(if you haven’t been reading this serialized version of The Manhattan Project (my unpublished novel), you might want to check this one out. It’s a little “spicier” than the previous ones 🙂 Well, maybe not all that spicy, but the next installment will be, I promise.)
Yeh, I know I’m not telling you about the guy outside the smoke shop. But you gotta’ understand that all of this stuff fits together, and you won’t be able to get the whole point unless I give you all the pieces. So I better go back to that girl on the bus, with the blond hair. There’s more about that time that you should know.
See, she sits down next to me, and it’s nighttime, dark outside, and dark inside while we’re sitting there waiting to leave. There weren’t any of those little reading lights overhead in those days. We just all sat there in the dark, I don’t remember anyone saying anything much at that point. Even then it was mostly poor people and students who rode the bus. The door was still open and the engine was running. Diesel fumes drifted in on the little breeze that was blowing. Some glow from the lights inside the terminal made it through the tinted windows, but most of the light inside was from the dashboard. That may sound pretty gritty and unpleasant, but I always found it kind of cozy and secure.
I mean, if you’re shy like I am, you’re usually not looking to be in places where you stick out or where people can approach you and try to make you talk to them. Settling into those high-back seats on the bus, in the dark, with the grayed out windows protecting you from the outside, and the engine rumbling in the back, and, especially in winter with the heater turned up, I usually felt pretty good. Which is basically the state I was in when this girl shows up in the aisle.
I wasn’t looking to chat, and for the first couple of minutes, I thought she wasn’t interested in having a conversation. Besides being shy, I will confess that I also wasn’t much to look at, at least according to my mom’s standards. Once I got away from home, and my parents’ heavy-handed discipline, I went the hippy route, or at least I tried to. By the time this blonde sat down next to me, I had shoulder length hair, some fairly cool striped bell-bottoms, a tremendously cool braided vest, boots, a pea coat from the Army-Navy store back home, and a derby that really didn’t fit that well. Oh, and wire rim glasses that my parents—especially my mom—really didn’t want me to buy. I think because they knew damn well that I wanted to look like John Lennon or all the other stoned-out freaks.
In my mom’s mind, the way you looked gave away everything about what you were thinking. This isn’t the part about her nuclear nightmare, we’ll get to that. This is the part about what Christianity, especially the Fundamentalist kind, which talks all about saving souls and heavenly rewards, but really has its heart set on making it big right here on good old Mother Earth, can do to people. I think a lot of the Fundys I’ve had the misfortune to meet are the biggest phonies the world has ever seen. They cloak their petty materialism in a robe of piety and religiosity that makes me want to gag.
Check this out, for example. After high school, I headed off to a little college in New England that was run by a Fundamentalist church. Most of the students and faculty were definitely not okay, but a few were. And one weekend, one of the good guys in my dorm invited a bunch of us to come home with him. We, of course, jumped at the chance to get out of the dorm and eat some home-cooked food. Part of the price we had to pay was that we all sat through the Sunday morning sermon at his church, with the reverend spending most of his time with his eyes turned up toward the ceiling and ranting on and on about how we’d all better get right with God or be prepared to suffer eternally in Hell.
It was Youth Sunday. And this guy, who also hosted a Saturday morning kids’ show on local TV, showed up decked out in his host outfit, which was a cowboy suit, complete with fringes on the sleeves, chaps on his legs, and a couple of shiny six-guns in holsters attached to a gun belt with lots of what I assumed were fake bullets shoved into it.
He didn’t actually mention the cowboy suit while he was talking. Everyone knew he did the TV gig, and I guess it seemed pretty natural for him to show up wearing chaps on Youth Sunday.
But while he was preaching, when he was heavy duty into the part about eternal damnation and getting your sorry ass (he wouldn’t have said it that way, of course) saved forevermore, while some people, mostly kids, are sitting there thinking about their sad, sinful state, this guy whips out both six guns and fires off a couple of blank rounds right there in church. This was not a particularly large room. The gun barrels blazed and the bang was deafening. The little kids slapped their hands over their ears, but it was too late. I remember people popping way up in the air, off their pews, and coming back down again at all angles, like they did in the movie theater when I saw “Wait Until Dark,” the part where the guy with the knife lunges into the frame trying to finish off Audrey Hepburn. A couple of people actually fell on the floor.
And then, while everybody’s heart was thumping like crazy, this guy spins the pistols back into their holsters and raises his hands toward the audience.
“Now, come my children, come to the Lord, confess your sins and be born again. Don’t carry that burden forever. Let him do it.” He pointed toward the ceiling. “Jesus is here waiting for you. Come take his hand, and I promise you all the things you’ve ever wanted will be added unto you. Come. Jesus is waiting.”
You can probably guess what happened. The pews emptied out and the aisles filled up with just about everyone in the room, not just the kids. This guy’s technique, ripping them a new one ‘cause they were such shits, then blasting away with those pistols had made this crowd putty in his hands. They flowed to the railing up front, some crawling there from halfway down the aisle. And the answer to your next question is yes, yes I was scared to death by what happened, yes, my mom had given us a pretty good sense of what good children and bad children did, and I knew I’d done quite a bit of the bad kid stuff. Plus, I had this Sunday school teacher who stood there in front of six or seven year old kids, and threatened us. First she told us every person has a flower box in heaven and when you’re born it’s stocked with beautiful, blooming flowers. Then she said every time we committed a sin—lying, stealing, cheating, punching somebody—one of those flowers died, and if you managed to kill them all by the way you lived and the things you did, you were done for. I know better now, but I’ll admit that image of blooms keeling over and dying stayed with me all the way to my friend’s church that Youth Sunday.
When we got back to school, I sort of watched myself to see how things had changed. The gun-slinging preacher had said getting saved meant I would never sin again, which I thought was probably good news for my little flower patch in the sky, which had no doubt suffered some serious losses due to my lifestyle up to this point. But, wouldn’t you know it, I seemed to have slipped beneath the holy veil. I still sneaked off campus to drink with my friends whenever I could. I smoked more cigarettes instead of less. I got high on marijuana and hashish, and I made out with every girl I could talk into visiting my secret hideaway at the top of the balcony stairs in the college chapel.