Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Prophet of the Sun Chapter 4

Welcome back for this next installment. For those of you just joining us who wish to catch up on backstory, here is a link to the Table of Contents.

Chapter Four

The Pharoah examined the row of statues he had commissioned, each one larger than life and elegantly carved of dark black rock. They were identical: a seated woman with a lion’s head topped with a disk. Her eyes looked serene, yet the black rock emanated ferocity -- like charcoal concealing embers underneath. Pharoah reached his hand toward a statue, not touching it. A man in a headdress quietly slipped beside him. “Over three hundred more, just like these, have been ordered.” he said “They are fine works; a glorious offering for Sekhmet.”

“Double it,” came Pharoah’s curt reply, “We must honor her lest she visit us again.” Pharoah’s belly fluttered. The stories told that Sekhmet had almost devoured all the inhabitants of Earth … and she was the expression of the wrath of Ra. The horrors unleashed upon the land could only have been expressions of her displeasure. He had to restore ma’at, the balance of harmony, to the land. It was his destiny.

The man in the headdress held his silence. Pharoah turned to face him “What else have you to show me, Amenhotep?”

Amenhotep led Pharaoh to his work table, scattered with scrolls, writing instruments, measuring tools, and inkpots. He gently moved the inkpots to the side and unrolled one great papyrus scrolls. “The plans for your great temple, my lord. See, this will be greater than the temples of your predecessors. The entrance is flanked by two colossal statues of you enthroned as king of the united kingdoms. We shall call it ‘The House of Millions of Years.’” He paused to let the flattering title sink in. “We’ll work gold all throughout the complex. Here is the sanctuary. We’ll purify the floors with silver – for here you will be worshipped in perpetuity. We will build it on the other side of the river, near the tombs of the kings.” Pharoah examined the plans and nodded “Well done… Well done, Amenhotep. You surpass my greatest expectations. How long will it take to complete.”

“I’m not sure, my lord. The master craftsmen are working on estimates for supplies – We will need timber, and our supplies are low due to the rebuilding work in the lower kingdom. The repairs there are costly, my lord.”

Pharoah’s face was a blank mask – the official face that he used when receiving dignitaries in court or in negotiating the complex agendas of his courtiers and officers. Finally he spoke “Can we ever recover our glory?”

Amenhotep nodded, “Yes, my lord, you will only be remembered for glory – glory and your dedication to the gods.” Pharoah stood unmoving. Amenhotep broke the prolonged silence, “You were tutored in the secrets just as I have been. Your great-grandfather, Thutmosis Menkheperre, erased the memory of the greatest shame the two kingdoms has ever seen – the witch Hatshepsut is remembered only by a few who must know, lest we repeat the errors of history. The past is as fluid as the future – no shame cannot be undone. By your decree, you will erase this shame.”

Pharoah had turned back to look at the statues in the middle of Amenhotep’s speech. “Hatshepsut…” he mused aloud, “Yes, you are right, we can learn from the past.” Pharaoh seemed lost in thought when a linen dressed man with a shaved head came into the room. He stood by the door quietly for a long time. Amenhotep coughed quietly. Pharoah broke from his thoughts. Amenhotep slightly inclined his head in the direction of the waiting messenger. “Come…speak” Said pharaoh in his official voice.

“My lord,” said the messenger, “Ramose is here, and he is prepared to present the reports for the day.”

“Send for him.” The messenger turned to depart, but already, the entourage had arrived. Led first by a man dressed in linen, head shaved and eyes decorated. He strode with purpose, a man accustomed to command. He was escorted by a retinue of clerks carrying scrolls, writing instruments, and papyri.

“Ramose, I read your proposal for a second Heb Sed festival – it has great merit.”

Amenhotep’s eyebrows arched slightly, a sign of great surprise for him. “My lord, it is quite unusual to have a festival of rejuvenation so soon after your last one. It is against custom.”

“’The past is fluid’, you said. Ramose has proposed an entirely different festival – an aquatic festival.” A smile flickered across Ramose’s face. “We live in times that defy custom, so let us have a second Heb Sed, even a third if must be – we must restore the confidence of the people.” Amenhotep bowed his head slightly in acceptance of Pharoah’s wishes. “Ramose, see to it that Amenhotep has a full report on our timber supplies and funds available for construction.”

Ramose gestured to one of the clerks who began to write on a scroll. “Also, search the records of Hatshepsut. I remember in my studies reading of a festival of Sekhmet – there was much drink and dancing and feasting among the people. See if we can include such celebrations as part of this aquatic Heb Sed.”

Ramose gestured to a second scribe, who left the room immediately. “My lord, such measures will be very expensive.”

Pharoah turned to his two advisors “By my decree, I will erase this shame.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Calvin awoke to the sound of the telephone. It was mid morning. “Calvin, I didn’t wake you, did I?” came the voice from the other end – Judge Hamilton, an old family friend and Federal Judge on the Atlanta circuit court.

“No, not at all” Calvin replied, with the raspy just awakened voice that made him sound like Elmer Fudd.

“Son, I just thought you needed to know this. I’m not sure what it means, but whatever it is, it’s not good.”

“OK, what is it?”

“Calvin, I was talking with your mother about your conversation with the Sheriff’s deputies. She was upset; it sounds like this Parrish fellow really was hostile toward you. I thought I’d give a call to the Sheriff just to check in. Ethically, I can’t interfere, mind you, but I thought I could reassure him about your character….” His voice dropped off.

“Thank you, sir. Was there something the matter?”

“There is no deputy Parrish nor is there a deputy Collins. There’s no investigation. This was the first that Sheriff Hollister had heard that John Carter was missing.”

     

Calvin and Judge Hamilton talked for a few minutes. Judge Hamilton reassured Calvin that he was going to talk to John’s parents. Calvin was befuddled. He drove to Biscuit Barn to get a fried chicken biscuit for breakfast. Sitting in the front seat of his car, he chewed mindlessly. His head felt light, as though the insides were filled with sticky helium that clouded his thinking. He turned the ignition and drove without aim, turning thoughts over in his brain, hiking the same paths, unable to leave worn spots that his mind had thoroughly covered. He became aware of his surroundings, realizing that on instinct, he had driven half-way to John’s house. Perhaps I can get some clarity of mind there. He continued on.

Pulling in the driveway, he saw no other cars. He got out, walked the steps, crossed the wide wooden porch, and tried the handle. Not locked. The door creaked as he opened the door. Stale air met him, begging him to throw open the windows. His fingers tingled, a slight whine rang in his ears, and his heart thumped as though he were entering a mausoleum at midnight. Try as he might, he couldn’t control his breathing. He gulped deep breaths, making more noise than he intended.

Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and exhaled slowly. Nothing to be afraid of – he thought -- it’s the middle of the day. This calmed him somewhat.

A glance about the foyer showed no change. On a hunch, Calvin ascended the stairs, drawn to the upstairs library. The banister felt cool to his palm as he gently ascended up the center carpet runner. At the top of the landing he turned the corner and stood in the doorway to the library.
Books lay scattered across the room. The totem pole that had seemed so solemn before had been knocked over and cracked open to reveal a hollow chamber – fifty-dollar bills scattered all around, and a portfolio file with all the papers dumped out. The cushions of all the couches had been torn open. The desk drawers were emptied out onto the floor. The only thing untouched was the green plaster face of the leaf man, his lips pursed as though ready to bellow forth “There is no deputy Parrish”. Calvin stood still. His mouth dried. He was in way over his head.

Slowly he stooped down and gathered the scattered papers: copies of John’s passport, copies of newspaper articles from the New York World dated in the 1870s, a diagram of what looked to be a tunnel network underneath a building, a printout of an old photograph of a portly serious looking man in a suit. Underneath the papers lay a small green book, small enough to slip into a coat pocket. In gold lettering on the cover was the title “The Circle of the Green Man” and beneath these words, a small image of a man’s face emerging from leaves. Calvin looked to the plaster face on the wall. They were identical. The hair on his arms and back tingled. He’s mixed up with these nut-jobs? He’s in deep. He folded the papers inside the cover of the book and stuffed them in the back pocket of his jeans.

A car door slammed.

Calvin’s heart lurched. For one moment he stood unsure what to do. By instinct, he ducked through to the front hallway and into the guest bedroom. Struggling to control his breath, Calvin peeked through the shade of the window looking out over the front yard, taking care not to cause it to move. A nondescript maroon car had pulled up next to his. A man knelt down behind his car, while another man was coming out of the driver’s side of this new vehicle. Calvin recognized the driver as deputy-who-wasn’t-deputy Collins. The man behind his car stood up – it was Parrish, holding a wicked looking bowie knife. Calvin could see that the visible rear tire on his car was deflated. Parrish pointed two fingers toward the house; Collins reached behind his back, pulling something from what appeared to be his beltloop. He brought it around front quickly and jerked his hand back and forth once over top of it. Parrish walked in front of Calvin’s car, knife still in hand while Collins slowly moved up the steps to the front porch. A quiet Clomp….. Clomp sounded from the front porch.

Calvin pulled back from the window. He gulped air over his dry tongue…Are they looking for me? Or just back to tear up more of the house? Whatever the answer, Collins and Parrish looked to be in no mood for answering questions. Quick as he could, He went back into the upstairs hallway, plastered his back against the wall, and peered around the corner of the landing to see the entrance foyer. The front door creaked open. He saw the nose of Collins’ pistol come through the door, followed by his arm. Calvin pulled back two steps out of view. He took a quick look at the four doors behind him: the guest bedroom, John’s bedroom, the bathroom, and the library. Only one had an exit to the back stairs down to the kitchen – the library.

Calvin reached around and locked the handle of the guest bedroom from within. He quietly pulled that door shut. He did the same on John’s bedroom. All the while his ears were tuned to the slightest sound coming from the foyer. Collins’ cowboy boots made a gentle tap tap tap on the tile. He was moving slowly and deliberately down there. He hadn’t made it to the carpeted staircase. What if he doesn’t come up the stairs? – if Collins went to the kitchen and came up the back stairs, Calvin would be trapped. Calvin went back to the edge of the landing and peered down. Collins was almost immediately below him looking into the dining room. Calvin’s mind raced – out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Windsor chair and lampstand sitting in the middle of the landing. I sure hope this works.

As Collins poked his way into the dining room, Calvin picked up the Windsor chair, lifted it aloft, and hurtled it flying down at Collin’s back. He didn’t know if he hit his mark, for Calvin was back up the hallway when he heard it crash and Collins cry out with a string of expletives. Calvin heard Collins’ boots clap clapping across the tile and the first thump of him hitting the stairs. Calvin pulled the library door shut and locked it. I hope those other closed doors throw him for a second. Calvin was at the far end of the library when he heard a sound like muffled thunder once, and then a second time with a bang. Collins had just burst into one of the upstairs bedrooms. Calvin flew down the stairs to the kitchen. He searched for anything he could use to defend himself. The kitchen mocked him with it’s sterility: steel appliances, unused copper plated kettles hanging from a rack from the ceiling, the all too neat countertop, sporting a few empty flour and sugar jars and a butcher block with kitchen knives. He grabbed the big center chopping knife.

A muffled bang sounded upstairs.

Heart pounding, he took a deep breath, ready to run out the back door and take his chances with Parrish. Suddenly his eyes caught a wooden billholder and keychain rack – truck keys still hanging from the pegs.

A thunderclap came from the library upstairs, as Collins burst through the locked door.
Calvin grabbed the keys and flung open the garage door. Dashing down the steps, he knocked over a shovel. He fumbled with the keys of John Carter’s heavy pickup for a moment, panicking as he heard boots clattering down the stairs to the kitchen. He got the door open and vaulted in, slamming the key in the ignition, turning it and throwing the truck into drive all in one neat seamless motion. As he crushed his right foot down as far as he could, he heard the deafening squeal of tires. Collins appeared in the doorway and leveled his gun.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Parrish waited in the sun, unmoving. The crash from within the house set all his senses on high alert. He heard Collins cussing and smashing about the house. For a moment, he wondered if he should go in. No, that idiot’ll drive whoever’s in there straight to me. He walked to the center of the yard, eyes cutting from right to left to see if a figure came around the corner. He heard more crashes within the house. Parrish rolled his eyes. He startled when he heard a roar from the garage, followed closely by a high squeal. Before he could move, the door blew outward, splintering as an oversize mud splattered pickup truck came barreling toward him. Shots fired from inside the garage. Behind the wheel of the truck he saw the adrenaline crazed face of the driver. Poteat! Parrish dove to the side just as Calvin swerved to avoid him. He hit the ground with a hard thud, knocking the wind out of him, while the truck swerved around the parked cars to head for the main road. Within a few seconds, the truck was gone.

Collins was beside Parrish, and kneeling down to help him up. “C’mon, we can catch him.”

Parrish coughed as he stood. “No. We know that he’s got to go home. We’ll catch him there sooner or later. You drive, I’ll check in.”

“He’s not going to be happy.”

“I know, we didn’t find the diary or anything we didn’t already know. And now Poteat knows more than he ought to.”

Collins looked worried. “This is getting complicated – I wonder why they didn’t hire professionals to do this?”

Parrish burned. “They don’t need professionals!” he snapped, “I can handle this better than any of your so-called professionals.” He glowered for a moment, and then, getting hold of himself, he began to lecture: “The Green Man teaches that when your mind is cleansed, you have more insight than the unenlightened,” Collins looked like a child being chastised by a teacher. “Don’t ever forget that we’re smarter and better because we’re initiated into the mysteries of the natural rhythms of the universe.”

Collins didn’t say it, but he thought that Poteat had an easy time escaping for someone who wasn’t initiated into the mysteries of the natural rhythms of the universe. He also began to suspect that this adventure might take more vacation time than he’d allotted for. He’d have to call his secretary and get her to cancel some appointments, after he had a clearer idea of how long this would take.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Prophet of the Sun Chapter 3

Here is the long awaited chapter 3 ... sorry, the Christmas rush got in the way.

For those of you just joining us, you might want to read earlier chapters, available through the Table of Contents

Chapter 3

The interview had the sterility of all the expected questions: what they had done that night, the last time Calvin remembered seeing John. Deputy Collins asked most of the questions. He was stiff with an awkward formality, as though he was auditioning for the role without ever having prepared for the part. Parrish, meanwhile, remained quiet. Only once did his leopard-like eyes betray a hint of predatory readiness: when Calvin described the conversation about Hurlburt’s diary. Then Parrish cocked his head, and interrupted smoothly.

“What did he say he was going to do with this diary?”

Calvin shrugged. “Some kind of treasure hunting – an old lost tomb of Egypt.” A swell of guilt grew as Calvin recalled his inattention to his friend’s plans. “I really wasn’t following the story too closely.”

Parrish pursued, “Did he tell you about any plans?”

Calvin shook his head. “No, he just said that he had a few associates involved – never mentioned who they were.” Parrish’s upper lip bulged where underneath he ran his tongue over his teeth, sucking them. He sat back, again turning his attention to the rest of the room, surveying every corner. Collins resumed his monotone questioning straight from a bad 1950’s tv cop drama. After what seemed to be an eternity, Collins concluded. As the deputies stood to leave, Collins gave Calvin his business card. “If you think of anything else that might be of help, please give me a call.”

“Yessir. I certainly will.” Calvin said, ushering them to the door and opening it for them.

“Thank you for your time, Rev. Poteat.” said Collins mechanically as he turned and walked out the door, putting his hat back on in one smooth motion. Parrish looked Calvin in the eye for a moment longer than comfortable. “We’ll be in touch” he said flatly. He nodded and left.

Calvin closed the door and returned to the couch. He stared at his now closed laptop, replaying the interview in his mind. The shock of John’s disappearance only now settled in. Calvin picked up the telephone, intending to call John’s parents. Three numbers into dialing, he stopped. His shock gave way to understanding, and he closed his eyes, letting out a long slow breath in an attempt to release the grip that had encased his chest. Calvin hung up the phone, went to the kitchen, found the telephone book and searched the yellow pages, continuing to exhale long and slow to keep fear at bay. He found the number he was looking for and dialed – it rang one, two, three “Law offices of Artemus Jordan, may I help you.” Came the bored sounding voice.

“Yes, I need to speak to AC immediately – tell him that Calvin Poteat is calling.”

“Sir, he’s in a meeting. May I take a message?”

“Just tell him that Calvin Poteat is calling and that I need to speak to him immediately.” Calvin said forcefully.

“Yes sir” came the frosty reply. Calvin heard the click of being put on hold. It was no more than ten seconds that he was on hold. But all during it, Calvin bounced on his heels, as though that would make AC pick up sooner. The phone clicked again.

“Cal, good Lord, what’s so important? I’m here with another client.”

“AC – I just had two Sherriff’s deputies here in my apartment. They were asking me questions about John Carter – John has disappeared, and they didn’t say so, but I think they suspect I did something to him.”

A moment of silence. “OK – here’s what we do. I’ve got to finish this up – it’ll take me another twenty minutes. In the meantime, you come on down here and be ready to tell me everything that happened, got it?”

Calvin felt relieved “I’ll be there before you know it.”

     

Calvin sat in the office lobby of Artemus Cleanth Jordan, attorney at law, thumbing through the year-old magazines: Fish and Line, Wilderness Treks, Backwoods, Newsreport, North Carolina Legal Review. On the wood paneled wall hung two oversize prints framed with a grassmat backing – one a scene of hunters shooting at a covey of quail, dogs on point, and the quail bursting from beneath an old shrub. The other was a pair of mallards soaring over a lake at sunset. The secretary, a surly twenty something with teased bleach-blonde hair and a permanent tan, did her best job of ignoring Calvin. Her telephone buzzed. She answered, nodded, and said “You may go in now” with all the emotion of a zoo bred cat, bored in a cage.

Calvin stepped into the back office. AC was behind an elegantly styled mahogany desk. On the walls were his diplomas and photos of AC in the jungle, AC on top of a mountain, AC whitewater rafting. He stood up to greet Cal, his 6 foot 2 inches packed with a little more girth than Calvin’s shorter yet leaner body. He took Cal’s hand in his own, squeezing it with just the right pressure – firm but not bone crushing. One of the keys to AC’s success was his capacity to read people, and then lead them through instinctive body language. He could have been a gifted salesman or personal counselor, but he had opted to use his gift for reading people in the legal profession. Within a millisecond, he knew that this was no time for the customary half hour of pleasantries demanded by southern protocol.

“Cal, it’s good to see you – tell me what happened to John.”

They sat, and Calvin told his story while AC leaned back, bringing his fingertips together in a steeple just touching his lips. From time to time, AC nodded to encourage a continued flow of words. He mentally noted Calvin’s every twitch, eye movement, and tremor. He gently pressed leading questions: “Did you tell the deputies everything?” “Tell me more about what John was planning.” “What did he say about these associates?” Finally, AC brought the interview to a close: “You’ve told me everything?”

Calvin felt spent. Telling his story had relieved anxiety, but the catharsis had drained him. “Yes, everything.”

AC stood and returned behind his desk. “Sounds like just some routine questioning. Based on what you’ve told me, I can’t think of anything they’ve got against you. If they call you again, make sure to not answer any questions until I get there.” He jotted notes on a legal pad. Not taking his eyes from the paper, he continued “Strange about John though –You have no idea where he might’ve gone?”

“I’ve said before that I don’t know.” Calvin spat with desperation and frustration – he felt like cursed king Midas or that comic book heroine Rogue –his touch bringing disaster to those he loved. “I just don’t know.” He said quietly, with a faint plea for help in his voice.

AC bit the inside of his cheek, pursing his lips to one side. “Do Mr. and Mrs. Carter know yet?”

Calvin felt a blanket of failure settle upon him. “I don’t know, I meant to call them, but …. well, I didn’t.” Some friend…Some minister I’ve turned out to be.

AC nodded. “I’d better give her a call, then.” He made another note on his legal pad. “Tell you what. Let me buy you lunch – you look like you’ve been through it today. I’ll give the Carters a call and check in with them. You run on down to Biltmore village and get us a seat at that tex-mex place that just opened up there by the church. I’ll meet you there in about half an hour. OK?”

Calvin agreed. AC had always had the aura of command about him. He had felt that back in high school, when he was three years ahead of John and Cal and captain of the track team. Even now, twenty years later or so, he still breathed authority. Calvin felt that with AC looking into it, he could rest from his worry about John’s disappearance.

     

It was three days later when Calvin returned to John’s house. Deputy Parrish had called and asked to meet him there – he had a few more questions and thought that being on the property might help jog Calvin’s memory. Calvin immediately called AC and asked him to meet them there. When he arrived, he saw that AC had beaten him, and was standing on the front porch conversing with Parrish, who held in his hand a stuffed manila folder. Calvin smirked at the sight of AC’s height and power towering over the slender and small Parrish. Yet Parrish seemed ready to spring, like a mongrel dog pouncing at the neck of the bear.

Calvin swallowed what spit he had and got out of the car. Walking up to the porch, he said “AC, I see you’ve met deputy Parrish.”

AC chuckled “Yes, it turns out we know some people in common.” Parrish snorted.

“Do you mind if we go inside?” Parrish barked. AC glanced at Calvin and then back to Parrish with a grin. He gestured with an open palm. Parrish opened the door and all three went into the main foyer.

“Why don’t you tell me again what happened the last time you and Mr. Carter saw each other?” Parrish said.

“Yessir. I had driven up here to stay the night – John and I are old high school friends and we had some catching up to do. So we stayed up late into the night talking. When I woke up the next day, John was gone. I checked the garage and his truck was gone. I thought that he’d gone to buy donuts. After about an hour, I figured that he wasn’t coming back, so I left him a note and told him I’d be in touch. I called a couple of times later in the week and left messages, but no answer.”

Parrish reached into his folder and flipped through a few pages. He pulled out a page from a yellow legal pad. “Is this the note you left?”


Parrish looked it over. “What kind of epiphanies were you looking for?”

Calvin’s jaw tightened. He swallowed. AC frowned for a moment, and took the initiative to respond for Calvin: “His wife and son were killed in an auto accident about two months ago. My client came back home to recover from his tragic loss.”

The deputy looked up at AC with an unflinching face. His voice lowered just the slightest bit as he said “I’m sorry,” only moving his eyes to Calvin as he said “for your loss.”

Calvin said quietly “I called up John because I needed to talk – we’ve been friends since the fifth grade. He knows me better than anyone else – or at least longer than anyone else. For the most part, he spent most of the night listening to me talk. I guess the epiphanies I was looking for were breakthroughs in how to move on.”

Parrish bobbed his head curtly. “Would you step upstairs and show me just where you stayed?” Calvin nodded and led them upstairs. He showed them the room in which he stayed – the bed still unmade, his towel still hanging over the back of the chair. He led them down the hall into the library, giving a play by play of the evening, conveniently omitting the amount of alcohol consumed. He then walked over to the bookshelf, running his hands along the titles. A puzzled look went across his face.

“That’s funny. I thought I put it right back here.”

Parrish’s blue eyes bored down on Calvin as he said “Put what there?”

“The book …. This diary that he’d gotten hold of. He was talking about it being a kind of pirate treasure map to some kind of archeological find under a monument in New York. It sounded like a childish fantasy – in the morning as I came my way back through here, I remember picking up the diary and putting it back on the shelf right here.”

Parrish’s eyes scanned the walls, coming to rest on the face of the man emerging from the leaves. He focused on the green-painted plaster eyes, as though searching them for answers to his questions.

“Rev. Poteat – how much did you and Mr. Carter have to drink that night?”

“To drink? I….”

“We found several empty wine bottles down in the recycling bin in the kitchen.”

“well, yes we did have a lot to drink….”

“and perhaps things got a little out of hand?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

Deputy Parrish took his eyes from the leaf-man and turned them upon Poteat. He pressed on, panzer-like. “I’m not sure I mean anything. Rev. Poteat. It just seems odd that you two spent the night here by yourselves drinking heavily and then Mr. Carter is never seen from or heard from again. That’s kind of strange, don’t you think.”

“Listen, if you want affidavits from my neighbors that I was where I said I’ve been all this week, that’s fine. I haven’t been around here at all.”

“No, I reckon that would be a bit too dangerous if you had somehow disposed of Mr. Carter’s body. Likely he passed out and you piled him in his own truck and disposed of him and the truck. I just can’t figure out why.”

Calvin felt tingles over his body. A slight high pitched whine rang in his ear. He had that familiar sensation of being an observer to events going on around his own body. I’m in deep – way over my head. AC interrupted at this point “Deputy, don’t you think you’re going a bit too far?”

Parrish grinned mirthlessly back at AC. “Sorry, counselor, I’m just trying to figure out why one of the richest men in North Carolina would suddenly disappear without any word to his associates.”

A flash went off in Calvin’s mind “Associates… John said that he had a few associates involved with him in this treasure hunt scheme.”

“And did he mention any of the associates by name?” asked AC, “anyone helping him look under this obelisk? Anyone he might be staying with?”

Calvin shook his head, “No, no names. I’m sure if you could find his address book, their names might be in there. But he didn’t say anything to me.”

AC nodded. “It seems like you have all the information you need, deputy. I think you can leave my client alone and concentrate your search on the property. You can refer any more of your questions through me.” With that, AC steered Calvin downstairs and out of the house.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Prophet of the Sun Ch 2

Link: Chapter Index for Prophet of the Sun

Hope ya'll are enjoying Prophet of the Sun. Leave a comment and let me know what a good interval between chapter posts might be .... I like to have at least a few days to give people a chance to read (and to build some suspense), but I don't want it to be so long as to lose people.

Chapter 2

A boy, scalp-shaven save for a braided tassel of hair dangling from the left side of his head, looked upon a crimson sky. Swirling black clouds spit cinders that grew into skull sized balls of flame. Between the explosions the boy heard cries and shrieks arising from the city. His eyes widened, his soft skinned jaw grew slack.

A black line snaked from the river below. The line doubled and tripled and quadrupled in width, growing into a phalanx of frogs, pitiless in their advance through the city. They poured over the walls, splashed in the basins, knocked over his mother’s perfume bottles and jars of ointments. They crowded through the hallways, and when he walked, they squished wet and jelly like under his feet. His enraged father, kicked them about, jabbing at larger ones with his spear – impaling them one two three four. His brother, the senior by far, dressed in leopardskin robes, chanted while holding a basin of libation above his head.

And darkness came over the household and the steps and down the street and across the land. No natural darkness, it chilled beyond the skin to muscle and bone and even the marrow– an enduring chill. His pulse throbbing in his ears, the boy looked to his father’s eyes for some sign that this horror might end. He saw only floating disembodied circles, straining to open wide enough to capture the hint of glow that emanated from the slave ghetto. He saw nothing of his brother – only hearing murmuring of prayer from where he stood.

A slice of air, sounding like an exhaled breath, whipped past the boy. He saw his father kneel before a crumpled form cradling its figure head, – its leopardskin robe stretched by the contortion of its body. “My son, O Thutmosis my son!”

     

Calvin woke in confusion -- his heart thumping against his ribs. Am I that far gone? Have I become as hard as pharaoh? Calvin, feeling the drilling pain behind his eyes, blinked four times, as though he could dispel the nightmare and the pain both. He rolled over to look at the bedside clock, an old fashioned radio alarm with the numbers that flipped. Half past noon. He ran a dry tongue over his lips -- he needed asprin, Tylenol, a replacement head – anything.

Stumbling out of bed, he scratched his chest and rubbed his scalp as he walked to the guest bathroom. He pulled the little metal tab on the side of the mirror only to find empty metal shelves. “Hey John,” he shouted, immediately regretting that he had done so, “you got any painkillers?” This time he spoke a little softer so as not to jar the pain too much. “My head feels like it’s declared war!” He turned on the faucet. Cupping a hand, he scooped cold water on his face once, twice, then sipping some on the third time around. He turned off the faucet and unfolded a washcloth, lying atop a step-pyramid of symmetrically folded oversize bath and hand towels.

Calvin had a natural propensity for remorse – he felt guilt about his anger; guilt about his rudeness to his friend; guilt about his out of control drinking the night before. He held the sides of the sink, staring down at the drain. He wished that he could re-do the previous night – wished he could re-weave the strands of the last three months of his life. His mind stuck on this wish, circling around it like a dog leashed for so long he’s worn the grass down. Calvin felt disembodied, as though his life were a movie and the credits were ready to roll and the popcorn would be swept up and discarded. His body had no reality for him as his own – it was a prop, a thing to be discarded.

He had no idea how long he stood there, holding the sink wishing his wish, lost in his movie, but the pain in his head stabbed with clarity. He closed his eyes, exhaled long and slow through pursed lips, opened his eyes again, and released his grip.

Calvin walked to the back staircase and called “John, you down there?” No answer. He descended the stair to the kitchen. In the center of the breakfast table sat a bowl of fruit – oranges and apples hinting at dietary redemption for the previous night’s foolishness. Wine bottles were arrayed on the counter, empty and hollow -- their best contents spent. The kitchen, decorated in a country yellow that made Calvin’s head hurt all the worse, looked otherwise undisturbed. No empty glasses in the sink. No cereal bowl. No note indicating that John had left. Calvin bit his lower lip, not wanting to delay in making amends for his sour behavior, but his headache compelling him to seek food and some painkillers.

Calvin opened the fridge, took out milk and Ducky Dawdle Orange Juice (“I’ve loved it since I was a kid” John had always said). He poured a glass of juice and a fixed a bowl of the most sugary cereal he could find. Following instinct, he opened the cabinet right above the microwave – there he found a neatly arranged row of plastic containers: Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Ginko Bilboa, Ginseng Extract, Multivitamin, Asprin. He gulped down two asprin with a large glass of water. Then, after finishing his hasty breakfast, he peeked into the garage – John’s truck was gone.

Calvin ascended the stairs and detoured back to the library. Hurlburt’s diary still lay on the couch where John had left it. Calvin picked it up and thumbed the pages, breathing the aged-paper smell that was released. He held it reverently, as though he could capture John’s enthusiasm simply by osmosis. Then he gently replaced it on the shelf from which John had taken it.

Calvin returned to his room, stripped his pajamas, and walked naked to the bathroom. He turned the tub’s handle for hot water and held his hand under the stream, the temperature changing almost imperceptibly, until the water was warm enough. He stepped into the tub, pulled the curtain and bent down to pull the shower knob. Steamy water wet his hair and ran down his body. He stood still for a time, eyes closed, enjoying the warmth like an embrace. The Spirit intercedes with groans too deep for words to express. His mind lingered on groans too deep – as though he might sink into the words and wallow there for a time.
After finishing his shower and grooming, he dressed and packed his duffel bag. Slinging the bag over his shoulder, he went back downstairs to the kitchen where he poured another tall glass of water. Still no sign of John. Calvin felt out of joint – like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces had been forced. He didn’t want to leave with the unfinished business of apology; he wanted to assure his friend that he truly was interested in crazy Allan Quartermain schemes.

Following instinct once again, Calvin opened a kitchen drawer – neatly ordered boxes of tin foil, wax paper, plastic wrap, and sandwich bags all stared up at him. He tried the next drawer beside it – a phone book, yellow legal pad, and a long thin container of ballpoint pens. Not even junk in his paper drawers – how does he do it? He tore off a sheet from the pad, accidentally leaving a small tear where the paper did not separate at the perforation just right. Sitting at the table, he wrote:

Thanks for your time – a good one as always. I’m sorry I was a bit of a jerk there at the end of the evening. Your Egyptian treasure hunt sounds like a great adventure. I’ll give you a call this week, and I promise I’ll listen better. I’ll let you know if I’ve had any epiphanies on my end.

He let himself out of the house, locking the door behind him. After fumbling with his keys, he got the car door open, hefted the duffel bag in. One last look up at the house before he closed the car door. He turned the ignition and drove home.

     

“Mike, I promise – I really didn’t mean to drink that much.”

“Cal, it’s OK” the voice on the receiver reassured, “given what you’ve been through, I think I’d have tied one on weeks ago. You’re not planning on making it a habit, are you?”

“No.” Calvin said, still embarrassed.

“Then don’t worry about it. Jesus is still pretty fond of you.”

“I know – but I still feel guilty.”

“Fine.” Said Mike with resignation, “You are guilty – guilty as sin. Confess, repent, move on.” A pause as Calvin switched the phone from one ear to another, “How’re you doing otherwise?” Mike continued.

Calvin paused again – he felt the need to report progress, but didn’t know what to say. Though it was not a trait natural to him, he opted for bluntness. “Awful.” He paused for a moment, “I don’t know how to be with myself – when I’m sitting in the apartment, I ache because they’re gone. When I jog, I make it about a mile, and then run out of steam – I just want to come back to the apartment and sleep. Three days ago, I found myself walking the aisles of Buy-Mart – just puttering about, picking up a magazine here, a DVD there. When I turned down the toys aisle – there was this Spider-Man action figure – it was what we got Calvin for Christmas this past year. It was all before me, fresh as if it were happening. He tore open the present – shouted “Wow, thanks Dad!” He ripped open the box and began to run around the house, pretending that Spider-Man was web slinging from the chandelier.” Tears burned behind Calvin’s eyes, and he struggled to keep them in. “I almost broke down in the store.” He said with a quiver, “I’m a mess.”

Mike’s voice reassured. “It’s OK to be a mess. You’ve lost your wife and your child – no-one expects you to keep it together. You yourself have said many times that everyone grieves in their own way – some folks take longer than others.”

“Yeah – well now I say ‘doctor, heal thyself.’”

Another pause. “Cal, what are you doing to take care of yourself?” Mike said, concerned.

“Oh, I still jog every day – just not very far. I talk to momma at least once a week – and my sister tells me she’s coming up for a visit soon. I’m hardly eating, but when I do eat, it’s mostly vegetables.”

“You able to pray yet?”

Calvin paused for a long time and then said quietly “No – no, I’m not on speaking terms with Him. Not yet.”

Calvin asked Mike how the church was doing in his absence. Mike reassured him that things were improving: the temporary supply minister was good, but not nearly as good a preacher as Calvin. On his end, Calvin smirked. He had tried to bear up nobly after the funerals. Everything seemed fine for a couple of weeks, but then crises slipped from whatever dark recesses in which they had been fermenting: The chairs of building committee and the worship committee began to openly undermine one another; complaints were whispered in coffee hour that the youth director was too “flippant”; once enthusiastic supporters whispered that Calvin’s preaching was “not what it used to be.” Mike, one of Calvin’s best friends in the congregation, had astutely observed the strain that was building during what should have been a time of mourning. He suggested to the elders that a sabbatical was in order. On the surface, Calvin was going away to heal. But he wondered if he would ever return…would he drift to a new line of work and lay the vocation of ministry into soft earth as he’d laid down his wife and child?

“And tell the elders – tell them I really appreciate their giving me the time off.”
“Wish we could do more. You call me if you need anything, OK?”

Calvin smiled, “Sure will.”

After hanging up, Calvin tried calling John again. No answer. It had been four days, and still no answer, no return call. He didn’t bother leaving a message this time. He hung up and busied himself about the small kitchen. Half empty coffee cups sprung up across the apartment like mushrooms. He collected them all on the countertop beside the sink, pots piled up, crusted with spaghetti sauce from last night. A few dishrags lay on the counter, damp and crumpled. A roll of paper towels stood in the corner, the bottom end swollen with absorbed water that had rebounded off the pots in the sink and spread across the countertop. Calvin emptied the dishwasher, put a few coffee cups in, then walked into the living room.

Instead of an office, Calvin had set up his laptop on a cheap coffee table made out of light white pine slats attached with thin tacks to a frame with legs. Every so often, one of the boards would rebel and pop out of place. Cal would have to get the hammer from the basket under the counter and bang it back into place. The table was big enough for him to spread out his Bible and a couple of commentaries. He had a stack of books on the corner: The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery; Exegetical Dictionary of the Gospels; Manners and Customs of Bible Times; Intermediate Greek Grammar. A disordered pile of CD-ROMs lay beside the laptop – on top of The Anchor Bible Dictionary: complete on 1 Volume.

He had bought a used couch from the Salvation Army – it was just wide enough for two to sit on: terrible for napping. He did this by design, for he was afraid that if he’d bought a long couch, the temptation to lie down and sleep would be overwhelming. Already it was hard enough to fight against the gravitational pull to stay in his bedroom and sleep. He still tried to lie down on the couch every now and again, and for that reason, one arm had become loose and wiggly, threatening to break off altogether.

On the floor, Calvin had a small TV, but no cable. He could only receive 3 channels well – one of them PBS, so he was satisfied. The circular dining room table was on the other end of the great room that doubled as living room and dining room. It was covered with mail, little flyers that kept getting stuck in his doorframe, newspapers, both from Asheville and from Cincinnati, and bags from the most convenient fast food restaurants near his apartment: Taco Casa, Burger Barn, and Hot and Fried.

Calvin returned to the couch, and picked up a book: Commentary on the Gospel of Mark by RS Blanchard:

Church tradition, dating back to Eusebuis, tells us that the apostle Mark brought the gospel to Egypt. Mark supposedly wrote his gospel in Rome as a summary of Peter’s teaching. Legend has it that when Mark arrived in Alexandria, his sandals broke – he went immediately to a cobbler to have the sandal repaired. The cobbler, named Ananias, drove an awl into his hand and cried out “God is one!” Mark was startled by such an unusual exclamation; he had not expected to find monotheism in Egypt. He healed Ananias and began to talk with him. He went home with him that night, and soon Ananias and his family were the first converts of Egypt. Most scholars believe this story is apocryphal at best.

Calvin looked up from the book, letting it dangle in his hands. He had been away from his church for two months, but he still felt a compulsion to write sermons. If he didn’t have it done by Friday night, he was fidgety all weekend. He could no more break the habit than a pack a day smoker. He used to enjoy feeling the thrill of knowledge coming together with insights on application of the Biblical text. He had once delighted in weaving jokes, anecdotes, historical and grammatical tidbits, and sprinklings of Greek or Hebrew into a presentation and then delivering that sermon. He remembered feeling connected with his congregants as he told stories and presented truth – as though for a brief moment in the midst of the sermon there was a union - time was lost for a little while and hearts were melded to one. But since Bethan and little Cal’s deaths, it all had gone stale and wearisome. There was no joy in the task. Now, it had degraded to nothing but a compulsion and he wished it would let him go.

The doorbell rang. Calvin rose and peeked through the eye-hole. Two men in uniform, round hats signifying they were either highway patrol or sheriff deputies. Calvin unlocked the bolt lock, and opened the door.

“Hello, officers, can I help you.”

“Rev. Poteat?” said the larger of the two – a thickset linebacker type. His hazel eyes set in a recruiting poster face.


“Rev. Poteat, I’m Deputy Collins and this is Deputy Parrish. May we come in? We’d like to ask you a few questions.”

“Certainly, officers,” said Calvin, stepping back and extending his arm toward the couch, “come in and have a seat.”

Deputy Collins went straight to the couch and stood waiting. Deputy Parrish, a slender man with a hungry look, took off his thick mirrored sunglasses to reveal sharp blue eyes and a bridge of freckles across his nose. He scanned the room, sized up Calvin, and moved to stand beside Deputy Collins while Calvin brought a chair from the dining room table. As he sat, both the deputies took their seats, Collins taking his hat off and holding it in his lap – Parrish leaving his on his head.

“Is there something wrong, officers?”

Collins begin “Rev. Poteat – you’re a good friend of John Carter’s aren’t you?”

“Yessir, I am – at least I like to think I am.”

“And you were at his house on Sunday night?” Collins continued.

“Yessir, I was. We were catching up on old times.” Deputy Parrish’s eyes narrowed just slightly.
“Have you talked with him since?” Collins continued.

“No sir. I’ve tried calling and left several messages, but no answer and no return calls.” Calvin had the feel of being a chess piece, so he broke in with a question, “Is there something wrong? Is John OK?”

“Rev Poteat,” Deputy Collins said, “John Carter has been missing for four days – and it seems that you were the last person to have seen him.”

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Prophet of the Sun Chapter 1

Back a few years ago, I started writing a novel .... a spiritual action-adventure of sorts. I've shared it with some friends. And now it's my pleasure to make it available online, one chapter a week. I look forward to hearing what you think. My friends, enjoy.... Prophet of the Sun.

Chapter 1

Common sense says that alcohol makes you more of what you are. In some cases it makes you akin to what you once were: like some spectral impression, hanging on at a crossroads haunt, hoping the past is more than memory. Calvin had hoped for twenty years to melt away so he and John could recapture the easy cadences of years gone by… nights spent on Calvin’s rooftop trading thoughts not as profound as they imagined; hours wasted driving the mountain roads faster than their parents would allow. On this night, Calvin hoped to numb his pain by retreating to a time before it. The treasures of John Carter’s wine cellar were but vehicles to that end. For the moment, the strategy was working.

“John,” said Calvin, “ – you have corrupted the morals of an honest and upright man.”
“I can hear your mother now.” John affected a lowcountry drawl, accentuated by alcohol borne slurring “John Canarvon Carter, what have you done to my boy!” They crumbled into breathless laughter.

“She’d – she’d be horrified if we broke into Monty Python,” Calvin wheezed. He began singing, John quickly joining in, a half measure behind:

“Immanuel Kant was a real piss ant
Who was very rarely stable
Heidigger Heidigger was a boozy beggar
Who could drink you under the table
David Hume David Hume
Was a hmmmm hmmm hmmm (for here neither could remember the words)
Hmm hmmm hmmm hmm hmmm hm
And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart
I drink therefore I am.”

They collapsed in laughter again – “I think Graham Chapman would have been proud,” Calvin said between gasps.

“Oh no, the ratings are plummeting – viewers are tuning out in droves!” exclaimed John in mock horror. They enjoyed the easy comfort of old rehearsed banter, relishing inside jokes that had baffled their parents and annoyed their friends. They needed no new material.

Catching their breath, each collapsed into his seat, John reclined on an overstuffed brown leather couch facing a cold fireplace, Calvin in the matching chair. Photos of John’s family were neatly arranged atop the mantelpiece, bracketed at one end by an old Colt revolver in a box and at the other, a framed two cent bill from the State of South Carolina dated 1845, discolored in the lower right hand corner with a smudge that might be blood. Across an open space at the other end of the room was another couch and wingback chair, stiff with formality, before a stern antique mahogany desk, topped with a green shaded banker’s lamp. A neat stack of manila folders lay to one side of the darkened flat screen monitor, to the other side was a glass mug filled with pens, rulers, pencils, bits of glass, half used erasers, paper clips, and commemorative pocket tokens. The desktop was otherwise spotless and dust-free. Even the wires for the computer and lamp were bundled and tucked away under the desk, their chaos hidden from sight. No disorder was evident. The room was clean and bright.

Spanning the length of the room was a wall of built in bookshelves, filled with volumes from different eras – some still bearing the glossy dustjackets of contemporary thrillers, others having the worn binding and dusty sweet smell of books past their prime. It was a wall filled with portals of escape: stories of love, loss, and pain – all the great stories that call to you to fall forward into the page and be absorbed into the world, emerging again hours later refreshed and clean and good.

The other wall was a row of windows that looked out on darkness –hints of tall sentinel straight pine trees just visible from the interior light spilling out onto the lawn. On the walls above the desk hung a neat arrangement of black and white photos of jungle-hidden pyramids, crumbling classic ruins, and megalithic stone circles. In the center of this arrangement there hung a green-painted plaster bas relief sculpture. It’s wild masculine face emerged from a background of greenery – the leaves forming hair, moustaches and beard – looking vaguely like an arboreal Mark Twain. In the windowside corner by the fireplace stood a replica Pacific Northwest Indian totem pole, faces mysterious, the wings of the eagle at the top jutting out, stuck in an uncomfortable wooden pose.

Calvin blew a long exhale between pursed lips – then in quiet contrast to the preceding hilarity, he said “Thanks for letting me vent. It’s been a …. a hellish couple of months.”

John averted his eyes. “I’m glad you came. I wish there was something more I could do.” A few moments passed, longer than either felt comfortable.

“Well….. Enough about me,” Calvin said to break the silence, “what are you doing to pass the time in early retirement?”

“It’s not easy when you’re a self-made millionaire,” John said with mock arrogance. He leaned forward, putting his elbows on his knees, “But I’ve got a project that will help me do it.” He would have seemed much more serious had his right elbow not slipped as he said “project”. He caught himself and fixed his eyes on Calvin, silently begging him to ask for more.

“Yes?” Said Calvin, only half curious.

John thrust himself off the couch, lurching for a moment until he was steady. He walked to the far end of the bookshelves. “I can’t believe I found this. I was browsing the sale rack at the Captain’s Bookshelf when on a whim, I looked over in that old glass case where they keep the expensive rare books. The binding on this caught my eye.” He pulled an old leather book, tied round the middle with a strap “I paid more than I ever thought I’d pay for a book, but it was worth every penny.” He walked back to Calvin, and held out the book to him, a little too close to the eyes, making Calvin lean back uncomfortably in the chair. John’s eyebrows danced for a moment “See if you can tell me what this is,” his tone suggesting that Calvin would fail.

Calvin cautiously took the book, as though it might crumble to dust or perhaps come alive and snap at him. He fumbled at the leather strap, but finally got it open. Within were yellowed pages filled with the compact cursive of another era – cursive that took effort for his modern eyes to decipher.

After reviewing the precursors to disaster that were the other submissions for the contract, I have commissioned Lieutenant Commander Gorringe to retrieve my obelisk. His proposal clearly marks him as the man for the job. I have the utmost confidence in his resourcefulness….
Calvin, regretting that he’d started this conversation, quickly gave up reading, “You’ve got me – what is it?”

Retaking his seat and leaning forward, John replied: “That, sir, is the diary of Henry Hurlburt.” Then, breaking out with a Christmas day grin, John said, “Now, ask me who Henry Hurlburt is.”
Calvin sighed, “All right, who is Henry Hurlburt?”

John’s eyebrows continued to dance as he talked, “Henry Hurlburt was the editor of the New York World in the late 19th century, and a friend of William H. Vanderbilt.”

“And this is important because?”

“He would be completely forgotten to history but for one thing…while having a conversation with the Khedive of Egypt about improving relations with our country, Hurlburt suggested that one way would be to present America with an Egyptian obelisk.”

“An obelisk.” Calvin said flatly.

“A tall thin spire carved out of solid rock ….” Replied John.

“Yes, I know what an obelisk is,” interrupted Calvin, “Ancient Egypt – pharaohs and Cleopatra’s Needle and all that.” He was annoyed, unprepared for this burst of earnestness; he had been enjoying the pity of his friend, and was not prepared to release John from the hold that pity had. Perhaps if he had not drank so much, he would have been better prepared to politely go along – he might even have been intrigued by his friend’s plans. But now, Calvin was simply annoyed.
John, oblivious to Calvin’s body language, clapped his hands together, pointing them at Calvin’s chest. “Exactly! Cleopatra’s Needle! In Central Park – right behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art! That’s the obelisk that Hurlburt is talking about!”

“Mmm Hmm” murmured Calvin, wondering how long this was going to take.

“It was a marvel of diplomacy – the Khedive was Isma’il Pasha – he was working to modernize Egypt. He built railroads, made deals with all kinds of European powers. Queen Victoria even made him a knight!” John leaned back in his chair, having the look of a college professor absorbed in his subject, forgetting the student in his office. “But his modernization schemes bankrupted his country and he was forced to abdicate his rule to his son.”

“… and the obelisk?” Calvin asked weakly, trying to move the story forward.

John, stoked by the question, extended a finger in the air. “Ahah,” he said with triumph, sitting forward again. “Pasha didn’t really want to give up the obelisk, but Hurlburt and Vanderbilt pressured their connections in the state department to force the issue. Pasha agreed. But the sly devil knew that the French had taken 50 years to figure out how to move an obelisk from Egypt to Paris – these things are huge you know – hundreds of tons of solid granite. And half a football field in length or more. It took the British almost 75 years to work out a plan for moving the obelisk they took to Trafalgar Square. Pasha was confident that the Americans would never move the obelisk in his lifetime.”

John leaned forward again, narrowing his eyes. His voice took on a dramatic hush, like a campfire storyteller weaving a spell about his young charges; Calvin, despite himself, felt pulled back from the slumber he had been slipping into. “Pasha didn’t count on Henry Honeychurch Gorringe.” His eyes pursued Calvin’s attention – his head jutted forward at the end of his sentences. “Gorringe was unstoppable. The Italians tried to stop him with lawsuits – and failed. The Egyptian crowds met him with hisses and insults, and he moved in like a conquering Ceasar. French creditors tried to seize the obelisk as collateral for loans to Egypt. Gorringe hung an American flag from the top and declared he’d shoot the first man who tried to take it down.” Admiration radiated from John as he became lost in the story, his own enthusiasm overcoming his intoxication. “When his team had assembled the mechanism to lift the obelisk from its platform, a huge Egyptian crowd surrounded the worksite, as though to disrupt the proceedings. But Gorringe was too clever – he’d spent years as a navy officer in the Mediterranean. The night before he’d called upon an admiral in the Russian navy he’d befriended years before. As the Egyptian crowds circled about, in burst hundreds of burly Russian Marines, encircling the entire worksite, not letting anyone in or out without Gorringe’s say so.”

Calvin, wearied of the story, switched from polite tolerance to sarcasm “So you’re going to bronze the diary and embed it in a monument to his memory.”

“I don’t have to.” Replied John, “there’s already a monument – it’s on Graywacke knoll in Central Park. The obelisk he brought back.”

“So you’re going to impale this very expensive diary on top of said obelisk.”

“No,” John continued unflappably, “but the diary tells us what’s inside the obelisk – or rather its pedestal. Before Gorringe could erect the obelisk in New York, he had to reassemble the pedestal that it stood on. The pedestal is made up of giant blocks encased by steps – and between the blocks were gaps that had to be filled. Gorringe and Hurlburt issued a call for people to send items to be sealed in lead boxes which would then be used to fill the gaps. Stuff came from all over the country – bibles, tools, medals, instruments of trade, catalogs. But Hurlburt also contributed a single lead box – the contents known only to himself!”

Calvin smirked, “Probably copies of his newspaper.”

“Very funny – maybe I didn’t make myself clear” John said, beginning to sense that his audience lacked enthusiasm, “Hurlburt put some secret in the pedestal, and then Gorringe erected a 200 ton obelisk over top of it, and now nobody knows what was inside that lead box.” John punctuated those last words, jabbing his finger on each syllable.

Calvin made their tennis match conversation as a kind of game: “So your task is going to be to sneak in by night and blow up the obelisk” he came back with mock excitement, “Then you’ll remove the lead box, bring it back to your secret laboratory and open it to discover ….” He paused dramatically, “that Hurlburt had packed his teddy bear in the time capsule.” Calvin threw himself backward in the chair with a hard laugh “I’ll bet he even said ‘rosebud’ on his deathbead.”

“This was before the teddy bear had been invented, ” John said with a surly tone, trying to regain his momentum. Calvin felt he had scored a point. “Now stop interrupting – this is where Hurlburt’s diary comes in. He tells us that Gorringe was shown the remains of an old Egyptian tomb.” John snatched the diary from where Calvin had laid it. Flipping through pages, he said. “Listen to this.” He found the page he was looking for and read:

Gorringe described to me what could only be a tomb of such antiquity that it predates the historical record. Apparently his guide showed great discretion, wanting to keep the location a secret. Why he led Gorringe to this spot was known only to himself, I’m afraid. Gorringe spoke of rooms filled with wooden chests. He hadn’t opened the chests for fear of damaging the contents, but he was told legends that they contained a great treasure. Strangely, Gorringe seemed unconcerned about the chests – he said that the inscriptions on the walls were what interested him. He wouldn’t reveal much, only that he hoped to return with scholars and experts to more scientifically explore the find and record his findings. He predicted that his find would be more important to our understanding of antiquity than the Rosetta stone….
John flipped pages. “Now get this…” He read again:

What great tragedy – Gorringe’s accident has robbed us all. To memorialize his great achievements, I have taken his notes and drawings for his planned expedition and have bound them and sealed them beneath Gorringe’s obelisk. I do not think it right that any man of this generation follow through on his quest of discovery. May Gorringe rest in peace knowing that this undiscovered tomb will always be his.

“Did you get that – Gorringe died before he could go back to Egypt. I found out that it happened while he was hopping on board a train in Philadelphia – possibly on a trip to raise funds for his expedition. Hurlburt took all his writings about the lost tomb and put them under the obelisk – likely in that very same mysterious lead box that he’d placed earlier.”

Calvin saw another opportunity to score again: “So you’re going to blow up this 200 ton historic artifact to retrieve another dusty old diary.”

“Stop it… I’m serious.” Another point scored. “Hurlburt says he placed it under the obelisk after Gorringe died – that was three years after it had been erected.”

“Oh, so you’ll just get irradiated with gamma rays and become a gigantic green monster and lift the obelisk up?”

Frustration edged into John’s voice. “That’s not funny. I’m really serious about this.” Yet another point. “If Hurlburt was able to hide Gorringe’s papers under that thing, then there must be an easy access beneath the pedestals. If I can find that access, I can find Gorringe’s papers – don’t you get it – Gorringe describes a lost tomb filled with treasure that hasn’t yet been found. If I can get hold of the papers, I can find a treasure trove of Ancient Egypt!”

“Brilliant, just brilliant,” Calvin said brusquely. “I’m sure your investment banker thinks you’re insane. Who else have you brought into this little Allan Quartermain scheme of yours?”

John hesitated for a moment. His eyes drifted left; and he said with a smile “Just a few associates….” His gaze lingered upon his desk.

“Goody for them – I’m sure they’ll love digging up King Solomon’s mines. Well, this has been wonderfully entertaining – I think we should have Tom Cruise play you in the movie. But I’m going to bed before I get the spins. Think you should too.” At this, Calvin headed up to the guest room, angry that John had something to fill his life – angry at himself for his drunkenness and poor manners – angry at Bethan – angry at God – angry at anger.

John, meanwhile, stayed slouched in his chair for some time, nursing his bemused hurt and cradling the diary in his hand. That’s not the way it was supposed to go. Ten minutes passed. Twenty. Half an hour. He stood up and looked out the window, seeing nothing, his mind still flooded by the confusing ending of the evening – muddled up with thoughts about his plans. What am I doing? Am I this much a fool?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Smoke on the Mountain Review from 2007

Some clown used the comments to advertise nasty stuff on an old post. I can't find a way to delete comments ... So I'm deleting the old post and replacing it here.

We were blessed this weekend by a generous couple who gave us tickets to see Playhouse in the Park's production of Smoke on the Mountain Homecoming. This third play in the trilogy about the musical Sanders family brings the beloved combination of old-time music (think guitars, banjos, mandolins, bass viols, and tight harmonies that tug at memories of celtic roots) and winsome and wistful storytelling that makes Garrison Keillor read like the yellow pages.

Set in 1945, just a few months after the victory in Japan, the play depicts one last gathering with the Sanders family singing a church service at Mount Pleasant Baptist church before they split up to head in different directions. Mama Vera Sanders is visibly upset that her daughter June is moving to Texas with her husband Mervin -- who is taking a pastorate of a small Baptist church on the frontier. However, son Dennis Sanders will be taking over the ministry there in Mount Pleasant. Meanwhile uncle Stanley Sanders has returned from his career in Hollywood to be a part of the homecoming -- but something is obviously troubling him.

What is nice about this production is that is played entirely straight -- no irony whatsoever. The characters are earnest and winsome, at times a little daft. But there's no mockery of these people or this time. The helpful contrast might be with O Brother, Where Art Thou? In that film, George Clooney mugs the whole time at the head of an eccentric cast cutting the Odyssey down to size to fit into depression era Southern purgatory complete with klansmen politicians, strange riverside seductresses, and a psychotic mono-optic bible salesman. All sense of the people and time are blurred into the strange and darkly comic. Simply put, the film drips of irony and the arched eyebrow. About the only thing that Smoke on the Mountain shares with O Brother Where Art Thou is really good music.

We have an elderly lady in our church -- a real tough cookie who served with the WAVES in World War II. She's told me several times "I feel sorry for children today. When we were growing up, there was so much goodness about -- and they don't have that today." Smoke on the Mountain evokes what I believe she's talking about: earnestness, family, a love of home. This was an era when people made music rather than simply listening to it. Each monologue carries its own poignancy:

First comes patriarch Burl- he explains why he and Vera are retiring from music to work the old family farm. It's a wistful story straight out of EB White depicting a love of the land (complete with rich lush descriptions of farm life in each of the four seasons). However, a touch of reality hits as he tells of his emotional struggle against taking out the loan, an action that violates his religious principles (I remember well my grandfather talking about how he lost a bundle of money co-signing a loan during the 1930s -- loans were not for common people then -- they were for the wealthy. That's why George Bailey's Building and Loan is a threat to the Bank in It's a Wonderful Life). We see how he is gradually persuaded that this loan won't put him at risk and that he can enjoy the new prosperity of post-war America.

Comical monologues come from Denise, the sister who has married and given birth to out of control twins, and mother Vera, who delivers a fine example of a hyper-allegorized children's message. Brother Stanley talks about sin and redemption while June, preparing to leave for Texas gives a brief but heartwarming monologue about following God's call and knowing that wherever God is, there is home.

But the piece that tore me up was Dennis. He had just returned from war. He spoke of how some think that the call to the ministry is for the weak, but he knew it was for the strong. And then he spoke of a man in his Marine company who had a call to ministry. This soldier dropped to his knees every day to pray -- he didn't work on the Sabbath -- he endured the insults and threats of his fellow soldiers. They stole his pocket bible from him and played keep away, but he never responded in anger. But when they were assaulting the heights on Okinawa and were beaten back, it was this bible believing praying soldier who stayed atop the heights, gathering the wounded and lowering them down the cliffs with a piece of rope and a prayer for each of them. Dennis said that was the kind of toughness that ministry required, and that was what he hoped to bring to his ministry.

It was a tearjerker for me because I knew the story. It's not a made up tale for a play. Desmond Doss was his real name -- he was the only Medal of Honor winner who was a consciencous objector. He was a medic who refused to carry a gun because of his religious beliefs. And that day in Okinawa, he saved 100 lives. I knew his story from a comic book (someone tell John Schroeder to do a feature on that!) I'd read about Medal of Honor recipients (no-one "wins" a Medal of Honor). I found a site for a documentary about his life that just recently came out. The major modificaiton in the play -- the hero dies, whereas in real life Desmond Doss lived to a ripe old age. He died just last year.

In Sum: Great Music, Good laughs, and honoring that which ought to be honored. It's no wonder the first Smoke on the Mountain is already the most produced musical in America right now. I have high hopes that this production of the third musical will rate just as highly.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Why ancient philosophy?

Yes, I've been incommunicando for a while. We've had a lot going on at church, at home, and I've been in the throes of my advanced studies in Ancient Cultures through the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.
Right now I'm working on a module on ancient philosophy. How do such studies help the church? My primary reason is to make me a better interpreter of scripture. Hellenistic philosophy oozes through the New Testament, and for me to better explain the New Testament, I'd best have a working knowledge of how Hellenistic philosophy was actually practiced. A little tidbit of what I'm working on right now as an example. I'm reading an essay on the contrast of friendship and flattery in the Epicurean schools of philosophy. Apparantly Epicureans were criticized by adherents of other schools (such as the Stoics) for being flattering sycophants to the great leaders and powerful men of the day. Epicureans saw no problem with a philosopher attaching himself to a powerful man as a "house philosopher" for that man. Of course the Epicureans defended this practice, making a distinction between being a sycophant and being a court sage. Now put this context as background to the Paul before Roman Governor Felix (Acts 24: 24-27). The passage tells us that Felix was waiting for money. This of course is true. The whole Roman economy functioned on patraonage, bribes, kickbacks, loans, favors .... from Findlay's depiction in his work The Ancient Economy, it seems like the Roman economy looked ahead to Don Corleone rather than Adam Smith.
But the passage also tells us that Felix kept bringing Paul to speak with him over the course of his two year assignment. Could it be that Felix was treating Paul as his own captive court-philosopher? It was the mark of great men to surround themselves with men of learning. Was Felix trying to offer Paul opportunities to continue on as a court philosopher if he would but tone down his rhetoric? Was he grooming Paul to be part of his entourage? Does any of this background make the tragedy of Felix's incomprehension even more pressing? Soli Deo Gloria

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Trying out Posterous

I'm trying out a new social media app called posterous... a way to manage updates to multiple social media applications via one email. More to come later. Russell
Russell Smith
Covenant-First Presbyterian Church

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