The scene: a small courthouse in a town called Rustler's Springs somewhere in the Bible Belt. Behind the judge are portraits of George Washington and George W. Bush. There is a state flag on one side of the bench and the Stars and Stripes on the other. Sitting prominently beside the judge's gavel are facsimiles of the two tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. The original tablets, the ones engraved by God and found by Champ in the Sinai are resting safely in a Cairo museum.
(It is worth noting that since Champ's discovery, the Bush government has been under considerable pressure from the Christian Right to bring the tablets to the U.S. where they would be housed, somewhat like the Stone of Scone under the monarch's throne in England, under the president's chair in the Oval Office. So far, the Egyptian government has refused to part with the tablets, declaring them, simultaneously, to be a hoax, and a national treasure. To date there have been several raids by Israely commandos to take the tablets by force, but they have failed, and two downed Israely helicopters are on display outside the museum. Militant Egyptian factions, reputed to be associated with of Al Quaida, have driven car bombs into the museum on a number of occasions, but, miraculously, all have failed to explode. The drivers of these vehicles, crash-test dummies wearing turbans, are also on display outside the museum entrance, greeting visitors by shouting electronically, "God is great!" as their mechanical fingers move to press a detonator).
Be that as it may - back to the courthouse scene in the trial of Reason vs Faith in the specific case of Champ's assertion that evolution will be debunked - a case that might be summarily dismissed were it not for his insistence that Genesis be taught in the public schools instead of science, and his collection of millions of signatures of adult American citizens on petitions to this effect.
Though it has made me the laughing-stock of my friends, I have agreed to defend Reason in this case. I am dressed in a black gown and am wearing a barrister's wig. The Champ has secured the services of Charlton Heston to present his case. Mr. Heston is wearing the same costume that he wore when he played Moses in the 'Ten Commandments', and he has grown a formidable beard for this occasion. The jury quakes as he approaches them, gesturing with a heavy staff, speaking in a voice like thunder.
As for the jury, they are all in disguise to protect them from the media. There is a large brown bear, an ostrich, a walrus, the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts (obviously relishing his/her position and constantly poking the Hatter with his/her elbow and winking). Sitting beside the Queen is Alice, of indeterminate age, sporting a black mascara mask which makes her look like a raccoon, and beside her are Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee both of whom are given to uncontrollable fits of giggling at the most inopportune times. In the front row are four who are dressed, inappropriately, as chimpanzees. These four take turns holding their hands over their eyes, ears, or mouths, and making obscene gestures toward me and my witnesses.
The judge, also inappropriately, is disguised as a Neanderthal, though the tabloid press has reported that he really is a Neanderthal, and that he was found as an infant floating in a basket down a tributary of the Rhein in the Black Forest. Mr. Heston has sued the Globe Dispatch over this story, claiming that he, as Moses, is the one who was found as an infant floating in a basket.
As if this turbulent setting was not enough, outside the courthouse is a mob of Klansmen and skinheads, shouting and blowing car horns while the local police look on with amusement. They have an effigy on a pole - a straw filled dummy wearing a black robe and a barrister's wig, and at the end of each day, as I exit the courthouse, they set this thing on fire and wave it in front of my face, as flash bulbs pop, red and yellow paint balls burst painfully on my black robe and jeers, obscenities and slurs fill the air. Meanwhile, the Champ and Mr. Heston are carried off on the shoulders of the cheering flock of the First Church of the Ten Square Cradle, all singing at the top of their voices:
"Won't be water, but fire next time!"
Until the trial continues tomorrow I remain yours truly,
(donations accepted for the drycleaning of my gown)
The judge has recessed for five minutes. I am staring at the motto on the wall behind his seat, raised golden letters between the portraits of Washington and Bush: VOX POPULI VOX DEI. ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God’. Glancing at the jury, fanning themselves in the late afternoon heat, (even the chimpanzees are wilting) I find this motto unsettling. I tell myself that, after all, Lao Tsu thought that: ‘What goes against the will of the common people is not the Tao’.
We hear a loud flushing noise and presently the judge re-enters the courtroom. I know you’ve been reading the daily papers, and my strategy is no secret. To reiterate briefly, I simply intend to demonstrate to the court that the Champ is physically, mentally, and morally able to determine the age of a tree by counting the growth rings on its stump, or in a core sample, and so, if it please the court, he is perfectly capable of counting a core sample of a lake bottom to count the layers of annual sediments - summer layers of algae, pollen, etc. and winter layers of silt. There are many lakes around the world where one can see, by this simple method, that some lakes are over 40,000 years old. This is a blink of an eye in the age of the Earth, but I simple intend to create a tiny crack of light in the Champ’s faith blackened brain - hopefully a tiny shaft of light that will illuminate for him the wondrous world of reality, as opposed to the darkness of superstition and fable.
The bailiff is droning, and Mr. Heston, (coucil for Faith), heaves himself up, and strides over to the jury. He places the end of his staff on the railings in front of the chimpanzees and draws it across the rails making a loud clattering, waking up the Queen of Hearts. He turns to the judge. “I call on Mr. A _ _ _ as my next witness.”
Heston, with his mighty staff, and mighty roar, has been blustering his way through the proceedings. He is well aware that I am backing his client into a corner, and he is well aware that it is critical to his client’s position that the lakebed deposits be seen as a trivial notion put forth by unqualified science hobbyists - atheist propaganda to challenge the authenticity of the Bible.
Mr. A takes a seat in the witness box and is sworn in. He is wearing khaki shorts, a khaki shirt with sweat blots in the usual places, and a pith helmet. He has sunburned knees bristling with blond hairs.
Heston: Mr. A, please state your profession. Be as brief as possible.
Heston: And could you tell us your relationship to Mr. Champion? Briefly, please.
A: My colleagues and I kidnapped him and took him to the Sinai to count the sediment layers in a dry lakebed called ‘The Red Depression.
Heston: I see. Kidnapped you say?
A: It was a prank. We knew he wanted to visit the Holy Land, so we tricked him into coming. It was just a kind of joke.
Heston: I joke, I see. And is it true, sir, that when your digging at the, ahh, Red Depression, was under way, you are the fellow who tossed those two stones out of the pit onto the rubble pile?
Heston: You didn’t bother to examine them before tossing them out? You, a geologist? (turning toward the jury) a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto tosses two large stones out of a sandy depression where there’s not another stone in sight, without examining them?
A: It was late in the day. I was hot and tired. A stone’s a stone.
Heston: You have since had the opportunity to examine the stones more carefully?
Heston: What kind of stones are they, Mr. A?
Heston: SYENITE? (Heston strides rapidly toward the jurors leveling his staff at them like a lance). THIS MAN UNEARTHS THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, GOD’S OWN HANDIWORK AND HE DESCRIBES THEM AS SYENITE!
I jump to my feet. Objection! This information has been public for months now. We all know everything there is to know about the Champ’s astonishing discovery. Mr. Heston is leading us away from the subject at hand - the age of the lake. Mr. A is a geologist, not an archeologist or a theologian!
Judge (wearily) Overruled.
Heston: (striding back to the witness) And what exactly is syenite, Mr. A?
A: An igneous rock . . . mostly feldspar with some quartz. It . . .
Heston: (holding up his hand) Not an artificial material?
A: No - a natural rock.
Heston: And the glyphs on the rocks? How were they engraved on the stone? On this natural igneous rock?
A: It’s in my report. I thought they had been cut by a laser.
Heston: (ominously) You thought?
A: They were cut by a laser.
Heston: Not by a bolt of lightning?
Heston: And what makes you so sure they were not cut by a bolt of lightning?
A: Lightning doesn’t cut glyphs in stone.
There is a buzz in the courtroom. The judge bangs his gavel. Get on with it, Mr. Heston. My patience is getting thin with this.
Heston: Sir, how do you explain the, uh, cyanide tablets having the Ten Commandments engraved on them in ancient Hebrew?
A: I alreay told you . . . . . . it was a joke.
Heston: A JOKE? Are we back to the kidnapping again?
A: (Removing his pith helmet and mopping his brow with his sleeve) Well, he wouldn’t help us with the dig. He wasn’t in the least interested in the sediment layers. He wouldn’t stop singing those awful hymns. “Aren’t you fellows hot?” he would say. “What would you think if the heat were turned up a few thousand degrees?” Then he’d burst into song again. We decided to play a joke on him.
There is a low, ominous muttering in the courtroom. The bear rears slowly onto his hind legs, emitting a low, terrible growl. Someone with a clandestine phone camera flashes a picture of me jumping to my feet, my wig flying off.
Judge: (banging his gavel) Sit down, Mr. Unsmoked. Sit down.
(his voice takes on an ominous sing-song tone) You will have your say, Mr. Unsmoked. In due time. You will have your say. He jabs the gavel in the direction of Heston, signalling him to continue.
Heston: (turning back to Mr. A) And what manner of joke, sir, did you and your colleagues decide to play on Mr. Champion?
A: Well, at first we just thought of selling him to some bedouins who were camped nearby.
Heston: I see. And what else.
A: (warming slightly to the subject) Well, we unearthed some rotten wood, old boards with peg holes in them, so it was suggested that we tell the Champ that they were remnants of Noah’s Ark.
Huston: (lowering his head like a lion, and running his tongue over his lower lip, somewhat in the manner of Robert Newton when he played Long John Silver in Disney’s Treasure Island) Aargh . . .(rolling his eyes toward the jury) Noah’s Ark? I see. Anything else?
A: Well, Mr. D _ _ _, my associate at the University, pointed out that we were not geographically located for the discovery of the Ark.
The courtroom is droning like a hive of disturbed African Killer Bees. The bear is rearing up again, this time, apparently, with no intention of sitting down. The judge bangs in vain. Order! Bear, sit down! Someone give the Queen of Hearts a fan - a newspaper will do! Alice! Help the Queen of Hearts! (snapping his fingers) Baillif! A glass of water for the Queen! Order! Bang, bang!
It is a long, hot, humid night in Rustler’s Springs. I perspire as I write. I’ve had to close my window and turn out the lights. There are dark figures with burning torches milling about outside my motel window. This is not a good place to be when a hoax of this magnitude is unveiled. Luckily, the judge adjourned until tomorrow after the Queen of Hearts fainted. Rumors are spreading like wildfire. Bush and Blair are getting together at Camp David. Cairo International has been closed. All I wanted was for the Champ to count some pollen layers in a lakebed core sample.
In the early morning I find myself slouched in a chair with some scribbled notes about lakebed sediments in my lap. I’ve also scribbled, ‘apres moi le deluge’, but now I can’t remember why I wrote this or what it means. I feel that I may be able to attend next Sunday’s meeting of the Church of the Four Square Cradle and speak to the congregaton in tongues while holding a live water moccasin in each hand .
While powdering my wig and putting some Pop Tarts in the toaster I watch the news. At Camp David, Bush has declared Canada to be the newest member of the Axis of Evil, and has already taken steps to close the border and cut off the flow of affordable medicines. Mr. Blair has flown to Cairo to try and placate the Egyptians, and see if he can secure the Ten Commandments for further examination.
I see the Champ being interviewed by Ted Kopell, live outside the courthouse just a few blocks away. Unlike Oprah, who was interviewed earlier, he is not at all dismayed by yesterday’s revelations. To my astonishment he is downright cheerful, if not actually cheeky. Kopell, unable to steer the interview, stands listening, holding the microphone, as Champ expounds on Piltdown Man and other great scientific hoaxes. He cannily avoids any mention of Darwin, or the most recent discoveries in the Qattara Depression. Finally, after joining the Champ in a brief prayer, Ted gets a word in. “Mr. Champion, with all due respect, aren’t you at all concerned that you will be charged with perpetrating a monstrous hoax, and that the court will order you to refund the donations, $53,000,000 I’m told, that you have received from your Christian supporters?”
“It will all come out in court today,” Champ replies, waving his fingers to a group of banner-waving supporters from the Cradle Church. “The Canadians, that Gang of Eight from the University of Toronto, perpetrated the hoax. Using their illustrious reputations, they took advantage of my faith and my trust to deceive me and the rest of the world.”
The interview is interrupted by a carpet-cleaning commercial, and I switch channels to see the camera panning over a mob of Skinheads who are congregating outside the courthouse. They are wearing battle fatigues and are armed with paintball assault rifles. When they see the camera aimed their way they thrust their right arms forward and shout in unison, “Ich erblicke darin den Willen Gottes!” A hair-raising sound for anyone who has seen those old newsreels. The reporter, an attractive blond woman from one of the major networks, speaks into the microphone in a low, husky voice, like Lauren Bacall. She explains that this chant was Hitler’s response when some Catholic prelates dared ask him about the Nazi racial laws. (“I see in them the will of God!”)
There is a loud knock at my door and looking through the peephole I see four young men who look like Mormon missionaries. One of them is holding an FBI card in front of the peeper. They crowd into my untidy room, smelling now of a burned Pop Tarts, and begin to brief me on my walk to the courthouse. They have brought me a bullet-proof vest, a ten-gallon hat, and a pair of dark glasses. My door is open, and about a dozen National Guardsmen have mustered outside. I am given instructions on how to walk in the center of a phalanx, head down, no stopping, no responding to reporters, with my hands on each side of my face.
Although I haven’t had time for my burned Pop Tarts or Folgers, and haven’t had time to gather up my notes about the . . . what was it? . . . something about a lake . . . I am swept along like a piece of flotsam in a torrent.
“Head down! Don’t speak! Faster! Bravo Six to Bravo Eight, approaching courthouse with Fox Turd 3, Over.”
The National Guard has swept me without incident into the courthouse and the doors have been secured against the media and the rabble. The jury has filed in and taken their seats, the judge has entered, the witness is in his box, the bailiff has chanted his chants, and in the ensuing silence, all eyes are upon me.
Now, Moses is a hard act to follow. I stand up slowly, tamping my papers on the table, coughing into a fist . . . (no, this won’t do. I decide to become imperious, John Clease style). I rise to my full height, even leaning backwards a little, and brush imaginary lint off my sleeves, first one, then the other. I sweep a knowing and beneficent look around the courtroom, noting that the Champ is nestled close to Moses, that is, Heston, his counsel. His eyes are closed, his hands are clasped on the table, and his lips are moving.
Hands behind my back, leaning forward, I approach the witness-box with long, slow strides. My voice booms:
Unsmoked: Mr. . . ah, Mr. . . (what’s ‘s name? The duffer in the pith helmet?)
Judge: Mr. A.
Unsmoked: Ah! Yes! Mr. Ayyyyy. (I stand below Mr. A and place both arms on the railing of his box, resting my chin on the back of my hands. I cock one toe behind the ankle of the supporting foot, ballerina style, and roll my eyes up to Mr. A without moving my head).
Unsmokedd: Mr. A, are you aware that a plague of frogs has descended on the Big Island of Hawaii?
Mr. A: What?
Heston: (standing up) Objection!
Judge: Overruled. Where are you going with this, Mr. Unsmoked?
Unsmoked: Going with what?
Judge: (impatiently) The plague of frogs!
Judge: (exasperated) You just asked the witness if he had heard about a plague of frogs in Hawaii!
Unsmoked: I did?
Judge: (banging his gavel) Court is recessed for 30 minutes! Mr. Heston, Mr. Unsmoked! To my chamber please!
SCENE 2, THE JUDGE’S CHAMBER. There is a display of old branding irons on the walls, and a portrait of Robert E. Lee on horseback.
Judge: What’s the meaning of this Mr. Unsmoked? Are you making a mockery of this Court?
Heston: (clearing his throat) He’s taken something, your honor.
Judge: Taken something?
Heston: Maybe . . . smoked something?
Judge: (placing a tentative finger on my cheek and pulling my left eyelid down) Is this true, Unsmoked? Say something!
Unsmoked: Ha, ha . . . wrong eyelid!
Judge: This is unconscionable!
Unsmoked: I took two aspirin this morning. One of those Mormons gave me two aspirin.
Judge: What Mormons?
Heston: He means one of the FBI men.
Judge: (leaning back in his chair, and spinning it 360 degrees) I see. Did it taste like aspirin?
Judge: The aspirin! Did they taste like aspirin?
Unsmoked: Have you fellows heard about the plague of frogs on the Big Island of Hawaii? Keeping eberbody awaque? Sing-ing, sin-ing, sin-ing, sin-ing . . .(my head hits the table).
Judge: Come on, Chuck, give me a hand with him. Take him downstairs and then out the furnace-room door. Get him back to his room, will you? Put your stick in the corner over there. I’ll take care of the Press. See you tomorrow, God willing!
‘Lust not after her beauty in thine heart;
neither let her take thee with her eyelids.’
I have a splitting headache. I find myself sitting in one of the two quasi easy chairs in my motel room. I vaguely remember Heston carrying me here in a burlap coal sack that he found in the furnace room of the courthouse. On the floor in front of me is a Gideon Bible that he must have taken from the desk drawer and put there for my comfort, or edification.
I am having a semi-lucid moment, but it concerns me greatly that blocks of time are missing. I fear that the two ‘aspirins’ were time- release pills, doling out their psychedelic effects at intervals. I glance at my watch on the small round table beside me. It is 9:30 and it is dark outside. I’ve been asleep for 12 hours. Surely the drug must be wearing off.
The walls of my room are thin, and the rooms on both sides of me are occupied. From one comes the heartbreak of Dolly Parton - something about a dandy and a cowgirl. From the other side, CSI with the volume up. I believe the volume is meant to drown out the other noises; a man and a woman, or several men and women - playing cards? I hear Southern drawl and vernacular - whooping laughter - the clink of bottles - furniture being moved around - squealing and thumping. “Don’t you dare, Will Snopes! Don’t you dare!” Peals of giggling alternated with curses. Thud! “Ma G__ D_____ glass is A.M.T!”
I glance at my watch again to see how much time all that took - 10:10. The worst of it is, my watch is melting and running off the edge of the table. In spite of Dolly on one side, and CSI and the card game on the other, I can hear the drops of my melting watch hitting the floor - tick, tick, tick. I am hungry. What was the last thing I ate? Oh, yes, the Papa John’s Pizza I had last night - the pizza on which they forgot to cook the mushrooms. There is a soft rapping on my door.
“Yes?” No answer. “YES?” No answer.
I get up stiffly. The door seems very far away. I spread my palms around the peephole and close in on it. It is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Far, far away I see the diminutive figure of a woman, face turned away, one hand on her blond head. I open the door and a dozen mosquitoes swarm in. “Yes?”
“Yes?” Good God, - the mascara raccoon mask!
“My name is Alice.”
“I know who you are! What, in the name of God, are you doing here? Do you realize that . . .”
Alice brushes past me and enters the room. “Close the door, your letting mosquitoes in.”
“Do you realize . . . ” I blurt again.
“I’ve got to talk to you. You look like hell.”
“I was in a coal sack.”
“I’ve got to talk to you.”
I gnash my teeth, fists clenched. Heston has sent her! I know it!
He is going to have the whole thing thrown out of court! The Champ is never going to count those layers at the bottom of the lake! I wave my fists in the air. “No! You don’t have to talk to me! Get out of here! Don’t let anyone see you! You’re on the jury for God’s sake!”
The raccoon woman advances toward me and I stagger backwards, falling into my chair.
‘Ye cried to Me, and I delivered you out of their hand.’
Alice: I work at Papa John’s Pizza.
“I see. Papa Johns.”
“I see, evenings.” I have lost interest in the raccoon girl and have turned my attention back to the melting watch. Tick, tick, tick . . . it continues to drip onto the floor. Where is my own, dear, original mind? What would it be like to live in this bizarre Salvador Dali world of never-ending illusion?
Alice: You ordered pizza last night.
I curl into a fetal position in the chair. “What did they give me?”
Alice: Psychedelic mushrooms.
Drip, drip, drip - my watch. “In the pizza?”
Alice: ON the pizza.
I press the heels of my palms against my eyes. Time pass, or melts away . . . seconds? Minutes? When I open my eyes Alice is sitting in the other easy chair. She is quite attractive, notwithstanding the mascara raccoon mask. Her Papa John’s jacket has been thrown over the back of the chair. Her sleeveless top and her brown trousers do not quite meet and some tummy is showing. I wring my hands.
Alice: Do you need something to drink?
Alice: Water? Coke?
“I don’t have any Coke.”
Alice: There’s a machine outside, a few doors down.
“You can’t go outside! Good God! If they see you here!” I resist the temptation to break into a long, drawn-out howl. To what length will the Champ go to avoid counting the layers of lake sediment? Or is the Champ unaware of all this . . . this tampering?
Maybe it’s this town! The Church of the Ten Square Cradle with their water mocassins? The Klan? The Skinheads? The ghost of Robert E. Lee? No, I’m slipping again. But, those banners . . . the burning effigy of yours truly . . . Oh! Sweet Jesus! The judge’s BRANDING IRONS!
Alice goes outside and, far, far away I hear the ‘kachink, kachink, kachink, kachink, kachink, kachink of six quarters falling into the machine. Six quarters, the thud of two cans - she got one for herself! Good, she’s staying. No time to be alone.
Alice returns, puts the chain on the door, snaps the lid on one of the cans, and hands it to me. I hold the icy can on my forehead, close my eyes, and rock back and forth singing softly, “Jesus loves me yes I know, for the Bible tells me so . . .” Where did that come from? Oh yes, somebody’s childhood, long, long ago. But whose childhood?
Alice is sitting in her chair, head resting on the back, watching me. We are separated by Gideon who lies on the floor between us, like a stepping stone in a river. I see the Carpet River flowing around Gideon. Snap! Alice has opened her Coke and is taking a swig. Her legs are crossed, and the top one is bobbing up and down. “Do you all have a cigarette?”
“What? No. This is a ‘No Smoking’ room.”
“I didn’t ask if this was a G__ D______ ‘No Smoking’ room! I asked if you had a cigarette!”
Who said that? Was it Alice, or the woman on the other side of the wall? “Help me Jesus!” On the way down here, the man sitting next to me on the plane kept muttering ‘help me Jesus’ under his breath. I believe he was trying to make out with the stewardess. I drink some Coke. The liquid flows into me like a cascade of freezing diamonds. “How old are you, Alice?”
“A’m on the jury, ain’t I?”
Again, was that Alice, or a woman in the Dolly Parton room? I clench my eyes and open them again, trying to focus on her mouth. Is she the one that is talking? “Yes, indeed!” I say. “You ARE on the jury!”
“Ah need a smoke so bad ah could scream!”
OK. It’s the Dolly wall that’s talking. Alice stretches slowly, holding her can of pop at arms length. Then she rocks her shoulders up and down, and rotates her head. Her mascara mask is starting to run, streaking her cheeks, but she is still pretty. I pinch the bridge of my nose, and squeeze my eyes shut again. “Alice, did the Klan send you over here?”
“Will Snopes, ma daddy’s a big man in this G__ D_____ town!”
I shake both fists at the walls, spilling some Coke. “Shutup!” I bellow. I’m talking to Alice!” A bottle hits the wall in the other room and I hear it rolling across the floor. Peals of giggling.
“Some frigan Yankee . . .” (snickering, another bottle hits the wall).
Alice is still bobbying one leg up and down. She kicks a shoe off.
“Alice,” (my steadiest, low, level voice) “put your shoe on.”
Alice: (now sounding like Dolly Parton) You put it on!
“I’m not putting your shoe on. Pick it up and get out of here!”
Alice: (Dolly, still) Are y’all afraid of little old me?
“No, I’m not afraid of little old you.”
Alice: (singing, swinging her shoeless foot up and down) Li’l ol’ me, an’ li’l ol’ you, li’l ol’ me, an li’l ol’ you . . .
“Alice, shut the hell up! Somebody will hear you! If you and your shoe are not out of here in ten seconds I’m calling the FBI!” I stare at my watch. It is no longer melting. It is quieting down next door. Dolly has retired and has been replaced by the rant of a late-night preacher. A loud, quavering voice, “Ah abhor maself, an’ reepent in dust an’ ashes!” I dare glance at Alice . . . rather at Alice’s chair. It is empty. Coming through the other wall is an old episode of Walker, Texas Ranger. “You’re a dead man, Walker.”
The bizarre dream is over. There’s nothing to worry about. The only odd thing is that the chain on my door is unfastened. I reach for Gideon and open it, placing my finger down, like in the old movies:
‘The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid.’