f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: "The Fellowship of the Golden Emerod" by Christopher Fisher

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, January 05, 2006

"The Fellowship of the Golden Emerod" by Christopher Fisher

I’ve felt old age creeping up on me for years, but geezerhood came suddenly this past Monday morning at exactly seven a.m., barely a month after my fortieth birthday. The night before, I’d felt something happening in my back door and tried one of those over-the-counter creams. You know, the kind you try to get your wife to buy for you while you wait in the car. In the morning I woke with what felt like an ear of corn in my tailpipe.

I called in sick at the office and went to the doctor. After some prodding downstairs, he said I had two sizable fourth-degree hemorrhoids. (If you’re curious about what that means, you can google it. But I’m betting you’ll regret that you did.) He wrote two prescriptions: Vicodin tablets every four to six hours by mouth, and a steroid to shove in at the other end three times daily. He also ordered me to sit still with a heating pad under my rump. Two days later I’m still here, watching TV, popping Vicodin every three hours and fifty-nine minutes, and slow-cooking my ass.

I hear keys rattling in the front door and turn. Carrie’s back from taking the girls to school. “Jamie forgot her purse,” she says, hustling toward the girls’ room.

After a moment, she comes back through the living room, stopping to lean over and kiss my forehead. “I’m going to work out after I drop this off. So I’ll be awhile.”

“Leave the door unlocked,” I say. “Gary’s bringing some movies.”

She stops in the doorway. “Is he ever going to get a job?”

“He’s looking,” I say. But she’s not buying it.

“Tell him no beer until after lunch. And none for you. Not with those pills you’re taking.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Just before closing the door, she points a finger. “No beer!”

I flip through channels for another ten minutes, looking for something to watch until Gary shows. When the knock comes, I shout, “Come on in!” without looking up. But the sound of the door opening is not followed by Gary’s usual “Hey, hey, hey!”

I look up to see two young men wearing white shirts and ties, each holding a Bible. “Oh, God,” I mutter and think maybe it’s time for another Vicodin.

I’m not dressed for company, wearing only boxer shorts and a threadbare white tank top. I reach for the afghan on the back of the couch and lay it over my lap. “Can I help you?”

One of them approaches and offers his hand, which I reluctantly shake. “Name’s Bill Herman.”

“Paul Keppel,” I say.

He motions to his partner “This is Ted Butler.”

The other kid steps up to shake my hand, and I laugh. “Bill and Ted?” They look at me, not getting it. “Like in the movie?” I say.

They stare at each other like they’ve never thought of this, and I expect them to say “Excellent!” and start in on some air guitar.

“Yeah. I guess so,” Bill says.

“Well, listen, Bill and Ted. My Dad was Jehovah’s Witness, so I’m not interested. And I’ve already got a Book of Mormon.”

“We’re not Jehovah’s Witnesses. Or Mormons.”

“Well, I already go to church. I don’t want to buy a vacuum cleaner, or a magazine subscription to help pay for your trip to Europe. And I write bad checks. All the time. So save yourselves some trouble and—”

“Where do you attend church?”

“At the First. . . United Baptist. . . Holiness Church.”

Bill smiles. “It’s not important.”

“Excuse me, Mr. Keppel.” Ted waves his hand. “Can I use your restroom?”

I point over my shoulder. “Through the kitchen. Last door on the right.”

“Thanks.” He sets his Bible on the glass-topped coffee table and leaves me alone with Bill, who lays his Bible next to Ted’s and sits on the sofa. Bill looks at the furniture, the stereo, the pictures on the walls as if casing the place for a burglary. Then his eyes catch the cord leading from the wall outlet and disappearing under my blanket. “Are you sick or something?”

I reach down to adjust the blanket, hiding the cord, and begin preparing some kind of denial. But then I think the truth may be enough to make them leave. “Yes, since you asked. I have two hemorrhoids as big as walnuts. I have to sit here on a hot pad until they go down and I can walk and crap like normal again.”

My confession doesn’t have the desired effect. Bill says, “That sucks!”

Then I hear Ted from the kitchen. “That really sucks!” He comes back and sits on the sofa next to Bill.

“Paul,” Bill says as if he knows me. “I know you must be wondering why we’re here.”

“Lucky guess.”

“I’d like to ask you a question, if that’s okay.”

I’ve heard this one a dozen times. Once, I even saw it scratched into the wall of a bathroom stall: If you were to die right now, and God asked you why he should let you into heaven, what would you say? I’ve never been one for vandalism, but I couldn’t resist pulling out my pocket knife and scratching a response: I’d say “Please don’t turn me away, God. I died on the crapper. Isn’t that humiliation enough?”

Bill sits forward a bit. “If you were to die tomorrow. . .”

Here it comes. I start working out a hemorrhoid version of my bathroom graffiti answer.

“Only you know you’re going to die tomorrow. What would you do today?”

I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.

Just then Gary opens the front door, a stack of DVDs under one arm and a six-pack of longnecks swinging at the end of the other.

“Hey, hey, hey,” he says. Then he notices my guests. “What’s this? A friggin’ Sunday meeting?”
I grew up with quite a bit of resentment towards religion. It comes with being raised by parents too righteous for things as “pagan” as Christmas or Thanksgiving. But where I’m resentful, Gary is outright hostile. He’s never given a good reason for hating church people so much. Sometimes I suspect he’s just trying to impress me.

“You want me to get rid of these Bible-Thumpers, Paul?”

“We can leave,” Bill says. “We can come back later, or never come back at all. It’s up to you.”

I feel sorry for them for some reason. As much as I’m bound to hate whatever it is they’ve come here to say, they just seem like a couple of nice kids.

“It’s okay, Gary. They’re cool.”

“They’re cool, are they?” Gary sits on the couch beside me, opens a bottle, and takes a long drink.

“Oh,” he says, holding the bottle up in front of them. “Does this bother you?”

“Not at all,” Bill says.

Ted shrugs. “Nope.”

“Well, that was rude of me, I guess.” Gary pulls out two more longnecks and hands them over. “I guess I should’ve offered you boys a drink.”

“Sure,” they say. “Thanks.”

Gary sinks into the couch as they open their bottles and tip them back for a sip.

“Not bad,” Bill says. He looks at the label on the bottle as if memorizing the brand for future reference. “Did you know the best beer in the world is made by a bunch of Catholic monks in Belgium?”

Gary stands and sets his bottle on the nearest Bible like it’s a fifty-cent coaster then stomps off to the bathroom.

Ted looks at me. “Did we say something wrong?”

“He’s just pissed because he couldn’t get a rise out of you. He’ll keep trying until he hits a nerve. He can get pretty ugly with religious types. Maybe you guys should go.”

“No need!” Gary shouts from the back. His voice has taken on an affected lisp. “I’m just getting out of these awful, scratchy clothes.” A moment later, he comes out of the kitchen wearing only a couple of towels—one around his waist, one coiled about his head like a turban—and a turquoise bra one of my daughters must’ve left lying out. He puts his hands on the cups of the bra. “Oh, that’s much better. All comfy now.” He prances back to the couch and sits so close he’s practically on my lap.

Bill and Ted snicker, but don’t seem at all uncomfortable.

“What the hell are you doing?” I say.

“Oh, Paul.” Gary pats me on the shoulder, his wrist so limp it makes me cringe. “We don’t have to hide our feeling from these two understanding young men.”

“Get away from me, dumb-ass.” I push him away then grimace, my nether region on fire.

“You should try not to strain,” Ted says. “That’s probably what got you in that condition in the first place.”

“Huh?”

“Did you know that’s how Elvis died?” Bill says. “Straining on the toilet.”

“Well, ain’t you just a well of knowledge?” Gary says.

“I guess. Wanna hear a Bible story about hemorrhoids?”

I shrug. “Why not?”

“Okay. The Philistines were these people who were at war with Israel. They had this battle where the Philistines won and stole the Ark of the Covenant.”

“You mean with the animals?” I ask.

Gary laughs. “Not Noah’s Ark. The other one. Like in Indiana Jones.” He folds his arms across the bra on his chest. “Call me dumb-ass.”

“That’s right,” Bill says. “The Philistines stole it and God got pissed. He gave them all hemorrhoids so bad a lot of the Philistines died from them. Long story short, they got the hint and decided to send the Ark back to Israel. Only their priests said that to end the plague, they had to put an offering inside. But not regular money. The Philistine princes had to make golden images of their hemorrhoids and put them in the Ark.

“The Bible doesn’t say how they made these things. But to me, the idea of these princes with a mirror in one hand and a chisel in the other just doesn’t compute. The picture I get is of these princes lined up, naked and bent over with their heads between their legs, posing while a group of metal smiths hammer out the likeness of their inflamed cracks. Now that’s gotta be a humiliating experience for any ruler. Worse even than the hemorrhoids.”

Gary starts into a roll of laughter. “Can you imagine the President?” He stands up on the couch and assumes the position. And thank sweet Jesus he’s still wearing underwear beneath that towel.

“Hurry up and take your pictures, Senators! I’ve got a viewing in the Rose Garden in half an hour!”

It’s the worst George Dubya impression I’ve heard. But Bill and Ted are nearly suffocating with laughter. Gary jumps off the couch and trades high fives with the boys, and I’m wondering why they’re suddenly buddies.

“Hey, wait a minute, dammit! What are you saying? I’ve got hemorrhoids ‘cause God is punishing me?”

“No,” Bill says, trying to stifle his laughter. “It’s just a story that seemed. . . relevant.”

“Sounded like you were trying to make a point.”

“I didn’t think so,” Gary says. “Come on, Paul. It was funny.”

Ted sits forward in his chair. “I’m sorry, Mr. Keppel. Can I use your restroom again?

“Sure. Make yourself a sandwich while you’re at it.”

When he’s gone, Bill says, “Seriously, Mr. Keppel. We didn’t mean a thing by it. All we came here for was to ask that one question.”

Ted shouts from the bathroom, “Which you still haven’t answered, by the way.”

“What question?” Gary asks.

Ted comes back. “We were asking Mr. Keppel, if he knew he were going to die tomorrow, what would he do today?”

Gary’s smile fades. “Deep, man. Deep.”

I can’t help but laugh. Then I realize Gary’s not joking. I turn to the boys. “I guess this is the time we all hold hands and pray so I can go to heaven.”

Bill smiles, shakes his head. “We’re not here to save your soul. Just to get you thinking. Heaven is important, Paul. But so is life. Christ didn’t just preach heaven and hell. He touched people. He ate with them, laughed, drank. Really fellowshipped. Life is so much more than a bus ride to a final destination. You, all of us, should take time for those around us. Your kids. Your wife. Your neighbors. How will they remember you? What regrets will they have when you’re gone? Things they wished you had said. Places they wanted to go with you.”

I try to resist it, but I feel his words start to weigh on my shoulders. “Carrie and I have talked about taking a month in Alaska since we got married.”

“How long ago was that,” Bill asks.

“Seventeen years.”

“Don’t let it be another seventeen. Summer’s almost here. Take some time off to spend with your family. You never know when it might be too late.”

I look at the floor and nod.

Gary says, “Deep, man,” and scratches a rib underneath his bra.

Ted fidgets in his chair. “I’ve got to pee again.”

“Jesus,” I say. “You must have a bladder the size of a walnut!”

“Or one of your hemorrhoids,” Bill says.

Gary and the boys laugh, but I can only chuckle. I reach over and open a beer, forgetting all about the Vicodin, and just as I raise it to my mouth, the front door opens.

Carrie stands in the doorway, her jaw open, eyes darting from the preacher boys on the sofa to me mixing beer and pain killers on the couch, then to Gary standing in the middle, dressed like a drag queen at a day spa.

::

“The best thing about Alaska is the air,” Gary says. “I never really knew what people meant by ‘fresh air’ until we got to the lake cabin.”

“Will you shut the hell up about Alaska?”

Carrie and I planned the trip and reserved a big four-room cabin on a private lake. Gary, who had cleaned up considerably since meeting Bill and Ted, asked if he and his new fiancée, Brenda, could split the cost and come with us. I liked the idea, because it looked like I was going to need a loan to pay for the vacation. I was sure Carrie would never go along with bringing my old drinking buddy, but she surprised me by saying yes.

I guessed it had something to do with Gary getting religious. Ted gave him a pocket New Testament, and he’d read halfway through it before I made it off my heating pad and back to work. He’d read it every day since, he said. He also started spending Sunday mornings at the United Presbyterian something or other, where he met Brenda. He even found a steady job. And I hadn’t seen him drunk in months.

He was so different, in fact, the four weeks in Alaska didn’t drive me out of my skull like I thought it would. It was actually nice. Like family.

What did that punk kid call it?

Fellowship.

Whatever it was lasted the whole vacation, through the trip back home, and even the walk up the front steps. Then I turned the key in my front door and opened it.

The front room was empty. The TV, stereo, speakers, and even the entertainment cabinet that held them were gone. A quick look through the house would prove that everything worth more than ten bucks had been taken. The only furniture left in the living room was the glass-topped coffee table. There was a note.

Thanks for a most excellent time! ---Bill and Ted.

I felt like an idiot. But at least I wasn’t alone. Harrison County saw quite a few families taking out-of-state vacations this past summer. Before word of the scam got around, Bill and Ted hit twelve houses, making off with nearly two-hundred grand in cash, jewelry, and other pawn-friendly merchandise. Like mine, all the houses were isolated enough that no one would notice a moving truck coming or going in the dead of night. All the victims told a similar story about the nice young ministerial students who’d visited just weeks before, encouraging them to travel and spend time with their families.

“If I ever see those two again,” Gary says. “I think I might just kiss ‘em.”

“Are you insane? They robbed my house, you moron.”

“You’re insured.”

“So! They’re criminals. Con-artists for Christ’s sake.”

Gary smiles. “Exactly.”

I huff and take one of his beers.

He leans back in the bean bag that sits where my sofa used to be. “You know how lazy you are, Paul. If not for them, we never would have seen Alaska. That’s something, at least. And look at me.”

“But they were liars, Gary. Frauds. They didn’t believe that Jesus stuff any more than you did before you met them.”

“That’s not the point, Paul. Did you know there’s a story in the Bible where God talks through a jackass?”

“Well, ain’t you just a well of knowledge?”

“Very funny. Look, the point is, those kids were just a couple of two-legged jackasses.”

“You’ll get no argument from me on that.”

He sips his beer. “What I’m trying to say is, can’t you see how I’ve changed?”

I don’t answer. Of course I can see it. I just can’t bear him acting like this was the best thing that ever happened to him. Hell, maybe it was. But it wasn’t his house that got robbed.
“You know, Paul, you could make some changes, too.”

I shake my head. I’ll keep my eye on him for now, to see if this thing sticks. And if it does, who knows? Maybe I will.