- American Dream Serialization (Early Chapters)
- Introduction to Jim Chaffee's Studies in Mathematical Pornography by Maurice Stoker
- Introduction to Jim Chaffee's Studies in Mathematical Pornography by Tom Bradley
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: American Dream Title Page by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 1 by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 2 by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 3 by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 4 by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 5 by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 6 by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 7 by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 8 by Jim Chaffee
- Studies in Mathematical Pornography: Chapter 9 by Jim Chaffee
- Modern Tragedy, or Parodies of Ourselves by Robert Castle
- Totally Enchanté, Dahling by Thor Garcia
- Hastini by Rudy Ravindra
- The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 5 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
- Unexpected Pastures by Kim Farleigh
- Nonviolence by Jim Courter
- The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 4 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
- The Poet Laureate of Greenville by Al Po
- The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part VI by Thor Garcia
- The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 3 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
- The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part V by Thor Garcia
- The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part IV by Thor Garcia
- The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 2 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
- The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part I by Thor Garcia
- The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part II by Thor Garcia
- The Apocalypse of St. Cleo, Part III by Thor Garcia
- The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter Volume 1 Translation by W. C. Firebaugh
- DADDY KNOWS WORST: Clown Cowers as Father Flounders! by Thor Garcia
- RESURRECTON: Excerpt from Breakfast at Midnight by Louis Armand
- Review of The Volcker Virus (Donald Strauss) by Kane X Faucher: Excerpt from the forthcoming Infinite Grey by Kane X Faucher
- Little Red Light by Suvi Mahonen and Luke Waldrip
- TEXECUTION: Klown Konfab as Killer Kroaked! by Thor Garcia
- Miranda's Poop by Jimmy Grist
- Paul Fabulan by Kane X Faucher: Excerpt from the forthcoming Infinite Grey by Kane X Faucher
- Operation Scumbag by Thor Garcia
- Take-Out Dick by Holly Day
- Patience by Ward Webb
- The Moon Hides Behind a Cloud by Barrie Darke
- The Golden Limo of Slipback City by Ken Valenti
- Chapter from The Infinite Atrocity by Kane X. Faucher
- Support the Troops By Giving Them Posthumous Boners by Tom Bradley
- When Good Pistols Do Bad Things by Kurt Mueller
- Corporate Strategies by Bruce Douglas Reeves
- The Dead Sea by Kim Farleigh
- The Perfect Knot by Ernest Alanki
- Girlish by Bob Bartholomew
- The Little Ganges by Joshua Willey
- The Invisible World: René Magritte by Nick Bertelson
- Honk for Jesus by Mitchell Waldman
- Red's Dead by Eli Richardson
- The Memphis Showdown by Gabriel Ricard
- Someday Man by John Grochalski
- I Was a Teenage Rent-a-Frankenstein by Tom Bradley
- Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Fred Bubbers
- Believe in These Men by Adam Greenfield
- The Magnus Effect by Robert Edward Sullivan
- Performance Piece by Jim Chaffee
- Injustice for All by D. E. Fredd
- The Polysyllogistic Curse by Gary J. Shipley
- How It's Done by Anjoli Roy
- Ghost Dance by Connor Caddigan
- Two in a Van by Pavlo Kravchenko
- Uncreated Creatures by Connor Caddigan
- Invisible by Anjoli Roy
- One of Us by Sonia Ramos Rossi
- Storyteller by Alan McCormick
- Idolatry by Robert Smith
- P H I L E M A T O P H I L I A by Traci Chee
- They Do! by Al Po
- Full TEX Archive
By Connor Caddigan
Three years after his wife abandoned him (left in the early morning hours just before dawn, slid from under the sheets without creaking the bed springs, put the car in neutral, pushed it down the driveway and into the street before starting it), Devin Wentworth finally musters the strength to attend a colleague’s party. Someone has just published a book or received a grant or had a marriage annulled--rarely is there a point to these kinds of things, any excuse to get drunk before the start of a new semester will do--and though he is a little uneasy about leaving the comfortable clutter of his books, the beautiful logic of his coffee-stained papers with their indecipherable marginalia, he is glad for the opportunity to socialize with old friends and to politely laugh at the same banal jokes and stories they’ve been telling for years.
With a pensive grin he enters the crowded house at the corner of Breyner and Andersen, but before he can say hello to the other guests or thank the host for inviting him he is ambushed by a small, sprightly woman with short, boyish hair who lights a cigarette, takes him by the arm and leads him to the makeshift bar in the corner of the room. From the dizzying assortment of booze she selects a bottle of “homemade medicinal tea” and demands a quick tutorial on the “ins and outs of monkey sex from a man who knows his stuff.”
“I’m outlining a new novel,” she explains. “It’s about high school athletes. But that’s all I’m willing to divulge. I never talk about a current project. I’m superstitious that way. Most writers are. That probably sounds ridiculous to you since you’re a scientist.”
“Not at all” he says. “In fact—”
“Listen. I absolutely must know all the specifics about Bonobo chimps and their sex rituals. Surely our nearest relatives engage in…unusual sexual practices. Apes doing it doggy style. I’ve asked around, and everyone tells me that you can recommend some interesting scientific studies. A sort of Kama Sutra for monkeys maybe?”
Devin stammers and feels his cheeks redden. He is a bookish man, awkward, poorly dressed, horribly out of practice when it comes to engaging members of the opposite sex in casual conversation, and he’s not exactly sure how to respond to this outlandish woman. He feels claustrophobic, short of breath. There is a constriction in his chest, a painful throbbing behind his eyes. With a handkerchief that may or may not be clean (he’s not sure how long it’s been in his pocket), he dabs sweat from his brow.
To calm his nerves he makes a scotch and soda, and as the liquor gradually takes effect he leans against a wall and listens to the woman speak, mesmerized by the way the words cascade over her lips like a waterfall. She proves to be exceptionally cogent and well-read, and for the next thirty minutes, without pausing to allow anyone to formally introduce them, she talks about the myths and legends of the Whittelsey Indians and their belief in the malevolent spirits who preside over creation, driving all of humanity to the brink of madness with desperation, loneliness and pointless suffering.
“Oh, that was very insensitive of me,” she says, raising a hand to her mouth, “to speak of suffering.” Like the other guests at the party, she knows all about his failed marriage, his schizophrenic wife. “I’m such a farshikkert chaleria. But I’ve never been one to shirk from the truth, no matter how embarrassing it might be. I’ve personally outed many people. And not just closeted homosexuals. Atheists, too. It’s all for the best, don’t you think? Cathartic. Let the cat out of the bag, I say. Secrets are nasty things, bad for the soul. They’re the ruin of so many men I know. People are going to talk anyway. Sooner or later word gets around.”
Devin doesn’t agree but smiles the way a man sometimes will when he knows he’s dealing with a beguiling and slightly dangerous woman. Her eyes are crafty and unwavering, the color of the Mediterranean Sea as viewed from high on a hillside in an Algarve village, silvery-teal, blue-green, eyes made a little bleary by her medicinal tea. Devin isn’t sure why he thinks of the Mediterranean, of Lisbon, he’s never been overseas. In fact, his travels have never taken him far beyond the great lake of his hometown, a body of water that for half the year is a frozen waste that shimmers like an enormous piece of sheet metal under the smallest speck of sunshine. As he ponders this mystery, the woman says something that so bewilders him that he momentarily abandons his cherished principles of reason and logic and gives credence to the romantic notion of kismet.
“As you can probably tell, I’m a passionate person. My ancestors came from Portugal, and the Portuguese are a very passionate people—politically, theologically, sexually. I inherited a rapacious appetite for all things Portuguese. Their writing has a noticeable effect on my intellect…and libido.”
By nature and training Devin is a devout skeptic and has learned to doubt his own intuition, but after carefully assessing the situation he arrives at a startling conclusion: this woman is flirting. When was the last time that happened to him? College? Graduate school? Primatology seems to be the last thing on her mind. It’s a matter of simple deduction. He observes the way she moistens her lips, plays with the ends of her hair, lets her blouse sink lower and lower to reveal her surprisingly ample cleavage.
With a haughty smile she touches his hand and, leaning in close so that her breath makes his flesh tingle, she tells him how the work of Luís Vaz de Camões inspired Elizabeth Barrett Browning to write Sonnets from the Portuguese. “Allow me to give you a little recitation,” she whispers. “‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…’”
As the party winds down and only the seriously inebriated remain, Devin is given some sobering information.
“Ah, yes, that’s Batya Pinter,” says Father Mullins. The old man stumbles along the foyer to the front door, the last of the Jesuits to leave the party and one of the few in attendance who doesn’t attempt to disguise his penchant for whiskey with hypocritical proclamations about the wickedness of drink, the lure of the bottle. “From the way you two were yammering away I assumed you already knew each other. She’s our newest faculty member. The editor of the literary magazine. We hired her because she has a number of important connections in the world of letters. Interviewed dozens of luminaries—Jose Saramago and Antonio Lobo Antunes. Even the legendary Ricardo Reis. Last month she translated and published several poems by Fernando Pessoa. She’s quite brilliant. But I’m afraid she’s also…”
Father Mullins coughs into a fist and glances over his shoulder to make sure no one is within earshot.
“This information is strictly confidential, you understand, but since your son may come into contact with this woman, I feel you have the right to know.” He tries to enunciate his words, but the consonants are slurred, the syllables protracted and comically musical. “Some of us think Pinter is a sexual omnivore, bedding men and women as the mood strikes her, and that she may be guilty of, how should I put this delicately, debauching a few of our students, those giggling pimply-faced boys with grand ambitions of becoming the next Nabokov. Of course we can’t prove these allegations, not in the legal sense of the word, but we do have circumstantial evidence. She keeps strange hours, locks herself in that office late at night, requests that certain boys stay after school for reasons that are unclear…”
Devin shakes his head and dismisses these allegations as the drunken maunderings of paranoid cleric. He has never taken seriously the rumors circulating around the school. The Jesuits are terrible gossips, worse than any cloister of women.
“I couldn’t help but notice,” says the priest, “that Pinter has taken a sudden liking to you. In fact, she seems rather overly friendly, if I may say so. A most interesting development. Yes, quite interesting.” He places his hands on Devin’s shoulders. His breath smells of whiskey and cigarettes. “Allow me to ask a small favor. Keep an eye on her for me, would you? Get to know her better. Oh, I don’t expect you to spy on the woman, not exactly. Just find out if things are…kosher, if you get my meaning.”
Devin nods. He’s always been a most ingratiating fellow.
Father Mullin slaps his back. “You’re a good man, Wentworth, a good man!” He steps outside and totters along the sidewalk. “I know I can trust you with this delicate mission.”
Devin offers him a quick salute and then turns to the mirror in the foyer to check his reflection. He smiles, pinches his chin, cocks an eyebrow. The booze has made him brash, Bond-like. He looks as unassuming as a character in a Graham Greene novel--a bit ruffled perhaps but still presentable, guilt-ridden of course, that goes without saying, but also poised, classy. With a sudden surge of confidence he find Batya and touches her hand. He suggests she accompany him back to his house a few blocks away in what the students call the Faculty Ghetto.
“We can ransack my shelves for books about the autoerotic behavior of Bonobo chimps. I’m sure we’ll find something that will…satisfy you.”
She puts her drink down and extinguishes her cigarette in the empty cup of tea. “Let me get my coat,” she says.
As they walk along the midnight streets they listen to the familiar wail of police sirens, the sound of newspapers flapping in the trees, the powerful stream of urine from a gibbering bum in an alley. Batya leans against Devin for support, she is very drunk indeed (“What kind of tea was that?” he asks her), but once inside his house she lunges at him with animal ferocity, something Devin actually knows a little about and is able assess the following morning by the severity of the scratches on his back and the number of bite marks on his shoulders and neck.
That night if he lasts longer than his usual four minutes it’s only because he, too, is cross-eyed drunk and keeps yelping with pain and pleasure whenever Batya, nimble as a gymnast, bends and slides and twists over the bed. She slaps his ass, tugs on his hair, grinds her thighs against his pelvis and, in a style that can only be described as dictatorial, shouts filthy words in an ancient tongue he does not recognize, demanding that he make her scream with his langer lucksh, that he abuse her with his batampte shmeckle.
She yearns for abuse, wants to be dominated, victimized, but it’s all a ruse, she is in total control, Devin knows this perfectly well, and he tries to oblige her until the final moment, the supreme moment, when she groans between clenched teeth, “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach!”
To his credit, Devin has never brought a woman back home for the purposes of copulation (in fact, Batya is the first woman he has taken to bed since his wife left him), but this does not excuse the lurid and passionate caterwauling that keeps his son Tom up half the night. At first, Devin isn’t too terribly concerned about his naughty behavior. Surely by now Tom must understand that his father, like all men, has certain needs. Besides, in this day and age most teenagers are pretty savvy about the ways of the world. Nearly half the students in this year’s graduating class come from broken homes and have witnessed intrigues and scandals of every sort, things unmentionable, unpardonable, excommunicable. In any case, the encounter with Batya was an anomaly, a one-night stand, a moment of weakness on his part, nothing more.
But Batya seems interested in more than just a one-night stand and says to him, “Sometimes a man’s weakness can be his best asset. Sin opens a door to the world of possibilities, while virtue only slams it shut.”
In the days that follow she liberates him from the pitiable consolation of masturbation and converts him to a whole new world of hedonistic pleasure. Suddenly his lonely nights are filled with delights and enchantments of every kind. The sex is raw, filthy, probably illegal in several states, and Devin, who has resigned himself to a life of celibacy, nearly weeps at this incredible stroke of good fortune.
Still, he has a sense of decency and wants to protect Tom’s innocence, so he takes Batya to a decrepit flophouse down the street, the Zanzibar Towers and Gardens, where the landlady rents rooms by the hour. At first the seediness of the room adds an extra element of eroticism to their coupling, but the novelty quickly wears off. Domesticity is a force to be reckoned with, it tends to burn its heretics at the stake of public opinion, and while Batya is in many respects the most modern of women, she is also the product of an orthodox upbringing and cannot dispense with tradition altogether.
“Technically speaking, you’re still a married man,” she reminds him as they lie in bed. She puts an ashtray on his chest and taps her cigarette. “You never divorced your wife. And here we are running off to some roach-infested room. What, you don’t think people will talk? The Jesuits? Your students? Your son?”
He doesn’t like the tone of her voice, the sudden seriousness of it, and rather than answer her right away he spends a moment studying the cracks in the ceiling. He looks for patterns, tries to find the point where the cracks begin.
Batya sighs. “You realize what the real problem is, don’t you? After your wife left, you never took the time to sit down with Tom to discuss his feelings. Has he heard from his mother lately? Do they communicate?”
“Fathers and sons don’t talk about those kinds of things. We internalize our despair, our rage, our angst. It’s only natural. It’s inherent in the genes. It has something to do with evolutionary conflicts, group selection. Complicated stuff. Technical.”
“Dear god, listen to this man!” Batya says in exasperation. “Your son needs you and all you ever do is talk monkey business.”
The truth is Devin no longer understands his son. While most kids his age try out for the football team or join the marching band or pilfer a few beers from the fridge to share with their buddies around a bonfire, Tom spends most of his time alone in the stinking lair of his bedroom, poring over his books like a monk in his spartan cell. What he does in there no one can say, but sleep doesn’t seem to be part of the equation. Devin has pressed an ear against the door but has been reluctant to trespass on his son’s privacy. He’s afraid of what he might find inside.
And so after one wonderful month of bestial rutting, Devin and Batya return to the relative cleanliness of his home where their relationship becomes quite tame, conventional, uninspired. Though he has never been particularly susceptible to paranoia, Devin finds himself sitting quietly at the edge of the bed, having hardly broken a sweat during their brief roll in the hay, obsessing about the inadequacy of his cocksmanship. He lists the reasons why an attractive woman like Batya would remain faithful to him, her fumbling and incompetent middle-aged lover.
He is no sexual dynamo, he’s willing to admit as much, but he believes that all men are inept lovers to some degree, clumsy and insensitive. On this point most women will surely concur. Among great apes the sex act is not the stuff of sonnets and flower gardens. Male chimpanzees climax with quickness and ease; they seem to understand the brute necessity for reproduction and the importance of passing on their genes. Human males aren’t so different. On average (and in this regard Devin is quite average) a man orgasms in less than five minutes, a disheartening statistic for any woman hoping to fulfill some erotic fantasy, the details of which may have been carefully worked out weeks, even months, in advance. It is perhaps for this reason that most women in a committed relationship never bother with infidelity.
And yet there is a paradox here. Unlike men who tend to be visual creatures, always sizing up height and weight and firmness of tit, women are much more discriminating; selecting mates who will make for excellent long-term partners; they look for certain qualities in a man: stability, intelligence, sanity. A tall order to fill, no doubt. Odds are Batya will find someone or something—man, woman, vibrator—that can pleasure her physically rather than emotionally and spiritually.
On a Sunday morning in October as he reads the newspaper, alternately shaking his head at the puerile arguments on the op-ed page and sipping a cup of instant coffee, Devin hears the sound of bare feet slapping against the linoleum floor and looks up to see his son, a skinny, hairy, greasy mess of a boy, trudging toward the refrigerator. He resembles an obdurate Iron Age patriarch, angular, gaunt, hunched over, staring into space with eyes that are bloodshot and crazed as if trying to calculate the distance between the present moment and the final one, the great mystery of the death, so that the reality all around him is almost nonexistent.
“Good morning,” Devin says to him.
Tom mumbles something terse. He drinks straight from the carton of milk. He smacks his lips and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. After emitting a low, gurgling belch, he scratches his face and stands beside his father’s chair.
With great reluctance, Devin folds the newspaper and places it on the kitchen table, hoping Tom will take the hint and decide to leave him alone. Batya is right, of course. He should probably speak to the boy, ask what’s on his mind, but dealing with teen angst used to be his wife’s forte, not his, and he doesn’t particularly want to hear about his son’s silly social problems. It’s much too early in the day for that sort of thing.
“Is Batya here?” Tom asks. He glances at the pack of cigarettes on the kitchen counter.
“Batya? No, she left early this morning. She’s working on her novel. Conducting more research.”
Though he has never been permitted to read a single page of her book or invited to spend the night at her house in the country, Devin is thrilled to be involved with a creative type, a real bohemian, someone the Jesuits claim to respect and admire but secretly abhor and distrust. After leading such a boring life, Devin has become a kind of double agent, a man of high adventure. He relishes the intrigue.
Tom crosses his arms. “That’s too bad. I was hoping she’d still be here.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I’m going to the chapel. For Sunday services.”
“You’re going where?”
“To church, Dad. It starts in…” He glances at the clock. “Less than an hour. I wanted to know if Batya cared to join me.”
“Did she express an interest?”
“In attending a Catholic mass?”
He shrugs his shoulders. “I’d ask you to come, but I know how you feel about these kinds of things.”
“What kinds of things?”
“Religion. The hereafter. God.”
In this house the topic of religion is taboo. Devin’s atheism must always be kept secret. Aside from the occasional wedding and funeral, he does not attend church services and tries to avoid them whenever he can. Religion, he must admit, is something of a mystery to him. He can’t comprehend why so many otherwise perfectly rational people take this nonsense so seriously. It’s only by consulting the dusty tomes written by his colleagues that he can distinguish between the warring factions of Christian denominations that flourish and spread like green muck in the steaming malarial swamps of the American spiritual landscape.
Devin detests ritual and scripture. The stodgy, parataxis style of biblical prose fills his mouth with the dust and grit of the Sinai itself, but out of curiosity he has skimmed a few passages from the Old Testament. He read about King Saul who, despite passing laws strictly prohibiting his subjects from calling upon witches and exorcists and mediums, traveled incognito to the desert oasis of Endor to consult a necromancer from whom he hoped to receive the guidance of the dead. From this story Devin has devised an axiom upon which he can base all arguments about religious thinking: “The level of devotion among the faithful is in direct proportion to their hypocrisy.”
Now he pushes aside the newspaper and says, “Let me ask you something, Tom. What kinds of things have the priests been teaching you lately?”
With an impudent smile the boy answers, “Don’t worry, Dad. They haven’t been brainwashing me, if that’s what you want to know.”
In fact, it is what he wants to know. He sends Tom to the Jesuit school not for the tiresome tautologies of elderly clergyman but for the rigorous curriculum, the militaristic discipline and, since Devin is a faculty member, because the tuition is free.
“Indoctrination, Tom, that’s what I’m worried about. Disinformation. Manipulation.”
“Jesus, Dad, I just want to go to church. The Jesuits have nothing to do with it. I’m leaving in ten minutes.”
Using his spoon, Devin stirs his coffee and watches the cream spiral slowly and naturally into an infinitesimal galaxy. By adding another drop of cream he transforms the Milky Way into a rapidly expanding crab nebula. For a long time he stares into his mug, contemplating the far flung stars, and after some consideration he agrees to accompany his son to mass. He wants to see what the boy is up to, surely he is up to something, all seventeen-year old boys more or less are. But he is also curious to find out what the priests are up to. Over the years Devin has become better acquainted with these men, with their values, their ethics, their politics, and though they profess to be well meaning they are in fact always a little too eager to take advantage of a boy who is particularly susceptible to the Jesuitical arts of rhetoric and persuasion.
Intentionally designed to look out of place among the warehouses and factories of this decimated industrial city, the little Romanesque chapel, built of flint and rubble masonry, is a structure one is likely to encounter while traveling through an isolated Irish hamlet. The curious carvings on its archways seem so ancient, so faded from wind and rain, that they might predate Christianity, the work of recalcitrant pagans or barbarian invaders. The enormous frescoes that dominate the apse depict angels and virgins and Jesuit missionaries, mythological figures meant to instill the requisite fear and awe in the parishioners, and indeed the place seems to echo with the voices of peasant farmers ground to dust by the rigid doctrines of a dying priestdom.
Today the chapel is filled nearly to capacity, but Devin and Tom manage to squeeze into a pew near the creaking wooden door. A dungeon door, thinks Devin. As he mentally prepares himself for an excruciatingly boring ritual, he looks around and is a bit surprised to see so many of his rambunctious pupils sitting in silence, their hands resting on their knees. If only they would behave this way in the classroom. Eager to record their unusual behavior, Devin reaches for the pencil and scratch pad he keeps handy in his coat pocket (no self-respecting scientist would leave home without these essential tools), but before he can jot down his observations the pipe organ blares an alarming chord. The congregants jump to their feet, open their hymnals and, with their heads raised high, drone a tuneless dirge.
Father Mullin emerges from a cloud of incense and marches down the aisle to the tabernacle. When the lugubrious singing finally ends, the principal raises his arms and recites the opening prayer. The ceremony moves at a glacial pace, and Devin is forced to cover his mouth and suppress a yawn as he listens to the introductory rites, the act of penitence, the kyrie, a reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It isn’t until the homily starts that he becomes fully aware of Father Mullin’s voice as it sweeps back and forth across the chapel, an impressive instrument that booms and thunders and startles Devin out of a daydream about Batya’s tight abdominal muscles and muscular ass.
“Whenever we encounter evil in the world,” says the principal, “we must turn the other cheek. The Lord instructs us to do so. He asks us to tolerate and understand our ideological foes, demands that we refrain from casting judgment on our enemies. There is evidence for this in the gospels, indeed there is. But Christ also provides another kind of teaching, one that we must carefully consider in our own day and age.
“A man from Gadarenes was possessed by a legion of demons. Shunned by everyone in his village, the man lived among the tombs near the sea. When Jesus encountered the man he took a swift and immediate course of action. He didn’t ask anyone’s permission to cast the demons into a herd of swine and didn’t ponder the ethics of slaughtering these innocent creatures. He didn’t discuss the matter with his disciples and didn’t negotiate with the demons.
“This may seem like a distant episode until you realize that demons dwell in the minds and bodies of so many people today. Look no further than the high school classroom where some teachers have fallen prey to the insidious cult of secular humanism and the fanciful theory of natural selection. But I ask you: what is so natural about natural selection?
“Science tells us that Nature isn’t a thing but a process of infinite change, turmoil, confusion. Nature abhors order, and as a result the universe is in a continuous state of flux. Nothing is permanent. There is no ground of being, no definitive order to the cosmos, no guiding hand. There is no grace, no wholeness, no divinity, no fixed intent. Science goes even further and makes the wild and unsubstantiated claim that human beings are not separate from nature but are merely the end result of random processes. Indeed, we are the process, we are nature. Surely this accounts for the insidious belief that humans have evolved from clever chimpanzees with a penchant for sodomy.
“Why, no less a genius than Pierre Teilhard de Chardin satirized these dangerous ideas with his paleontological hoax Piltdown Man. He understood that we are fundamentally different than the beasts of the field, that we are more than ashes and dust with a primal urge. God created us in His image. He gave us the breath of life. But scientists, by rejecting God and the concept of original sin, gamble with the fate of their eternal souls and with the souls of their students. They commit the most egregious crimes upon their charges, turning respectable, God-fearing children into materialists, religious skeptics, free-thinkers.
“And so we return to the man from Gadarenes, and we must ask ourselves an obvious question: do such demons lurk within the hallowed halls of our own institution, can they dwell among us, unnoticed, unseen, untouched? Have some of our teachers been infected with a sickness that is rapidly spreading through our entire society? Have they been corrupted by deceit and treachery?"
Devin feels his heart begin to race, and it takes all of his willpower to keep his eyes focused on Father Mullin. He desperately wants to look around the chapel to see if anyone is laughing, whispering, pointing in his direction. Someone has ratted him out, he’s sure of it. Someone has told the principal that he is an apostate, an unbeliever, an interloper. But who could it be? Who would double-cross him? Batya? Tom? One of his students? And if so, why? What’s the motive? Then again, perhaps motive doesn’t matter all that much. In this world there is no shortage of insidious plots, and behind each one there is a Judas willing to make a moral compromise for a short-term gain.
Father Mullin grips the sides of the pulpit and cranes his neck past the microphone until his head seems to hover above his flock, and this time when he speaks he sounds not like a man of learning but a crazed apothecary hawking his worthless medicines to a hostile mob on the verge of tarring and feathering him unless he can produce some tangible results.
“The faculty members of this school are committed to the core values and teachings of the Church, I am convinced of this, but let me be clear. Should I find an impostor among us, a trickster, a heresiarch, I will not hesitate. Like Jesus I will fight the devil. I will banish him from this place. And believe me, believe me all of you, I will win the battle.
“But victory in one battle does not mean victory in war. And that is why I’ve come before you today. Students must take part in the struggle, too. It is up to you to keep your eyes and ears open and to spread the gospel by traveling to those places where the divine Logos has been distorted by this new religion called science. Missionary work, gentlemen, missionary work is what God requires of you. Because a day of reckoning is coming, yes it most surely is!”
For the rest of the day Devin tries to understand the meaning of this homily.
The need to personify evil is deeply ingrained in the minds of today’s congregants, but because modernity has forced them to abandon the old mythological imagery--Beelzebub sharpening his pitchfork and setting aside time in his busy schedule to pose for another Hieronymus Bosch triptych--they demand the Church provide them with a new and improved devil, one so clever and insidious that he might even be sitting next to them in the chapel. Gone are those innocuous hymns of love and praise that once filled the air. In their place are the words of an ancient deity who speaks from out of a burning bush and who takes great delight in decimating the minds of credulous churchgoers as though they are a tribe of heathenish Canaanites.
On Monday morning, certain that he’ll find a pink slip pinned to his office door, Devin takes the unprecedented step of altering the content of his lectures and gives them a more faith-based tenor. After a brief talk on primate spirituality he shows his students a documentary on how chimpanzees display grief at the passing of a loved one. He points out the look of shock and bewilderment in the eyes of these sorrowful creatures and how they seem to kneel before the dead. Convinced that his classroom is bugged and has probably been under constant surveillance for weeks now, Devin speaks as clearly as he can. “It’s almost as though they’re praying.”
At noon he joins Batya in the faculty lunchroom. Since he doesn’t have much of an appetite, he spends the bulk of his time trying to read the faces of his colleagues, observes their body language, makes a mental note of those who avoid eye contact with him. Which of them is the professional character assassin? It’s impossible to say. They all wear masks of total indifference. This includes Batya who tosses his name into a hat for the “monthly drawing.” Everyone is eager for another night of reckless drinking, and as the seasons wheel around, each faculty member takes a turn hosting a party—the obligatory Christmas celebration, the Saint Patrick’s Day bash, the Memorial Day cookout—and now, as luck would have it, Devin is picked to host this year’s Halloween masquerade.
Sensing his trepidation, Batya strokes his knee under the table and says, “Just remember, if it hadn’t been for the party at the beginning of semester we never would have gotten involved.”
Devin gives his grudging consent because, he must admit, without Batya he would have no social life at all. He has plenty of time to berate himself afterward.
On the day of the party Batya is nowhere to be found, and Devin, a chronic procrastinator who has never hosted a formal gathering of any kind, is soon overwhelmed by the sheer volume of refuse in his house, the old phone books stacked in dusty corners and the black pyramids of dead flies that have collected on the windowsills. He vacuums the rugs, sweeps the hardwood floors, wipes the walls, brushes cobwebs from the ceiling. He can’t remember the last time he changed the sheets on his bed, a thought that troubles him greatly. What kind of woman would tolerate a man who lives in such filth, such squalor?
He considers asking his son for help but decides he doesn’t want to be left alone with the boy for an extended length of time. Especially not today. It’s Tom’s eighteenth birthday, an important milestone, but Devin has never been the sentimental sort, he doesn’t believe in candles and cake and bright balloons. Small children celebrate birthdays, not grown men. But before he resumes scrubbing the toilets and sinks Devin creeps along the hallway and slips a card with a ten-dollar bill under his son’s bedroom door.
At twilight several figures wearing black cloaks and Venetian masks knock on the door, and Devin, who has completely forgotten about the time as well as his own costume, ushers his guests into the living room. Despite their obvious dismay at the deplorable conditions inside, they compliment him on the loveliness of his home and waste no time lining up at the folding table to load paper plates with raw vegetables, spinach dip and precooked cocktail sausages wrapped in bacon.
By eight o’clock, two-dozen people jostle for space inside the tiny house, and at some point, Devin is not sure when, he’s busy opening cases of beer and mixing martinis, he smells cigarette smoke and hears shrill laughter. From the way her eyes are spinning it’s clear that Batya has already had quite a lot to drink. She turns the stereo on and twists the dial until the house resounds with a trio of classical guitarists strumming a rhapsodic fado. Satisfied with the volume and the mournfulness of the tune, she walks into the living room and holds court near the fireplace. Batya has a way of attracting an audience, and before long a small group of men are laughing at her stories.
“When I was a child of six or seven,” she tells them, “my aunt presented me with the gift of a doll. She felt sorry for me, I think, her strange niece. I had few friends and always avoided the company of children my own age. I spent bright summer afternoons in my bedroom, reading books and acting out plays. After she gave me the doll, I murmured a quick thank you—my parents raised me to be polite—and then I rushed up to my room. I was so excited I almost tripped over my own feet. Using a pair of scissors and a coat hanger, I methodically dissected the doll, taking it apart not in some haphazard fashion, cruelly and stupidly as a boy would, no, but with genuine curiosity, piece by piece, thread by thread, to see how it had been manufactured. I became so engrossed in these labors that I failed to notice my doddering old aunt standing in the doorway. She was a snoop, didn’t believe in knocking, and when she saw the neat piles of arms and legs on the floor and the coat hanger in my hand she cried out in horror. I must have looked like some back alley abortionist.”
The men laugh, they do spit-takes, they choke on their cocktail weenies. Laughing loudest of all, however, is Tom who stands apart from the others. In the flickering firelight he looks deranged, menacing, unhinged.
“I didn’t see you come in,” says Devin.
“Jews are condemned to burn for all eternity!” the boy shouts. “Doomed to the agonies of hellfire, every last one. Saul Bellow and Moses Maimonides and Karl Marx.”
Devin doesn’t know what to do, he isn’t very good at handling confrontation and could use some help right now, but when he turns to Batya he sees something in her eyes that alarms him, a look he recognizes from their first night together, the night when she tore the clothes from his pathetic, middle-aged limbs. Just as a great white shark trolling the high seas reacts to the scent of a wounded fish, so Batya is sent into wild fits of desire when she senses the presence of an emotionally distraught male, and it becomes obvious to Devin that Batya, far from being angry with Tom, has an uncontrollable urge to devour him as she has reputedly devoured so many boys before, those docile, delusional scribes who toil away on the magazine long into the evening hours like children in a sweatshop, gangly and bespectacled copy editors who leaf through insurmountable piles of dog-eared manuscripts and smirk at Devin, the ridiculous cuckold with the thinning hair and noticeable paunch who sometimes shows up at the office to take the editor to lunch.
Devin is about to object to his son’s hateful words when Batya sets her drink down on the coffee table and puts a hand over Devin’s mouth.
“So Jews are going to burn, are they, sweetie? You forgot to mention George Gershwin and Woody Allen and Groucho Marx.”
This generates more laughter from the happy and sagacious guests, but from Tom there is no laughter.
“I’m simply giving you the facts,” he says to her, “and the fact is you’ll burn, you’ll burn.”
“My dear boy, you’re not being reasonable.”
“It’s not me, it’s God. And you can’t reason with God. He does what he pleases. He makes the rules and enforces them. And He says that unbelievers will burn!”
Tom marches closer to the fireplace. In his hand he holds several copies of the school literary magazine, the ones Batya has personalized for Devin with salacious notes and crude drawings. She is particularly adept at drawing phalluses and women caressing them with their hands and lips. One by one Tom tosses the magazines into the fire. The pages blacken and curl and shrivel. Devin gazes into the fire and is startled to find that the ashes of the journal look no different than the ashes of the newspaper he used earlier to kindle the flames. In some strange way he feels like he has been deceived, that despite what the experts say, genius and mediocrity meet the same fate and in the end are indistinguishable from one another.
Batya smirks. “It seems I’ve been invited to an old-fashioned book burning.”
With a wavering voice, Devin says, “Tom, I think you should go straight to your room.”
“My room? Don’t worry, Dad. I won’t disturb you. I’ll leave you two alone tonight so you can fuck each other silly. Fuck your brains out.”
The boy storms out of the house, slamming the door behind him.
To Devin’s surprise the guests don’t check their watches or make excuses or begin to leave; they keep on drinking just as before. They’re used to unruly behavior from obnoxious boys and don’t seem in the least bit bothered by Tom’s antics.
“I’m so sorry…” Devin says.
Batya pats his hand. “Don’t worry. Attend to your guests. I’ll go check on him. He just needs to talk things over with someone.”
Devin is unsure if he should be grateful or suspicious, but he has no time to analyze the situation. The party rages on. His guests demand more booze—another case of beer, another carafe of wine, another bottle of whiskey. “Out of control” is the phrase he would use to describe the situation, and it isn’t until well after midnight, when the final guests spill from the house laughing and dancing and singing some bastardized version of the school’s alma mater, that he realizes Tom and Batya are nowhere to be found.
The next morning Devin considers calling the police to report the boy missing, but Tom is eighteen now, an adult in the eyes of the law, and the police will simply tell him that a man of eighteen can do whatever he damn well pleases. They will probably suggest he try Tom’s classmates to ask if they have seen him, but this idea is an absurd one since Tom has no friends, no confidantes. No enemies either. Hoping to distract himself from the growing sense of unease he feels, Devin wanders through the house, picking up plastic cups and paper plates smeared with bright orange cheese dip, but after an hour he realizes there is no sense in delaying the inevitable. He picks up the phone and dials Batya’s number. It rings three times, four times, and when she doesn’t answer he leaves a series of rambling messages that range in tone from anger to despair to outrage. He sits on the couch and waits all afternoon, but she fails to return his calls.
That evening he drives twenty miles to her house in the country, a place he has been forbidden to visit. He races up the gravel driveway and hammers on the door until he thinks he might break the damn thing down. Cupping his hands around his eyes, he looks through the front windows. The rooms appear dark, empty, uninviting, but Devin, unwilling to accept defeat, creeps through the neglected flowerbeds thick with weeds and ivy and searches the property until he finds a wooden ladder inside an old tool shed. He props the ladder against the back of the house and climbs to the top window. There he sees a four-poster bed, neatly made, a nightstand crowded with books, an empty glass, a bottle.
Satisfied that she is not home, Devin climbs down and does something extraordinarily juvenile but also strangely gratifying. He gathers a handful of fermenting crabapples that litter the ground and uses them to pelt the house. He smashes a ceramic mug left on an Adirondack chair, shatters a window. Then he unzips his pants and, taking his prick in hand, pisses on the hardy mums that grow in big clay pots around the porch.
On Monday morning he arrives early to school, hoping to confront Batya before the morning bell rings. Instead he finds a note posted to her office door: “Ms. Pinter will not be in today.” He walks over to the cafeteria, but Tom is not sitting alone in his usual spot in the corner, staring at the wall, daydreaming, doodling geometric patterns in his notebook.
Devin tries to stay focused on his work, but as the day wears on his mind begins to drift. He thinks of all the different people Batya might be with, men and women, boys and girls, fathers and sons, there is never any shortage of willing partners, real or imaginary. During his final lecture he fervently explains to his pupils how primates experience mental as well as physical pain, that there is no sharp dividing line between human and animal anguish.
“Great apes have been known to combat despair with dance and mock battles and sport. To call this behavior spiritual or ritualistic is no exaggeration. And that is why we have a responsibility to these creatures. The Hebrew word v’yirdu does not mean ‘dominion’ as it is commonly translated in the first chapter of Genesis. The word actually implies ‘rule’, but rule of a very particular kind, rule that is synonymous with stewardship. Like the great biblical kings who ruled over their subjects, Saul and David and Solomon, we are to rule over creation with care and respect and justice. Indeed, we are commanded to do so by the great celestial dictator who rules without mercy. You do see the irony in this, don’t you? Of course you do. You’re perceptive boys.”
The boys do not understand what he is saying, and it occurs to him that he no longer understands either. They whisper and giggle and nod off while he speaks, and when he dismisses them a voice comes over the public address system.
“Mr. Wentworth, may I please see you in my office?”
For the first time in his long teaching career Devin begins to understand how students must feel when the priests reprimand them--it’s a combination of resentment and humiliation and shame, but most of all shame, and when he enters the principal’s office he instinctively focuses on the tips of shoes, which are old and scuffed and mud splattered, a pauper’s shoes. Father Mullin leans back in his chair and lights a cigarette. A hard rain pelts the windows like thumbtacks. Outside, the boys pull their coats over their heads and battle their way through the gusting wind.
“Ah, Wentworth,” says Father Mullin, indicating a chair, “I’ve been expecting you. By now I’m sure you know why I’ve called you here.”
Devin nods and like a groveling sinner makes a long confession, tells his superior everything that has transpired since the beginning of the semester, how he has been sleeping with Batya and how he believes she has run off with his son.
When the principal speaks his words are slow and measured.
“That’s quite a story, Wentworth. I must say that I had no idea that you and Pinter were seeing each other outside the classroom. There were, as you may have guessed, rumors floating around, but I never pay any attention to that sort of thing. Gossip is the devil’s business, eh? And quite frankly I didn’t think you were capable of—committing such a serious infraction. You are aware, of course, that any kind of romantic involvement between faculty members is strictly forbidden. It complicates things, creates the potential for a sexual harassment lawsuit. And we both know how women can be. They see things differently than we do. I’ll need to give this matter some thought. A committee must convene to discuss the seriousness of the situation.”
Father Mullin points to the ashtray at the corner of his desk and snaps his fingers.
Devin dutifully pushes it toward his superior.
“You’ve obviously been through quite a lot, Wentworth, I want to thank you for your honesty, and I think I may be able to help you locate your son.” He crushes out the butt of his cigarette and lights another. “I spoke to Tom on Friday afternoon. He seemed troubled, on the edge of a great precipice. I tried to offer him guidance, suggested he spend some time at the rectory. He seemed appreciative. But just this morning I learned that he left town to do missionary work with a group of his classmates. Right now he is working in a small town called Gehenna. I only know this, mind you, because his name appears on the list.”
He pushes a piece of paper across the desk to Devin.
“Naturally, I thought he received your permission to go.”
“No,” says Devin. “We never discussed it. Is there a way to call him?”
Father Mullin takes a long drag on his cigarette and exhales loudly. “I’m afraid we don’t allow missionaries to use of any of the conveniences of modern life, telephones and computers and so forth. We want them to have as little contact with the outside world as possible. But I’m only too happy to show you where the boys are on a map—”
It takes Devin the better part of the day to drive to that remote corner of the state. Deep in the rounded mountains and misty valleys, he sees few signs of civilization and wonders what life is like for the people who inhabit these impoverished villages with names that have been lost to time—Sheol, Tartarus, Megiddo, Moreh, Tabor, Jezreel. He drives many miles before coming to a crossroads, but this other road--if it can be called a road at all--is a long, narrow stretch of mud with the deep markings of tractors or combines. Devin slows down and decides to make the turn. The grooves and ruts are deep and wide and offer little traction. His rear tires spin and squeal. He hits the breaks hard and then pumps the gas. He pitches and tosses in the front seat, but eventually the car lurches forward.
He passes spacious, clapboard farm houses and small tilled fields where wheat or maybe rye once grew. As the sky turns purple with twilight the road tunnels into a dark wood and skirts the banks of a blackwater river. A colony of ramshackle trailers teeter like rusty little boxes on the crumbling embankment just above the upper falls as though the inhabitants are simply waiting for the first big rains to sweep them away downstream to a new life. A group of children stand outside in the thistle and cypress spurge. There are six of them in all, horribly thin, morbidly obese, their skin pale and green from the onset of some disease long believed to be eradicated from the earth. In the fading November light they resemble a lost tribe of gnomes, fabled creatures from the worn, wrinkled pages of a storybook but a storybook Devin has never read, he was never in the habit of reading to his son, and so the children appear all the more sinister to him. He asks for directions. They hoot and scale a pile of junk, the rusting shells of cars, and point downstream.
A mile further down the road in a steep-sided valley Devin manages to spot a small fire where the missionaries have set up camp. The boys huddle around the fire, warming their hands, staring intently at the floating embers that cool and fade and turn to ash. They listen to the nocturnal sounds of the big woods all around, to the calls of sandpipers and mallards on the river. The place has the feeling of a religious gulag, a rehabilitation camp for non-believers, and Devin gets the sense that Father Mullin has sent him here as a kind of punishment.
In the dark it’s hard to make out their faces, but Devin can tell right away that Tom is not among them. When he asks about his son’s whereabouts the other boys cast pitying looks in his direction.
That woman, they tell him, came from the city and told him to get into her car.
Devin nods. No further explanation is needed. He is about to walk away when the boys ask if he’d like to join them in their simple meal. The Jesuits do not provide funds, missionaries are expected to go from door to door begging for alms in imitation of the saints and prophets, and while it’s certainly true that Gehenna is one the poorest towns in the state the people here are generous and give whatever they can spare. The boys share a can of beans, a bag of overripe apples, a few ears of corn, some small pieces of gamey meat that they slice into thin strips with bowie knives. Among the glowing embers are the scattered bones of a large rodent, a rabbit perhaps or a possum, and the boys explain how they hunt for meat.
After they finish eating they pass around a jug of medicinal tea.
“Did she leave this with you?” Devin asks when the jug reaches him.
Yes, they say. A gift.
“But isn’t it a sin,” he inquires, “to pollute your bodies with this stuff?”
Maybe so, they say, but they do not abide by any rigidly defined dogma, not when they’re so far from school. The tea induces visions of a mystical nature, the woman assured them of this, and they are eager to look upon the face of god, no matter how questionable the methods. The tea shocks them into a new awareness of the world, aids them in their efforts to escape the claustrophobic confines of the ego. The Indians of the Peruvian rain forests have their Ayahuasca, the shamans of the American West their peyote, the sub-Saharan Africans their Iboga, the people of Gehenna their white lightning, and the Jesuits their blood of christ.
Devin has never tried the tea and takes small, hesitant sips. Its effects are initially quite pleasant--it warms his belly and makes him feel a little light-headed--and during the course of that long night he takes larger sips whenever the jug comes his way. He sits cross-legged by the fire and learns a great deal about these boys, about their beliefs and practices.
Life, they say, is a feud between humanity and the devil, God takes no part in it, that’s why there is so much suffering in the world. Suffering is the great answer everyone is seeking, the proverbial meaning of life. Happiness is a temporary thing, impermanent, as illusory as a dream, and suffering only a prelude to even greater depths of despair; it hints at something far more wretched than the trivial miseries of day-to-day existence.
“What can you possibly know about suffering?” Devin is tempted to ask, but he knows that some of these boys, the unlucky ones, have already seen their fair share of death, divorce, addiction, heart ache. Disaster heaped upon disaster. Youth offers no immunity from life’s tragedies.
At some point the discussion turns ugly, the boys begin to argue among themselves, they wrestle near the flames and exchange blows, a clumsy, sweaty two-step accompanied by clapping hands and laughter. Devin can do nothing to stop the chaos. Invisible fingers pin him to the ground. That evening he is beset by many strange visions. Nightmare creatures, simian in their visage, small, misshapen, scarcely conscious of anything other than their own hunger, scuttle out of the cerulean shadows to crouch near the blinding firelight. They--the visions, the boys, the curious swampland things, he’s not sure exactly what--circle around him, inching their way closer and closer, scabby mutant monstrous. They sniff and chortle and prance around, and when they reach out to touch him, to stroke his cheek with their hoary nails, Devin buries his face in the dirt and screams. He screams for the daylight, for mercy, for someone to rescue him and give him a reprieve from the unceasing torments of this wretched existence.
In the cold, wet, tenebrous morning, an hour before dawn, Devin rises from his makeshift bed near the still crackling embers of the fire. His head pulses with dark arterial blood, a pain so excruciating, so unbearable, that he whimpers like a dog when he lifts his head. His tongue is swollen from the tea, his eyes sting from the woodsmoke, his brain sloshes around his skull like black soup. Somehow he manages to get to his feet and staggers away from the camp undetected while the boys are still asleep.
He continues on his journey. In hellish agony he drives through the hills and valleys, past miles of crooked fence posts and rotting dairy barns and rusty pickup trucks. Since the sky is overcast and unmarked by the first faint smudges of daylight, he cannot distinguish east from west. He scans the shoulder for some familiar landmark, a sign directing him to the nearest interstate, but in the hazy beams of his headlights he spots only a wooden cross that has been hammered into the soft earth and, further along, a dead dog. Highways, he thinks, are a lot like graveyards.
Twenty minutes later he comes upon an unambiguous sign of his son’s presence. He pulls into the parking lot of the Hinnom Motel, and for the rest of the morning he stands beside Batya’s car. Although Devin is a man of science (he must continually remind himself of this), he is also a jealous lover just as Tom’s god is a jealous god, and he can no more control his emotions than the beating of his own heart. Like everything else about human nature, jealousy is genetic, as immutable as a mathematical equation, an indifferent evolutionary force hard-wired into the species to protect and prolong the intimate association of love.
It burns him to think of it, but inside one of those rooms, in the flickering blue glow of the television, unholy and unpardonable things are going on. Should he pound on the door, demand that his son come outside and return home with him. After careful consideration, Devin chuckles sardonically at the misnomer. A home is supposed to be a sanctuary from the cares of the day, or so he has been led to believe, but this has turned out to be a terrible lie that has been perpetuated through the ages. Call it the propaganda of family life. The truth is that there will never be a place on Earth where mere mortals can feel completely safe. Maybe his son has already come to this realization, even as he sleeps in the arms of a woman who has vanquished his childhood faith, a woman who in the end will prove utterly incapable of protecting him from the horrible forces that rule the world.
© Connor Caddigan 2010