Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Devil's Food; Part 2

A green man has taken over the family bathroom, and owner Brian McKinley is taking action.

Bat in hand, McKinley inched toward the bathroom door.  The boys had settled down for the night.  Mrs. Cosgrove’s outburst had faded, like the echo of a cannon.  Connie sipped some soup and gone back to sleep.  Darkness had swept over the house.  Most of the tax returns had been completed and e-mailed to clients.  Mr. Jenkins, as expected, had squealed about the results and made several threatening comments — a mild concern since he lived close by — but finally quieted when McKinley offered to redo the numbers in case a small error had crept in.  He would have to fudge something.  There wasn’t much choice between claiming to have made a mistake or conceding that a client owed far more than anticipated.  McKinley figured that if the IRS questioned one of the dubious deductions, he’d concede the mistake and pay the penalty himself.  No reason to lose a client over a few hundred dollars, certainly not one with the clout and affiliations of a Mr. Jenkins.
Besides, the return was almost accurate.  Everyone cheated a little anyway, McKinley rationalized.
Finally, as the boys settled into bed and Connie stirred uneasily, McKinley had a moment to consider the strange claim about a green man in the small bathroom.  That’s when he got Gerald’s Little League bat.
He pressed an ear against the bathroom door.  Nothing.  He waited.  There was a murmur of water running, but only briefly.  He felt his palms begin to sweat.  The bat was hard.  He slowly reached over with his right hand and carefully turned the knob.  He agonized over each slight movement until the lock clicked open.  Inching forward, he allowed the door to swing open a crack and peered inside again.
“Hi,” a well-modulated, calm voice said.
McKinley closed the door much faster than he opened it.  His heart was beating wildly.  He looked behind him.  No one was around.  It had to be 11 p.m.  No one else was awake.  No one else should be in the house.
Somehow, the alarm system hadn’t worked, he decided.                                      
He tiptoed to the phone in the kitchen and dialed 911.  A few whispered comments brought a promise of immediate help.
He hurried back to the bathroom and stood guard outside, in case the creature trapped inside decided to escape.  He didn’t feel comfortable in the role of a sentry, but gripped his bat and consoled himself that his family would appreciate his effort.
A chunky policeman named Fred Waverly arrived surprisingly quickly.  McKinley heard the patrol car pull up and met the officer at the door.  Waverly seemed pleasant but serious.  He listened gravely to the complete story, eyeing McKinley’s bat.
 “An intruder in the bathroom?” he asked. “How’d he get in?”
“I don’t know.”
There were other questions about possibly entry, location of the bathroom, other occupants in the house and the like.  McKinley waited until the end to tell the officer the awful truth.  “He’s green,” he gulped.  “The boys say he’s green.”
Waverly gave a sour look, as if pondering about a possible drinking problem.  “Did you see him?”
“No.  Yes,” McKinley gulped.  “I just looked in.  That’s all.”
“Is he green?”
“What did he do?’
“He just said, ‘Hi.’”
“Hi.”  McKinley said firmly.
“This is very strange,” Waverly decided.
He walked to the bathroom door and opened it.
“Hi,” the creature said very pleasantly, as though he often greeted people while resting in a bathtub.
Waverly looked stunned.  He drew himself up, adjusted his belt and collected his thoughts.  “You’ll have to leave,” he told the green man.
The creature stretched and stood up.  “I was just getting comfortable, but all right,” it said casually and nicely.
Waverly had his notebook out.  The green man did not seem dangerous.  In fact, he appeared surprisingly genial with a generous smile and a cheery expression.  Waverly wrote down his impressions: about 6 feet tall; dressed in a green suit with green skin; a round face with no noticeable scars or markings; short green hair neatly combed with a part of the right side; horns; a tail; and long arms with manicured fingernails.  Waverly wasn’t concerned about the color: several required classes in cross-cultural appreciation had muted any potentially racist thoughts.  Besides, Daytona Beach was a magnet for derelicts and bums, all of whom looked reasonably strange, especially late at night.
“How did you get in here?” Waverly asked in an undaunted manner.  Probably a transient who had found a place to sleep for the night, he decided.
“The boys brought me,” the creature said.  “Gerald, I believe, did the honors.”
Waverly paled.  He stopped writing in his notebook.  “Your boy named Gerald?” he asked McKinley.
“Yes,” McKinley managed, “but …”
“Bradley was here, too,” the creature continued.
“Bradley your other son?” Waverly said a little colder.
McKinley nodded weekly.
“Actually,” the creature continued, “Mr. McKinley was so kind to bring me home from the supermarket.
Waverly spun and glared at McKinley.  “Is that true?”
“Definitely not,” McKinley squeaked.  His voice trembled.
“Oh, you are such a little fiend,” the creature said with pretend hurt.  “Of course, you did.”  He reached over and picked up the brown cake box that Bradley had left by the basin.
“What?” Waverly asked.
“Ooh,” McKinley moaned as recognition set in.
“What?” Waverly repeated sharply.
McKinley just shook his head.  “I bought that box,” he said.
“Well, he’s too big to fit inside it,” Waverly said angrily.
“Brian!” Connie yelled.
“Who’s that?” Waverly asked coldly.
“My wife,” said McKinley, who was beginning to feel ill himself.  “She’s sick.  We have to be quiet.”  He put down the bat and tiptoed to the bedroom door.
The green man put his finger to his lips.  Waverly just glared at McKinley’s retreating back.
“What time is it?” Connie asked dreamily.
“Late,” McKinley told her.  “Go to sleep.”  He bent over and kissed her forehead.  She was cool and damp.  The fever must have finally broken.
“Who are you talking to?” Connie asked.
“A client,” McKinley said.  “Go to sleep.”  He tucked the cover under her chin. She smiled slightly and closed her eyes.
McKinley slipped out.  He gestured at the others and led them into the living room.  “She has the flu,” he said.
“I’m not feeling well myself,” said Waverly, who was holding the bat.  “Wild goose chases make me sick.”
“I hope you’re not getting ill,” the green man said solicitously.  Even in the dark living room, backlit by dim security lights on a neighbor’s house, he seemed to glow.  “Maybe some warm cake would help.”
“Thanks,” Waverly waved the suggestion away.  “I’ve got donuts in the car.”
He glared at McKinley and snapped his pad shut.  “Mister,” he said in his most authoritative tone.  McKinley hung his head like a little boy.  “I don’t know what kind of gag this is, but this man was obviously invited into your house.  If you’re prejudiced, that’s your problem.  Get some counseling.  But this is not a police matter.”
He handed the bat to McKinley.  “Be careful with this thing,” he cautioned sarcastically.  “You might hurt yourself.”
He hitched up his belt again, then glanced back at the green man.  “Nice color,” he said.  “Very floral.”
The creature beamed.  “Thank you so much,” he said with a slightly bow.
Waverly saw himself out.
McKinley simply sat down, holding his bat like a child’s security blanket.  The creature patted him on the head.  McKinley turned away.
“Are you all right?” the creature asked solicitously.  “You’re not getting sick, too.  There seems to be an epidemic in this house.”
McKinley shook his head.  He gathered himself and stood up, still holding his bat.
“Who are you?” he hissed.
“Shame on me,” the creature said, “we have not been formally introduced.”  He made a slight bow and waved his hand in a small curl.  “I am known by many names,” he said, “but I have always liked Mr. Scratch.”
“It has a nice, noncommittal ring, don’t you think?” Mr. Scratch said.
McKinley’s mind was reeling.  He felt so weak; he could barely hold the bat.  He sat down in the rocking chair.  Mr. Scratch sat across from him on the bench next to the dining room table.  His face seemed to shimmer.
“That’s better,” he said.  “I do like a tub, but don’t want to monopolize the bathroom.”
McKinley took a deep breath.  “You’re the devil,” he said, not believing the words coming out of his mouth.
“Oh,” Mr. Scratch said.  “I do hope you are not biased.  So many terrible things have been written about me.  I am really a nice fellow.”
The devil, McKinley thought to himself.  He felt as though a deep pit had opened beneath him.  What an awful situation.  He had brought the devil into his home.  Was it possible?  Did the devil really exist?  McKinley wished he had spent a little more time in church.  Actually, he couldn’t believe any of this.  What was the devil doing in Daytona Beach, Florida?  The devil?  What nonsense.
“What’s with the green shade?” he asked.
“I’m into my medieval period,’ Mr. Scratch said.  “Do you like it?  I like the horns and tail.  I feel like Pan.”
“Pan,” Mr. Scratch corrected.  “He’s the Green god of the fields.  People in the Middle Ages thought the devil wore green and had horns and a tail.”
“You don’t normally?”
Mr. Scratch laughed.  “Of course not.  I look just like everyone else.”
McKinley felt his head ache.  “This is a bad dream,” he announced.
“Thank goodness,” Mr. Scratch said.
“I’m going to bed,” McKinley continued.  “I’ve been working too hard.”
“You poor dear,” Mr. Scratch said.  “You get plenty of rest.  Don’t worry about me.  I’ll get up when you do.”
“Good, good,” McKinley mumbled.  He headed for the guest room.  In a moment, fully clothed, he was lying down, clutching the pillow.  It was so quiet, with just a distant hum of an electric clock. 
He didn’t dream of green men or anything.

In the morning, the Florida sun already burning the dew from the lawn, McKinley stumbled outside to pick up the Sunday newspapers.  His house had an L-shape.  The top, where two bedrooms were, faced west.  The bottom, which ended with the garage, faced north.  The crotch held the entrance.  As a result, when he emerged, he could not see the street, but had to step along the concrete walkway, between the hedges to the driveway.
He did so unthinking in his usual manner, going to retrieve the newspapers left at the bottom of his long driveway.  He got two dailies: The Orlando Sentinel for the news and the Daytona Beach News-Journal for the New York Times crossword puzzle.  He discarded the rest of the local paper, known locally with muted affection as “the mullet wrapper,” and which mostly of was a mishmash of bad editing, poor writing and execrable news judgment.
He picked up the papers, stripped over their plastic sheathes and glanced at a headline.  Nothing seemed particularly exciting.  He glanced around and marveled at the lovely morning.  Blue skies, fluffy clouds.  A couple cowbirds on the telephone lines.  A squirrel nattering about something in a palm tree.  This is why he moved to Florida.
He smiled contentedly.
Then, he noticed someone nearby, someone whose presence had been hidden by his house’s design and the row of small palms along the northern border of his yard.
“Mr. McKinley?”
Immediately recognizing the sweet sound, McKinley smiled warmly at Sunittra Wilpong, a young, attractive woman who had moved next door with her husband about a year before.  Like most Floridians, she had come from somewhere else.  In her case, Thailand.  McKinley understood such migrations: he was originally from New Hampshire, until the allure of a warm winter drove him south.  Wilpong, too, enjoyed the heat, which evoked memories of her native Bangkok.  She was thin with short, dark hair and an ever-present smile on her pleasant face.  She and McKinley would talk occasionally in the yard, keep an eye on each other’s houses when the other was away, and share an occasional bit of advice about gardens or a tool.  McKinley figured in time he would do the books for her small construction company.  It was only a matter of a few more pleasant conversations.
“You look very well this morning,” Wilpong said gently with her soft accent.
“Great day,” McKinley replied.  “A couple additional tax returns, and I’ll be done for the season.”
“Did you hire an assistant?”
McKinley looked puzzled.  An assistant?  No.  He did have a secretary and a rented office, but there wasn’t need for an assistant.  “Are you looking for a job?” he asked.
Wilpong gave an embarrassed smile.  “Oh, no,” she said.  “Not me.”  She laughed.  “I am very busy teaching.  No, Mrs. Cosgrove said you had a strange man in your house, and she asked us to keep an eye out.”
Wincing, McKinley looked up the street toward the Cosgrove house several houses north and across the street.  What was that woman doing?  “No, no,” he said quickly.  “Just the boys.  They can be strange, I guess.  Mrs. Cosgrove was acting pretty weird herself yesterday.”  He backed away quickly, clutching the newspapers under each arm.  “Heh, heh,” he managed.  “Funny how rumors start.”
Wilpong watched curiously.
McKinley realized she was in a bathrobe, indicating she had rushed outside in hopes of talking to him.
“Stay away from him!” a voice came roaring across the front lawn.
McKinley looked up with a start.  Mrs. Cosgrove!  She was striding towards him like a small, two-legged tank with arms swinging, fists clenched and her hard face rigid and cold.  She hadn’t bothered to comb her white hair, which straggled in the breeze she created with her determined march.
Suddenly, McKinley decided, the day didn’t look so pleasant.  In fact, the inside of his house was far more appealing.  “Nice to talk to you,” he waved at Wilpong and retreated back to his garage.  The front door was very visible and attainable from there.  It looked very inviting.  He tried to remain calm.  He wanted to maintain his composure and be professional.  Wilpong would remember that when he made a pitch for the family business account.
“You’re not getting away that easily,” Mrs. Cosgrove thundered. 
“It’s been a pleasure talking to you, too,” McKinley said tersely.  Mrs. Cosgrove had previously moved beyond criticizing the garden to accusing him of trying to “control” the neighborhood and being an evil influence. He could see her opinion hadn’t softened much over time.
McKinley deliberately turned toward his friendlier neighbor.  “Everything is fine, Sunittra,” he said with a careful, steady voice.  “Don’t let someone spreading false rumors cause trouble.”
Wilpong nodded and slipped away.  She picked up her pace as distance increased until she darted into her house.
“I trust you will be departing, too,” McKinley said to Mrs. Cosgrove.
“You …” Mrs. Cosgrove stopped flat.  Her eyes bugged out.  Her mouth stayed open.  She could only point.  No words came out.
McKinley turned.
“Hi,” Mr. Scratch said, stepping out of the house.  He took a deep breath.  “Nice day,” he said.  He gave a little wave at Mrs. Cosgrove.  “Don’t let me interrupt,” he told McKinley.  “Are you hungry?  I’ll make breakfast.”  He walked back into the house and closed the door.
“What was that?” Mrs. Cosgrove demanded.
“Nothing, no one,” McKinley stammered.  Mrs. Cosgrove was staring at him.  Her face had lost all its color.
“The devil,” the woman hissed.  “And, a week before Easter, too!”
“Mrs. Cosgrove,” McKinley tried.  His heart was racing.  He felt light headed.
“Don’t you talk to me,” Mrs. Cosgrove shouted.  “Bring in the sheaves.  We’ll all be rejoicing, bring in the sheaves,” she sang.  Heads poked out other front doors.  Curious neighbors began to meander down the street.
“Nearer my God to thee,” Mrs. Cosgrove began, her voice wailing into the soft morning the way a gale suddenly can spring up from nothing.
She locked arms with a woman who lived across the street.  “Sing, child,” she ordered.  “The devil must be thwarted.”
“Where is he?”  Another neighbor asked.  He hastily tucked a shirt into his shorts.  McKinley only knew him as a retired doctor who lived across the street.  He walked his dog faithfully twice a day, making sure the dog only defecated on someone else’s yard. 
“Him!” Mrs. Cosgrove pointed at McKinley.
Beginning to tremble, McKinley took a deep breath and tried to calm down.  He could see maybe a dozen neighbors straggling over.  “Good people,” he said shrilly.  “Please, let’s not get hysterical.”  Working virtually alone in a quiet office had hardly prepared him for riot control, although coping with two active sons did offer some practice.
He held up his hands.
That didn’t worked.  He became aware of complete silence.  People were gaping, slack jawed, eyes bulging. McKinley had never seen such overt hate so clearly outlined on so many faces.  For a moment, he felt frozen in place.  Then, his inner strength broken, he ran inside the house and locked the door behind him.
“Your breakfast is almost ready,” Mr. Scratch announced, poking his big green head around the corner of the kitchen as McKinley stepped inside the front door and closed it rapidly.
“You can’t do that,” he breathlessly told Mr. Scratch, who was holding an egg in preparation to adding it to another one already cooking in a skillet. 
“You don’t want two egg?”
McKinley groaned.  “You know what I mean,” he said.
“Brian!” Connie called.
McKinley hurried to the bedroom.  His wife was sitting up.  “Why can’t anyone keep quiet?” she demanded.
“You look better,” McKinley tried.  “Do you feel better?”
“I feel like leaving and going someplace a little quieter, like Mardi Gras or the middle of Spring Break,” she said.
She cocked an ear.  “What’s going on outside?” she asked.
Loud singing was clearly audible, along with honking cars and the banging of pots and pans.  “Block party,” McKinley said.
“This used to be a quiet neighborhood,” Connie announced, as though that observation would somehow reverse the situation.
“Yes, dear,” McKinley said.
“Stop the ‘dear’ stuff,” Connie cracked.
“Dad!”  Bradley was calling.
Blindly, McKinley hurried to his son’s side.  Bradley was sitting up in bed, rubbing his eyes.  Bradley lay next to him, still sleeping.  An atomic bomb couldn’t rouse him.  “What’s all the noise?” Gerald asked.
“I don’t know,” McKinley said.  “Go back to sleep.  It’s only 8 o’clock.”
Gerald managed a half smile.  “I smell something.  Bacon.  Who’s cooking?”
McKinley shook his head.  “You don’t want to know.”
“I’m hungry,” Gerald decided and scrambled to the kitchen.  The green chef carefully put bacon and two fried eggs on a plate.  Gerald simply took it.
“Wow,” he said.  “Thanks!”
“I have yours ready, too,” Mr. Scratch told McKinley.
“I don’t have an appetite,” McKinley said sourly.
“I’m sorry.  I hope you aren’t getting the flu, too,” Mr. Scratch said, sounding generally concerned.  “Can I make you something else?  I know, a fruit smoothie.  I’ll mix some bananas, strawberries and ice cream together.  That’ll perk you up.”
McKinley shook his head.  The cacophony outside was getting worse.  He sighed and headed for the guest bedroom, which he was using while his wife was ill.  It was located on the northwest corner of the house, the section closest to the street.  He could look out the window there and see the whole street.
He carefully raised the blinds.  A man’s face was inches away, squinting at him.  As soon as the blind opened, the man retreated, screaming.
Behind him, the entire city seemed to have descended on this little street.  Normally, first-time visitors could rarely find the place.  Apparently, that was no longer a problem.  People were walking on the lawn, singing, talking.  Someone had started a small lemonade stand.  Someone else had rolled out a grill.  Smoke was drifting along in the light breeze.  McKinley’s garden had already been trampled.
From somewhere came the thunder of drums.
“My god,” McKinley moaned.
He heard his son squirm next door and hurried into that bedroom.
“Dad,” Bradley mumbled, “turn off the radio.”
“Sure,” McKinley said wearily.
“Thanks,” Bradley said with a yawn, curled up with his blanket and fell asleep.
The doorbell rang.
McKinley raced down the hallway, not sure if he’d need Gerald’s bat again or something more lethal.  A young woman with long black hair, painted black fingernails and an earnest smile looked at him.  She had a notebook in her hand.  “Are you Brian McKinley?” she asked sweetly.
“Yes,” he managed.  “Who are you?”
“Betty Whimple, from the News-Journal,” she said.
“Not now, not now,” McKinley said, starting to close the door.  He could feel hundreds of eyes on him.
“Just a few simple question,” Whimple said quickly.  McKinley hesitated, his hand ready to slam the door.  She looked so nice.  “I can talk to the people outside,” she added, “but you’d like your side in the story, too, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes ... no …” McKinley tried.  “There aren’t two sides.”
“Oh,” Whimple said.  She wrote something down.”
“Don’t quote me,” McKinley demanded urgently.
“ ‘McKinley refused to comment on claims he was harboring the devil,’"Whimple read aloud from her notebook.
“No,” McKinley said quickly.  “I …”
“‘He seemed very confused,’” Whimple continued to read.
“I am not confused!” McKinley shouted.  He slammed the door and lay against it, panting.
“No use hiding, Brian,” Whimple called through the door.
McKinley shuddered.  He tottered back into the kitchen.  Mr. Scratch was cheerfully squeezing orange juice by hand for Gerald.  “Want some?” Mr. Scratch asked.
“I just want you to leave,” McKinley moaned.
“Dad, not until after breakfast,” Gerald objected.  “Then, he promised to help me with my reading assignment.”
McKinley gasped like a fish deposited on dry land.  “Reading?’ he whimpered.
“My best subject,” Mr. Scratch said proudly.  “That, and science.”
‘You know, Brad has a science fair project he needs help on,” Gerald noted eagerly.  “You could help him.”
“You bet I could,” Mr. Scratch agreed enthusiastically.  He immediately strode down the hallway to the bedroom to discuss the possibility with the sleeping teenager.
McKinley waited for his half-awake son to erupt in his usual burst of anger at having his sleep disrupted.  Instead, he came out of the bedroom and almost rushed into the kitchen.  “Where’s the eggs?” he asked.  “I want to finish that darn science project.  Greenie has a great idea.”
“I do a lot with fire,” Mr. Scratch said modestly, trailing behind Bradley.
He pushed around Bradley.  “How do you like your eggs?” he asked.
“Sunny side up with pepper and salt,” Bradley said.
“Salt isn’t good for you.  How about some of my special spices?” Mr. Scratch suggested.  “You’ll like it.”
Bradley scratched himself.  “I guess so.  I’d better get dressed.”  He almost sprinted down the hallway to his bedroom.  McKinley watched him with bewilderment.  Most mornings, Bradley awoke with the temperament of a disturbed grizzly.   This morning, he was as docile as a kitten. 
“Do you have some returns to finish?” Mr. Scratch asked McKinley.
“Ah, yes,” he quavered.
“Well, then, you’d better eat something.  That’s a lot of mental work.  You need some vitamin C and some protein.  No bacon for you.  Bad for the arteries.  Let’s get you a vegetable juice mix and some soy mix.”
He busied himself while Bradley’s eggs crackled gently on the stove.
McKinley simply sagged in the middle of the kitchen.  There was a large green man cooking breakfast.  He could see him, but he didn’t seem real.  Nothing did.
Outside, the Rev. Hardy Goren pulled up in his white Cadillac, surveyed the burgeoning crowd and worked his way to the curb.  He climbed up and held up his hands for silence.
“Let us pray,” he announced.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Smitten by God

Religious groups worldwide clothe God in such wonderful verbal raiment of love and peace, but they have been looking in the wrong closet.  God apparently is more apt to be wearing military fatigues than a white robe.

When the earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan in March 2011, the internet overflowed with detailed images of the destruction as well as religious commentary.  Apparently, at least some of the more religious Americans felt that God was getting revenge on our behalf for the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941.

Religious folks had opposed U.S. entry into World War II until that stunning and crippling air raid.  Then, they enlisted in record numbers, as author Sylvia Engdahl noted in her essay on religion and the war, “They sent their sons and daughters into the military, accepted shortages as a matter of course, worked in industries that fueled the war machine, and prayed for safety and victory. If anything, Americans were confident that the Allied cause was right and that the enemy was wrong.  God would therefore vindicate them.”

Definitely, He’s armed and dangerous.  As Jesus said in the book of Matthew, "Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to 'set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law'…” (10:34-36)

God was busy again September 11, 2001 after another surprise attack on American facilities, including the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia.

Religious leaders naturally assumed God had to have been involved in the decision making. According to the official transcript of a broadcast television show, the Rev. Jerry Falwell said: “The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for this. And I know I'll hear from them for this, but throwing God...successfully with the help of the federal court system...throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad...I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America...I point the finger in their face and say you helped this happen."

He later apologized for the accusations, but not for assuming God guided the terrorists.

President George W. Bush had no problem linking religion to 9/11, too.  He declared September 14 as a day for "Prayer and Remembrance.”  He asked Americans to pray for the families of the victims, citing the Book of Psalms, "And I pray they will be comforted by a power greater than any of us spoken through the ages in Psalm 23.  ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for thou art with me.’"

He was actually following in his father’s footsteps.  In 1991, the Rev. Billy Graham stood by the first President Bush to give God’s imprint while trying to gain support for the Middle East war.  Of course, when Bush said the Desert War was “just and moral,” Graham agreed.

God has inspired lots of other people, too, in some other decidedly non-pacifistic ways.   In 1987, several white supremacists, energized by what they said were God’s wishes, were arrested for plotting to poison the municipal water supplies of two major American cities.

Why stop there?  Palestinians do not hesitate to kill Israeli civilians in the name of their God. Closer to home, fanatical Christians have killed doctors and nurses in abortion clinics, insisting they acted at God’s behest.

The link between God and human squabbles has not gone unnoticed.  Hitler, for one, wrote about it in his blueprint for world conquest, Mein Kampf:  “To sacrifice one's life for a belief hardly serves as a cowardly act. On the contrary, to die for one's belief has served as a clarion call for believers throughout history as a duty to one's faith.”

Belief that God is behind such action can be a tremendous impetus.  As Wake Forest religion professor Charles Kimball noted:  “Every religion has the capacity to work either for good or evil. There are five warning signs that we can recognize when religion moves toward evil.  The first is when a religion emphasizes that it holds the absolute truth, the one true path to God.”

Ooops, that describes Christianity and Islam.

The other signs Kimball cited were “a blind obedience to religious leaders, an apocalyptic belief in the coming end of the world, the use of malevolent ends to achieve religious goals and the declaration of a holy war.”

Yes, that’s Christianity and Islam, too. 

Apparently, based on what’s been going on around the world, God is all dressed up and ready to loose “the fateful lightening of His terrible swift sword” again.

Too bad He’s not into white doves and peace signs.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  Many of his essays are posted at www.williamplazarus.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Devil's Food: A Story

I write lots more than essays.  Here's a short story with a religious bent.  I hope you like it.


Devil’s Food

By William P. Lazarus

Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved

If his wife hadn’t been ill, none of this probably would have happened to Brian McKinley.  His garden in the front yard, the one he worked so hard on, wouldn’t have been decimated.  Mrs. Cosgrove wouldn’t have had a conniption fit.  The police wouldn’t have come walking through the front door.  The Rev. Hardy Goren wouldn’t have started preaching on the curb, and all Hell wouldn’t have broken loose in an otherwise-quiet Daytona Beach, Florida neighborhood.
Then, too, maybe the fault lay with his two sons, Bradley and Gerald, who had decided to go shopping with him and were squabbling as usual in their most annoying manner.  Had they been quiet, McKinley might have had second thoughts or even been able to concentrate while selecting items from the grocery shelves.  He didn’t know they were going to distract him.  He hadn’t expected them to come with him on a Saturday morning.  They usually had other things to do on the weekend.
They had different reasons for tagging along.  As a teenager, Bradley never wanted to be seen with either of his parents or even acknowledge their existence, but had a science fair project due and wanted to avoid that beyond anything.  A supermarket seemed a promising alternative, especially since young women shopping there might be impressed with a seemingly domesticated, virile young man.  His little brother joined the excursion for something to do.  He was not fond of supermarkets either, but he was less interested in remaining home with a sick mother and no friends readily available until later in the day.
McKinley wanted to stay away from the house, too.  Connie was coughing and wheezing with some awful flu, and he couldn’t afford to get sick and miss work at the height of the income tax season.  He had already suffered through a cold a few weeks previously.  As the owner of a small accounting firm, he typically drove himself to exhaustion preparing returns for ungrateful clients.  The supermarket was a safe, if brief, refuge.
He took his time, pushing a cart slowly down the aisles.  Here and there, he would spot something intriguing, some item Connie had somehow missed purchasing for the dinner table: Mexican chili beans, a jar of peanut butter mixed with jalapeƱo peppers and something that seemed even more appetizing, Jamaican Hellfire.  Connie preferred bland American food, but McKinley had developed a taste for more-spirited cuisine by regularly eating lunch at a Mexican bistro near his office.  Now, he daily sought a spicy transfusion, regardless of how much his stomach protested.
He was still puttering along the aisles when Gerald, paying his usual amount of attention, bumped into him.  They happened to be in front of the cake mixes.  The collision jarred McKinley and made him more conscious of his surroundings.  His eyes lit on the various cakes highlighted on the front of the colorful boxes.
“Do you think Mom would like some cake?” McKinley asked, a simple question with grave consequences.
“Sure, Dad,” Bradley said with dry disinterest.
“We could make it,” Gerald piped up. 
“Maybe I could use it as my science project,” Bradley mused.  “What effect does baking flour and a brat in an oven for three hours at 400 degrees have on the quality of a cake?”
Gerald swatted him.  Bradley skipped away, laughing.  He saw a teenage girl not that far away and immediately assumed a more dignified look with his stomach tucked in, shoulders straight and head erect.  She pretended not to notice of him.
McKinley ignored the boys, too.  Connie could use something to cheer her up.  Why not a cake?  But, which one?  There were so many options on the shelf.  Every picture on the boxes looked delicious.  He debated a moment, then selected a plain, brown box with no picture on it.  Bearing the headline “Devil’s Food” in unadorned type, it had a short list of directions on the back.  Nothing else.  There wasn’t even a price on it.  Odd, McKinley thought, but he was attracted by the lack of hype and the solid impression created by the plain wrapper.  It seemed almost like the numbers he dealt with every day: unpretentious, stolid, sure.  He liked that.  The box joined the other items now filling up his cart.
He could just see Connie’s smile when cake appeared at some dinner in the future.  He knew he had done the right thing.
Eventually, the trio got into the checkout line.  Bradley continued to preen.  Gerald tried taking gum, candy or other items from the shelves near the counter and slipping them into the cart.  McKinley kept returning them.  He also checked the headlines on the supermarket tabloids.  In one paper, every movie or television star seemed to be having an affair, an illegitimate baby or enduring some unspeakable disease.  In another, threats of world destruction, as seen by Nostradamus, promised to bring Hollywood’s bacchanal to an abrupt end.
The box of Devil’s Food was passed over the price scanner by the robotic clerk, who didn’t note whether it was recorded or not.  McKinley paid the bill with cash without checking for accuracy.  Everyone was perfectly content with the arrangement.
Once back at the house, located on a corner of North Peninsula Drive, only a block from the Halifax River in an area once covered with pine trees until developers leveled it flat in the 1960s, McKinley and the boys carried the bags into the house.  They filled the kitchen floor.  He cautioned them to be quiet so their mother could sleep, but they continued their usual bickering.  McKinley finally ordered them to put away the groceries.
While they sullenly complied, McKinley tiptoed into the rear bedroom to check on his wife.  The bedroom had a strange scent, a mixture both warm and medicinal.   Connie was asleep with her dark hair splayed across the pillow.  A box of tissue lay on the floor to her left; wads of used issue were scattered near it.  She was breathing easily, but her face was flushed.  Sweat beaded on her forehead.  He could see she was still not well and carefully closed to door behind him.  Then, he went into his small office adjacent to the laundry room to work.  The computer awaited, along with a pile of unfinished returns.
In the kitchen, Bradley and Gerald had finished shelving almost everything except the box of Devil’s Food.  Neither was exactly sure where to put it.  Their mother rarely baked; neither had seen a cake box in the house before. 
“Figures, Dad bought something like this,” Bradley snorted.  “He is such a dork.”
“It’s just cake,” Gerald objected.
“It’s just cake,” Bradley mimicked sarcastically.  “Put it with the cereal,” he directed.”
“Why don’t we make it?” Gerald asked.
“I don’t know how to make a cake,” Bradley objected.  “I’ve got a science fair project to do.”
Gerald grimaced.  “Sure,” he said sourly.  “Now.”  He took the box and looked at the directions.  “Hot water.  Pour in mix.  Stir,” he read.  “How hard is that?” He glanced at Bradley.  “I’ll do it by myself.”
“No, you won’t,” Bradley immediately stopped him.  He could envision the mess created by his 10-year-old brother and who would get blamed.
“Then, you do it,” Gerald suggested.  Making a cake seemed like an interesting project until his friends Steve and Jay returned from wherever they were.
“We’ll do it together,” Bradley decided.  The science project could wait.  Besides, he wanted to get Jennifer Cosgrove to help him, and she said she wouldn’t be home until later in the afternoon.  She was in his biology class, lived down the street and, most importantly, was a pretty female.  She also hadn’t seemed appalled to acknowledge him on those rare moments he nervously said hello.  Important qualifications for a 16-year-old boy.
Bradley took the box.  “Dumb looking thing,” he announced.  “We need a pot that will hold six gallons of water.”
Gerald rummaged among the pots and pans on the shelves under the stove.  He almost climbed inside the cupboard before emerging with the largest pot he could find.  Hearing the jumble of cookware and the banging caused by the search, McKinley rushed out from his small office.  “Keep it down,” he said in a low voice.  “Your mother is trying to sleep.”
“Sorry,” Bradley said.
McKinley went back to his desk.  Those boys were so noisy.  He had to concentrate.  He started punching more numbers into the computer program.  Oh, oh, he thought.  Mr. Jenkins was going to owe a lot of money to the IRS this year.  He dreaded the phone call that would have to be made regarding that.
“How many gallons?” Gerald asked.
“Six,” Bradley read.  He stopped.  “Six gallons?  None of the pots are that big.  What kind of cake is this?”  He checked the box.
“This big enough?” Gerald asked, holding up a large pot.
Bradley shook his head.  “The only thing big enough to hold six gallons is the bathtub.”
Gerald brightened.  This was going to be a very large cake.  The idea of a bathtub filled with cake seemed hysterically funny.  He couldn’t wait for his friends to show up.  He rushed into the bathroom and turned on the tap.  Bradley shuffled along behind him.  Steam was already starting to rise by the time he ambled in.
“I’m not sure this is a great idea,” he murmured.
Gerald ignored him.  “How hot?  How much is six gallons?” 
Bradley shrugged.  “I don’t know.  It says six gallons of hot water,” he reported.
“We can put icing on it,” Gerald decided.  “Should we add Jell-O?  Ice cream on top?”  The water was slowly rising.
Steam was filling the bathroom.  Bradley leaned over the tub and opened the window.  The early April air filtering through the screen was cool.
He pulled back on the top of the simple cardboard box.  It opened easily.  There appeared to be residue of tape along the edges.  He peered inside.  The cake mix had settled a little.  The flakes were dark and thin, like frozen snowflakes.  Bradley shook the box.  The flakes barely moved.  They seemed almost to have solidified into a small ball.
“Let me, let me,” Gerald pleaded.
Bradley gave him the box.  Gerald leaned over the white, ceramic tub and slowly poured out the contents of the box.  The flakes fells softly and gray until they hit the water, then, abruptly, they turned a bright, almost lime green.
“Cool,” Gerald announced.
The color swirled through the rising water, deepening as it spread.  Some of the flakes clung briefly to the sides, but all were eventually absorbed into the rising water. 
“We’ve got to stir,” Gerald remembered with an exclamation and ran out.  He quickly returned with a long-handled, wooden spoon.  He dipped it into the water and began to swish it back and forth.  The spoon didn’t seem to do much.  The syrupy mixture was very thin.  The spoon ran through it like an oar through a shallow lake, getting little resistance.
Slowly, however, the center of the water began to solidify.  Bits of green seemed to be drawn together, merging into an almost coherent pattern resembling a rectangular box with projections on the top and the sides.  Happily stirring, Gerald didn’t appear to notice, but Bradley could tell that this was already the strangest cake he had ever seen.
“That’s probably enough water,” he decided, placing the box by the water basin.
With his left hand still holding the spoon in the water, Gerald reached over to turn off the spigot.  The room grew quiet, save a last drip or two from the faucet.  Then, slowly, a small, green tendril began to crawl up the side of the tub underneath the tap.  It inched up, almost like a long, green worm.  The boys stared at it, then each other.  Then, it reached the hot water tap and, seemingly with no effort, turned on more hot water.
Abruptly, the wood spoon was spun from the boy’s hand and sent arcing toward the door.  Gerald drew back.
“Whoa,” he gasped.  “What was that?”
“Are you all right?’ Bradley asked him anxiously.  The cake was taking on a decidedly human appearance with arms and legs and a round head.
“Yes,” Gerald said tremulously, inching back away from the tub.
He could barely breathe.  Very clearly, as though emerging from a mist, the shape of a human figure was forming in the water.  The creature’s head rested against the back with its arms on the sides.  Its legs were too long for the tub and were bent at the knees.  And, it was thoroughly, completely, amazingly green.
Water poured down on the creature’s feet.  Finally, long, thin fingers capped by sharp fingernails reached toward the spigot and turned off the hot water.
“Hi,” the creature said calmly.
Gerald screamed and fled with his brother not far behind.
The creature shrugged and squirmed a moment to find a more comfortable position in the hard ceramic tub.  “Ah,” it said with a contented sigh.  “This is Heaven.”

“Can’t you please be quiet?” Connie called in anguish.  Her voice was clogged with mucus, and she coughed
“Boys,” McKinley said sternly, looking up from his paperwork as his sons stood panting beside him.  “Your mother is very sick.  Just be quiet.”
“Dad,” Gerald whispered in a terrified voice.  “You’ve got to look inside the bathroom.”
“Not now,” McKinley said.  “I have work to do.  April 15 is little more than a week away.  If I don’t get these returns done, I’ll lose my clients.
“Brian,” Connie yelled hoarsely.
“Your mother needs to sleep,” McKinley continued.  He ran down the hallway, past the closed bathroom door and poked his head into her bedroom.  “Sorry, dear,” he said.  “The boys just got a little rambunctious.”
“I made them stay quiet when you were sick,” Connie reminded him fiercely.
“Yes, dear.”
He stepped back.  The two boys had followed him.  He finally put a finger to his lips.  “Boys, please.  Play quietly.”  He then returned to his paperwork, not giving the bathroom a second glance.
Gerald watched him.  “Dad,” he murmured anxiously.
“You are such a wimp,” Bradley told him.
“Then you go in there,” Gerald told him.
“I’ve got a science fair project to do,” Bradley announced archly.  He hurried to his bedroom to call Jennifer again.
Gerald looked around.  The bathroom door had no keyhole.  Slowly, he touched the knob.  It was cool.  He turned it slightly.  The door creaked, as it always did.  He peeked inside.  The green man was still there.  The creature turned and gave a slight wave, and a wink.
Gerald shut the door quickly and loudly.
“Quiet!” Connie demanded.
For a moment, Gerald stood open mouthed, not sure what to do, then tiptoed away.  There was no point in being concerned.  No one else apparently was.  Besides, there was the master bathroom in his brother’s bedroom that was linked to his parents’ room.  On the other hand, the appearance of the strange being was too good to keep secret.
Jennifer and her brother, Steve, came over a little while later.  Bradley happily settled down in the living room to think of a science project and study her.  Steve joined Gerald in his back bedroom.
“Green?” he said incredulously.  “Maybe he’s wearing a costume?  It isn’t Halloween, but he could be dressed up for something else.”
“I don’t think so,” Gerald decided.  “He’s just green.  Want to see?”
“Sure,” Steve said, albeit a bit hesitantly.
They tiptoed to the door.  Gerald opened it slowly.
“Hello,” the green man said with a smile.  He waved a green hand at them.
Steve shut the door quickly.  “Wow,” he said.  “Horns and tail too.  What is it?”
“I don’t know,” Gerald admitted.  “He’s cool, though, isn’t he?”
Steve screwed up his lips.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “I’ve never seen a green man before.  I’ll ask my mom.”
He went into the kitchen to use the phone.  Gerald tagged along.
“Really,” Steve said into the receiver. “Green.  Yes, horns.  He looks like that picture you have in your Bible.”
The doorbell rang within minutes after the two boys had returned to the bathroom. 
“Brian,” Connie called.
“Coming,” McKinley replied.
He hurried to the bedroom.  The doorbell rang again, insistently.  He was caught between answering his wife or the door.  Connie took care of the problem.
“The door,” she said.  “Can’t you hear the doorbell ringing?”
“I’m never going to get any work done,” McKinley muttered.
He walked rapidly to the door.  Mrs. Cosgrove stood there.  McKinley only knew her slightly, mostly because of her two children.  Steve was over the house all the time, and Bradley was smitten with Jennifer.  The mother was a thickset woman with short, light brown hair and a down turned mouth.  With small dark eyes and a perpetual scowl, she looked invariably angry, none more so than at this moment.  She had been upset when he planted his garden, objecting to his choice of beach daisies, upset he left his palm trees untrimmed, upset he didn’t control weeds with herbicides.  McKinley was sure, however, that the garden was not upsetting her now
She didn’t say anything, but stared up at McKinley.  He tried to smile.  She clearly was not in a pleasant mood, although he wasn’t sure what the problem might be.
“Hello,” he started.
She brushed by him.  “Steve!” she yelled.  “Jennifer!”  She stood in the foyer and glanced around.  “Where are they?” she demanded.  “What have you done to them?”
McKinley blinked.  Mrs. Cosgrove’s fast was reddening rapidly.  Her fists were clenched; her lips pursed tightly.  She glared around, almost avoiding looking at him, but rather through him.
“Please,” Connie almost whimpered.
“Steve!” Mrs. Cosgrove bellowed.  She started down the hallway to the right and almost ran into her son coming from the bedroom.  She grabbed his arm.  “We are getting out of this hell hole,” she thundered.
“Ow!” Steve bawled as his mother held him firmly.
Jennifer emerged from the living room.
“Run, Jennifer,” Mrs. Cosgrove said.  “Run!”
Jennifer stood paralyzed, her jaw open, staring.
“Mrs. Cosgrove,” McKinley tried.
“You fiend,” she screamed at him.  “I might have known.  Green men!”
“Brian,” Connie moaned, sounding almost in tears.
“Mrs. Cosgrove,” McKinley tried soothingly, “my wife is ill.  Do …”
“You’re all sick,” Mrs. Cosgrove shrieked at him.  “All of you!  Jennifer, move!”
“My book,” Jennifer mumbled.
“Never mind,” her mother insisted, reaching for her and tugging Steve at the same time.  “Just get out of here.”  She flung them both outside one by one and backed up making the sign of the cross with index fingers from both hands.
Bradley stood in the doorway.  “Is something wrong?” he asked innocently.
“Can’t anyone keep quiet?” Connie wailed.
“Just minute, honey,” McKinley called.  He plastered a grin on his face.  “Mrs. Cosgrove …”
His neighbor was beyond listening.  She grabbed her children protectively.  “Run,” she ordered.  Run!”  All three then hurried down the street with Mrs. Cosgrove occasionally looking back as though something awful was on their heels and gaining.
“See you later, Stevie,” Gerald said wistfully.
“My science project,” Bradley moaned.
“Brian!” Connie called angrily.
“My head,” McKinley managed.  He stumbled into the bedroom.
“All I ask is a little quiet,” Connie said sharply.  “I don’t think I’m asking too much.”
“No, dear.”
“Don’t say that.  You know I hate ‘no dear,’” she snapped.  “You’re patronizing me.”
“Yes, dear, no, dear,” McKinley tried.  He rubbed his forehead.  Now, he was feeling ill.
“What was all the ruckus about?” Connie asked wearily, nestling down on her pillow.
“Something about a green man,” McKinley said.
“Well, offer him a cookie or something,” Connie ordered.  “At least, he’s quiet.”
“Yes, dear,” McKinley managed before slipping away.

To be continued