Before Carter, Science held by faith to the possibility that one or more black holes gobble matter indiscriminately only to have the same stardust burst forth from Pulsars and Quasars. The theories compelled. The facts fit — like the edge pieces of a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Since Adam, Man has always known that some voodoo leads a warm and welcoming disk of fire across the sky from everlasting east to ever-loving west only by some slight-of-hand to reappear it in the needy east once again. It’s always been; it will always be. Priesthoods of Poetry and Statistics converge on the belief. Likewise, some lesser force exerts itself on small town centers radiating street spokes with helpful and absolute names of North, South, East, and West, emanating outward from commons past fire halls, grade schools, Immaculate Hearts, Nazarenes, Lions and Elks, insurance agencies and service stations, and countless family farms, until eventually roads cross an event horizon labeled “Town Line” where North becomes South, East becomes West, and vice becomes versa. The cycle repeats as the pull of some real but unseen town center down yonder overtakes the drag of the has-been hamlet diminishing in the rear-view mirror. In time, under the slow drip of rainy-dreary September mornings, and storm-cloudy November afternoons, towns flower from bucolic was to suburban is. In the world of 1971, family farms collapse in on themselves one by one like stellar novae, each in turn giving birth to forty lots and curvilinear drives.
In our town, we see this eternal force of birth-bloom on Farm Gate Drive off South Street three blocks from the Town Center Pharmacy where July has just put June in a headlock and for a bright shining moment, Summer plays bully. Industrious June calls July a brigand as hard-scrap work, scant rewarded in its time, gives way to easy bounty; erasers and rulers give way to bikes and balls; blackboards give way to blue skies; hallways give way to open roads; and constraints of seed husks, shirt collars, and classroom clocks surrender to the irrepressible irresistible honey-breath of summer. It is summer vacation.
A well-traveled black-ish Mercury Falcon turns into Farm Gate Drive and pulls up onto the shoulder of the road. Two intentional young men alight, like brave Achilles and his faithful spear-bearer Patroclus, purposeful and distinct in their black leather shoes, black slacks, white button-down shirts, and black ties. The slighter boy, after straightening his attire, draws a leather sample case from the trunk and turns to his Achilles for direction.
“Orel, are we all set?” The slighter boy looks for approval.
The taller boy, nineteen at most, pats his pockets, hips, front, shirt, speaking under his breathe, “Wallet, keys,” reaches into the car to lock the door, swings the door shut, and then points to the sample bag, “and lit-terature.” Looking up at his attendant, “We’ve got everything. You sure you couldn’t find a normal tie? It’s black but it’s pretty loud.” Orel indicated his own thin sixties-style tie, shrugging as he pointed toward his colleague’s wider neckwear. Adopting a more commanding attitude, “Mason, I’ll show you how it goes for the first couple houses. Then, I’ll let you handle a couple on your own — and I’ll only chime in if you mess up.” His words seemed to land a little too hard. “I-if you omit something important from the script or go down a rabbit hole with a seeker.” He looked to see that his phrasing had been received. “Got it?”
“Got it. Lead on!” Mason picked up the black satchel and the Myrmidons began their march down Farm Gate Drive toward death or eternal glory.
As they approached the first of several wood-frame houses on the street, the morning quiet was shattered by the slam of a screen door as a small boy in a striped short-sleeve shirt ran out the front door, hurtled across the stoop and down the steps, picked up a bike with a golden banana seat that lay on the grass to the side of the driveway, and taking three spritely steps launched himself onto the bike. He steered straight for the two strangers and shouted in a high voice: “My mother told me to tell you – SHE’S NOT HOME!” Picking up speed, he swooped past them with a laugh that lacked the ululation or breath-stops that typically distinguish laughter from rage or anguish, sounding more like a doomsaying raven than a ten-year-old boy: “Ahaaaaaaaa.”
The ernest ones in black stopped short, looked at each other, and turned to the next house. Meanwhile, behind their backs, the boy who had issued from the first house swooped into the road, circled lazily back toward the Mercury Falcon with a thoughtful all-seeing eye, riding the breeze, seeking any shiny object, any sudden movement, or better yet any flailing limb or dying gasp. He turned and road past watchfully as they approached the next cookie-cutter house.
As the two mounted the stoop and approached the door, Orel nodded to the younger, as if to signify, Watch and learn. Orel squared up to the door and knocked three times on the wooden screen door, seeing behind it an open view into the house. He opened his mouth to speak but caught himself. A slow regurgitative rumbling began from deep within and slowly grew louder. Behind them on the street, a boy watched, straddling a golden banana-seat bike. Inside the house footsteps, doors could be heard opening, closing, stairs drumming – certainly this house couldn’t be that big, Orel’s expression seemed to say. Finally, as if summoning storm clouds, a great bull of a man appeared, charging toward the front door, glaring, throwing an arm out to one side only to pull it back holding a shotgun. He stopped just short of the screen – breathing.
Back on the road, boy and bike executed a quick circle and started up the rise and around the bend in the road. Behind him he heard the familiar sound of a 12-gauge shotgun receiving cartridges into its chamber. The boy let out another throaty caw. With a half dozen vigorous pedal strokes, he rode up past the third cookie-cutter house on the street and up to the finest house on the modest block. The Van Vleet’s house was the colonial farmhouse that had ruled this swath of land a hundred and fifty years earlier – even one generation earlier. While the majority of other houses on Farm Gate Drive were Cape Cods and small ranches that shared obvious wood-frame ancestry and obediently hugged the rolling landscape, the Van Vleet’s two story colonial commanded the surrounding area and stood out with its stone foundation and twin stone chimneys and the peculiar asymmetries of non-standard building materials and uneven windows and doors. The other houses all had the same paved driveways and one-car garages, the same casement windows and bay windows adorning the living rooms. The Van Vleets had a loose stone and dirt driveway that wrapped around leading to lean-to buildings connect to the back of the house, and then beyond, the foundation of what had once been a barn stretched out like a large-print puzzle in the grass. But despite their command of the surrounding area, their house now had a modest half-acre lot like their neighbors. Raymond Van Vleet served the people of the town as a police officer, and Sylvia Van Vleet taught fifth grade at the South Street Elementary School three blocks away. As a couple, they were the anchor of Farm Gate Drive, known to everyone on the street and respected as a known quantity. Every child had or would some day have Mrs. Van Vleet for home room or history, and every adult would some day appeal to or try to dodge Mr. Van Vleet’s attendance for one thing or another. The Van Vleets were non-negotiable, that standard by which all things in the neighborhood were measured.
The boy on the banana-seat bike had turned and stopped, and now straddled his bike, watching as the man-boys in black and white came running up the rise and around the bend, black ties flashing in the sun as they flapped over their shoulders, each boy lending a hand to manage the heavy sample bag at maximum speed. As the tandem reached the crest and passed out of sight of the previous house, they stopped to catch their breath, not quite laughing, trying to regain their scripted composure. The spear-bearer once again took charge of the sample bag. They continued on their way, passing the boy on the golden banana seat and approaching the house directly across from the Van Vleets. Keen eyes followed them as Orel greeted elderly Mrs. Morgan, shaking her hand – only after being offered – and conducted what appeared to be a pleasant and business-like interaction that led up to Orel gesturing to Mason and the younger boy, then opening the bag and pulling out some folded pamphlets and a smallish hard-cover volume. Mrs. Morgan continued to smile, but nodding gave way to head-shaking. They appeared to part amicably, putting their lit-terature back into their bag and heading back out to the road.
Speaking in low tones, the two Myrmidons crossed the street and passed close by the boy astride the bike, whose head turned to follow them. They continued across the street and up to the Van Vleet front porch. Behind them they could hear whistling and the swelling murmur of mid-morning in July. Having come out of her front door to empty a dustpan, Mrs Van Vleet had seen them approaching. She reentered the house only to reappear with a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies, and again to reemerge with a pitcher of lemonade and a stack of dixie cups which she set on a small table.
She spoke first. “So, what is it that brings you to my door? It’s too early for Trick or Treat.”
“Good morning, Ma’m,” said Orel.
Apparently remembering his instructions for his protégé to take his turn at conducting the interviews, the leader nodded subtly to Mason and seemed to step back.
“You can’t be selling Girl Scout Cookies – you don’t seem to be the sort for that.”
“Ma’m, my name is Mason, and this is my mentor, Orel.”
“Mason’s a good strong name,” She motioned to the chairs on the porch and took a seat herself facing outward toward her front yard. “And Orel, I like that! It certainly gets my attention!” She seemed to be measuring them up, perhaps deciding if they might be more fun to tease or to badger. “As long as it’s not Oral History,” and she leaned forward to deliver the punchline, “‘Cause that can get kind of dry.” She watched as Orel’s face and neck flushed, but he remained silent. “I brought out some lemonade,” she paused for effect, “in case you were winded after being chased off by Mr. Bulczek.”
“Yeaaah!” The boys were startled by a voice coming from directly behind them. The boy on the golden banana seat had rolled up to the porch and stood straddling his bike directly behind them, his body waist-down hidden by the porch deck. “They stopped at Mr. Bulczek’s! ‘Sir, what happens when you die?’” The boy gestured as if cocking and pointing a shotgun, “Chick-chick. ‘You wanna find out?’ Haaa-Ahaaa – they took off running like stuck pigs!” The boy gestured and laughed in an exaggerated way. “’You wanna find out?’ Haa-Ahaaaa!”
“Jimmy, you be polite!” The woman of the house scolded the neighbor boy. “You let these fellows talk. They’re guests in our neighborhood.” She wiped her hands on her apron. “I believe your mother taught you better – at least I want to think so.” She turned to address the two visitors again, raising her hand to her mouth to make a subtle drinking gesture, as if to explain the boy’s home situation.
Another smaller boy approached from across the street, drawn to the crowd. More seemed to be gathering – children, dogs.
Mason began rotely, “We’d like to talk to you about your eternal destiny and the ongoing work in this world of Jesus Christ—”
“This here’s Jesus Christ!” The boy on the banana seat pointed to a smaller boy approaching behind him. “And his sister’s name is Dammit!” The boy held up his hand to the side of his mouth. “At least that’s what his father calls them! Haaa-Ahaaa!”
Mrs. Van Vleet pointed to the plate of oatmeal raisin cookies. “Jimmy, will one of these shut you up?” She rose from her chair to offer the plate to the boy, and then to the boys in black and white. “Would you care for an oatmeal-raisin? . . . No? . . . Well, they’re right here if you change your mind. All I can do is offer.”
For a moment no one talked as a short parade of children, slowly, timidly, made their way across the porch, between the woman and her guests, stretching to snatch the nearest cookie with the least traverse, and then skuttering back down the porch steps to the lawn, each pleased and satisfied.
Becoming aware of the small gnawing crowd, Mason reached for the satchel blindly, his hand finding air and then the open mouth of the satchel. Looking down, he found that the boy on the bike and the menagerie that had assembled behind them had been silently siphoning books and pamphlets out of the satchel and handing them around to the rest of the crowd. Many of the pamphlets had been folded into paper airplanes and now littered the Van Vleet’s front yard, while most of the books were now part of a two-story house of books. Mason visibly deflated. Orel raised his eyes toward the sky as if making some appeal. “Excuse me, Ma’m.” Orel breathed a heavy sigh and got up from the chair to try to recover what materials he could salvage. The emptiness of the satchel seemed to stare at them accusingly.
“Ma’m, as we were saying,” Mason was pleased with his smooth recovery. “We’ve come to talk to you about your eternal destiny an–.”
“You mean like heaven?” She interrupted. “Here’s a question: my husband puts his uniform on every morning, comes home, takes it off every evening. When he goes to heaven, will he be in uniform? Or will he be in his civilian clothes . . .” Her voice trailed off slightly as if pondering the profundity of her question. Then looking straight at the two Myrmidons, “I take it you two will be in your uniforms. ‘Cause you know people in uniforms do what they have to – what they’re told to. People in their civi’s do what they want.” She gazed off into the distance while her hand reached out to the plate of cookies. She smiled realizing there was only one broken cookie remaining.
“Well, Ma’m,” Mason resumed, “I don’t think uniforms are an issue, here, certainly not an essential of – of heaven.” He looked to Orel who had returned to his chair, sitting attentively.
“I’m sure uniforms would be . . . um, optional,” Orel’s voice trailed off as he heard with judgment his own voice answering something they were not commissioned to answer.
Sylvia Van Vleet gazed at the baskets of purple and yellow pansies hanging from her porch roof, “I also wonder this: When a child gets assigned to my class in September, someone has signed off on that child being ready – or mostly ready – for the fifth grade. They always have some deficiencies, but overall, they’re certified as being ready for the fifth grade. We always make accommodations. Who certifies?” She nibbled absently. “And who is really ready for heaven?” She continued nibbling, her gaze and her voice getting farther away. “But in any event, you have got to have some first-hand knowledge from being in the room with whoever is doing the certifying. I don’t see any way around that.” She shook her head. “Sometimes children are more than ready except just not up to the fifth-grade math . . . Because it might just be like those people who buy expensive houses and have no money left for furniture. Maybe heaven’s just empty, if there’s no accommodations made. Lights on, nobody home. Just waiting.”
“Ahaaa, heaven’s empty! Ahaaa!” The boy on the golden banana seat roused the three on the porch from the depths of their thoughts. Mrs. Van Vleet sat up straight in her chair.
“Ma’m,” Mason began bravely, “We just wanted to share with you some information that would help you to know that you have eternal life.”
“Ma’m,” Orel picked up, hoping to drive home the point of their visit, “We believe that we can elucidate some ways that you can get closer to the affirming knowledge of your eternal security.”
“Orel, honey,” Sylvia paused, “I think what you earnestly want more than anything,” and paused again, “is for me to become just like you and join you in your heaven.”
“Yes, exactly.” Orel leaned forward in his chair.
“You see, in my heaven, I have the chance to be my best version of me.” She stared him in the eye. “Not my best version of you.”
Orel felt diminished as she seemed to slip from his grasp.
Leaning forward and touching her cookie to her lower lip, stared down brash Achilles. She scanned her front yard with her index finger. The boy on the golden seat looked thoughtfully at the children remaining in the yard, one flying a paper airplane back and forth across the yard, another ripping pages one by one out of a scavenged volume of Myrmidon scripture. “Because I don’t think your version of heaven includes . . . this here,” and she waved her hand to indicate the band of juveniles. “I can’t imagine that you would be happy at all if you worked your whole life to be like your book says and got to heaven and found this.” She waved her hand again. “I think you’d be unhappy unless everyone in heaven were,” she searched for words, her arms starting to animate. Eventually, she held her arms out pointing at the two young men in black and white. “Unless everyone were like this here. I think your idea of heaven is everyone works to be just like you, so basically heaven is just you. Just. Like. You.” She picked up the empty plate. “And if everyone is just like you – you’re basically alone.” She rose from the chair and turned toward the door. “Either way, I think we’re all going to need some accommodations.”
In an instant, Sylvia Van Vleet disappeared into the house. Slowly, the Myrmidons’ heads began to clear. What sorcery was this? Much time had passed, but little glory won.
The Myrmidons left the Van Vleet’s porch and continued down the street like the ant-men that they were, following some chemical scent trail left the year before. Upon their return, the first question would be How many did you hand out? Certainly, they would achieve great acclaim when they showed their nearly empty sample case. That would be the stuff of legend. But the next question, How many leads did you bring in? That would cast a shadow on their day’s sortee. Dutifully, they marched on. House after house, unanswered door after unanswered door, curt rebuff after curt rebuff. The action of the early part of the day was gone and progress seemed to escape them. Apollo now stared down, brooding, from the highest point of his daily course.
After each stop they were greeted by the silent watchful gaze of the boy on the golden banana seat. When he finally turned away and road back up the street, they continued on and rounded one more bend in the road, finding they had reached the end of the residential portion of Farm Gate Drive. The road reached a T with a farmhouse and barn on the other side of the road. A small girl no more than four or five was walking slowly along a dirt path that joined up with the road by a small drainage ditch. Mason addressed her, “Good morning!” He waited to gauge the response or lack thereof and decided to continue. “What’s your name?”
She stared blankly up at the slighter boy. “Dammit.”
“Come on, Mason. Don’t waste your time on her.” Orel turned to walk back to the car. “She’s just lost.”