown at it. Now, I want you two to focus on what I am about to say: Marriage is a rose that enfolds the mystery of truth and goodness and being within itself and then opens for the world to behold its beauty. A Kingdom marriage means taking vows-a sincere and binding promise made with full understanding. Together you will help each other to flourish. You will witness and worship together. Together you promote the glory of God. Together you will discover and uncover the mysteries of the universe.

And you should know that God created the gender identities of male and female not just for procreation of the human race. I believe that God’s creation of two distinct gender identities, both rooted and fixed in sexed bodies, was also for the creation of mystery.  You see, men and women who come into a marriage relationship begin a journey of discovery. Men discover and grow into their maleness and women discover and grow into their femaleness. Within the give and take of a marriage relationship the mystery of your gender identity and the other’s gender identity is explained and affirmed. The same thing also happens for a single person in a healthy Christian community. God created mystery for us to discover Him and each other and His whole creation over a course of a lifetime. We should never be bored.

God, in His infinite-personal love, created mystery and romance. Look at how much we do not know about the universe. Our God is surrounded in mystery.  Clouds and thick darkness surround him. God does not do boring, to put it another way. Reason alone cannot tell you all you need to know. Emotions and your senses cannot tell you all you need to know. No, we discover what we do not know when we are in relationship with Him and with others. Your marriage, the dancing embrace of male and female, will venture off into God’s uncharted universe to go where no man or woman has gone before.

“Bead me up,” Tom replied.

Pastor Dave looked over at Sherry. “Do you really want to marry this corny guy.”

Sherry looked over at Tom who was grinning his cat grin, “Well, he does keep me in stitches. That’s his welding joke.”

“You two were made for each other. Now for the welding. I mean the wedding.” Pastor Dave prayed a blessing on the couple and then dismissed them after discussing the wedding details.

 

At the wedding Pastor Dave again prayed a blessing on the couple. As Tom and Sherry drove away from the church Tom noticed the same bumper sticker that he saw before: “Try to remember what you wanted to be.”

“I remember what I wanted to be. It is what I am with you.” Tom leaned over and kissed Sherry.

Their car’s bumper sticker read: “With This Ring, I Thee Weld.”

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2017, All Rights Reserved

The Dreamer

 

Charles pulled open the door to the Gravity Pub and went in. The near campus bar was dark and full of conversation coming from TVs and crowded tables. Charles found Dimitri and sat down next to him at the bar. The bartender placed two beers and two shot glasses in front of Dmitri and Charles. The bartender returned to fill the shot glasses with vodka. Dimitri placed a twenty on the bar and the bartender made change. “To respect!” Charles toasted. The two drank down the shots.

“Congratulations Charles.” Dimitri gave Charles a slap on the back. “Now that you have a master’s degree in social justice, the world is your oyster, as they say.

“So far the world is my headache.  I have received no job offers since graduating.”

“Give it time.  Here, let’s have another shot”, Dimitri offered and threw a twenty-dollar bill on the bar.

After two beers and several shots of vodka, Charles stood up next to Dimitri and pointed a finger in the air above him.

“My friend, for too long the one perthent have exploited tax loopholes making them richer. The rich are taking their wealth and all of the income and moving their profits overseas making the poor pay the bills. Their gain is our sthruggle!”

Conversations in the room stopped.

“Sit down tiger”, Dimitri pulled on Charles jacket, “These jokers already heard all this stuff.”

“I’ll not sleep until income inequality is error…radicated.”

“Give it time.  Here, let’s have another shot”, Dimitri placed two twenty-dollar bills on the bar. He told the bartender that he was ready to settle their bill.

Charles sat down again. He looked despondent. After an hour he said goodnight to Dimitri.

Charles pushed open the door to the Gravity Pub and went out. The brisk night air in his lungs made him yawn. Looking up at a sodium streetlight he proclaimed, ” A mather’s dugree…now maybe I’ll get some re…thpect …Joe …he rethpects me… I gave him a two dollar thip!” Charles stood colorless under the yellow light proclaiming to passing cars his grand achievement.

After some time, Charles made his way home. He plunked down on the futon in the basement. He tried to remember how he got home. His thoughts were not working in any order. He lay down. His eyes, heavy with sleep, closed. The room settled down, became dark and then a large room opened before him. A room with chandeliers. A room with a large audience. The audience was looking at him. There were cries of “Speech! Speech!”

“Friends, today is a good day for the world. You have recognized my worth. I want to eradicate inequality…for too long the rich have stuffed their mattresses with wealth. The rich have the entire world’s money and their trickle down has never worked. When the rich get richer, the middle-class doesn’t benefit. No, the rich stash their cash. They buy trinkets. Their money was made on the backs of underpaid workers. Automation technology destroys the working class…Save the …”

In the next moment, a man in a tux looped a medal around Charles neck. It was the Nobel Prize. The audience stood to their feet applauding. And then a white figure with a halo came toward him. Inga was bringing him roses. As he reached for them he found himself in a ballroom dancing with Inga. She asked him, “What are you going to do with all that money?”

“I will buy a drum set. Yes, I will buy a drum set!”

“Charles, wake up.” Mick, Charles’ younger brother, thumped Charles on the head with his forefinger.

“Ow! Wh…what do you want?”

“You were talking in sleep. Hey, can I borrow a dollar?  I will pay you back with my allowance.

“Aw, go away. My head hurts. Bring me aspirin and some water.”

“Aw, go away.

 

A week later Charles met Dimitri at Gravity.

“We’ll have another beer, Joe.”

Joe the bartender set the beer in front of Charles and Dimitri. Charles looked at him and asked, “Joe, how much do you make?’

“I make enough to take care of my wife and two daughters.”

“I mean how much do you make?

“I make minimum wage plus tips. This is a second job.”

“See what I am saying Dmitri? The greedy one percent has drained this man of his humanity.”

Joe gave Charles a puzzled look and walked away.

“Those rich greedy bastards. Those fat cats hoard money in Swiss banks.  Wait till the world sees what I can do to make things right! I have no patience for the rich. Who are they to have so much when Joe has so little?

“See that framed dollar on the wall”. Leon pointed to a 4 x 6” frame above the liquor bottles, “I will frame the first dollar I take from a rich man.”

At that moment Charles phone rattled on the bar. He picked up the phone and saw that this mother had called. He pushed 1 and his mom’s number was dialed.

“Mom, what is it?”

“Several boxes arrived today for you. What are they?”

“It’s a drum set. I’m gonna play drums in a band.”

“You are also going to start paying rent to stay here.”

“Mom, not this again. I need to pay off my student loan. I have no job. The rich have made it almost impossible for people like me.  And why should I work for minimum wage when I have a Master’s Degree? Look how much I have invested in myself.”

“You have to start somewhere. Your dear departed father worked for fifty years so that you and I had a roof over our head. He wouldn’t want you to be a leech. Now, either you pay rent or you are out. Get home now and get these boxes out of the living room.”

“Mom, I’ll talk to you later.”  Charles ended the call.

“Dmitri, can you buy me one more beer and shot?’

“Sure. Trouble at home?”

“Ah, my mother wants me to pay rent. As if I was made of money.”

The bartender placed two beers and two shot glasses in front of Dmitri and Charles. He returned to fill the shot glasses with vodka. Dimitri placed a twenty on the bar and the bartender made change.

The two raised their shot glasses. Charles toasted to the end of the oppression and they drank. When the beer was gone Charles stood up.

“I better get going before my mother has a conniption fit. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Charles walked out. Pushing open the door to the Gravity Pub he went into the night air yawing.

At home Charles moved the boxes down to the basement. He opened them and checked the contents. When he couldn’t stop yawning he lay down on the futon and closed his eyes.

In the descending blackness he came upon daylight. He saw himself outside his mother’s car in front of a store.  The car was running and the car keys were locked inside. His Nobel medal hung around the rear view mirror. Frantic, he looked around for help. His professor came by and said, “You shouldn’t have done that”. A politician walked by and said “Someone will come along to help, trust me”. A man in a Mercedes pulled up and said. ”Hey I’ve got just the thing you need.” The man opened his trunk and pulled out a Slim Jim. The man proceeded to unlock the door through the car window’s weather stripping. When the door opened the radio blurted out, ”Mama may have, papa may have, But God bless the child that’s got his own, That’s got his own.”

Charles opened his eyes, winced and held his head. “Damn”, he moaned, his mother was playing her music again.

As years went by, Charles went on to become a respected professor of Social Justice at his alma mater. After tenure Charles received a six-figure salary. He summers in Costa Rica where he gives lectures about the one percent and income inequality. He went on to write “Structural Marginalization, Social Justice and Solidarity Action for the Education Challenged”. The book was well-received by his peers but did not sell in the open market. Soon after the book release Charles became the owner of Gravity Pub. Dimitri went on to start a hedge fund that gave away fifty percent of its profits. Charles’ mother died in her home with an unused drum set.

 

 

 

 

© Jennifer A. Johnson, 2017, All Rights Reserved

On the Brink

 

On the Brink

 

“Why?” the child asks.

“Who says?” the youth asks.

“When can I?” the teenager asks.

“Why not?” the twenty-year old asks.

“Who are you?” the thirty-year old asks.

“Where are you?” the forty-year old asks.

“Who am I?” the fifty-year old asks.

“When can I?” the sixty-year old asks.

“What did you say?” the seventy-year old asks.

“Whatever.” the eighty-year old says.

 

 

 

 

 

 

©Ann Johnson, Kingdom Venturers