by Charles Rammelkamp
“I see Fahrenheit 9/11 is showing at the Bijou along with Princess Diaries 2. When did Brent Mitchum open a second screening room, anyway? The Bijou was always a single-screen cinema when I was growing up.”
“How else are you going to keep up with the multiplexes?” Jodie asks rhetorically.
“The Bijou has a monopoly in Potawatomi Rapids, though. Of course, you can always drive over to Muskegon or wherever if you want to see a movie that bad, if it’s not here.”
“What’s that?” Caroline Castleman demands. Roger wonders at his mother’s deafness, the insulation from noise it suggests. He imagines sounds for her are muffled and distant, as if trying to penetrate a cocoon. Especially over the last dozen years of the ninety-seven she has lived, she has been slowly, gradually losing her hearing.
“We were just talking about the movies at the Bijou,” Roger shouts. “When I was a kid they only had one movie at a time; now they have two.”
“Oh yes, Brent Mitchum opened a second room upstairs where the balcony used to be. The kids from the college are the only ones who go to the Bijou any more, I understand.”
“When does school start again?”
“I said, when does school start again?” Castleman shouts. “At Potawatomi Rapids College?”
“Haven’t they started already?”
“I don’t know. Have they?”
“Yes, I think they may have started last week. It’s stupid the way they have classes in August. Didn’t used to start until after Labor Day.”
“Probably why Fahrenheit 9/11’s showing. The college kids.”
“I’d like to see Princess Diaries 2,” Lily declares.
“I’d like to see Outfoxed,” Jodie says, “the one about Rupert Murdoch that’s due out next week.”
“I want to see Garden State,” Carol says to Lily. They know all the current offerings. Alien vs. Predator is coming to the theaters in Baltimore, and another Benji movie about the dog and another Exorcist are also due out. There’s no end.
“We’ve already seen Fahrenheit 9/11 once. I don’t need to see it again. Did you see it, Mom?” They’re discussing the options for evening entertainment. They’ve been to the beach already. They’ve eaten dinner and are sitting on the porch, facing the lake. Maybe they should go for a walk downtown, Castleman thinks.
“What?” Caroline Castleman calls out again.
Castleman raises his voice again. “Fahrenheit 9/11. Have you seen it yet?”
“Oh yes. Marilyn Schumacher took me to see it. You know Bush was up in Traverse City yesterday?”
“I saw that in the paper. First sitting president ever to stop there, or something. Where is he today? Pennsylvania? West Virginia? I guess he comes to Michigan a lot, since you’re supposed to be up for grabs. Nobody comes to Maryland.”
“Which is fine with me,” Jodie comments.
“I read where some 55-year old social studies teacher wasn’t allowed to go inside the Grand Traverse County Civic Center where Bush was speaking because she had a Kerry sticker on her blouse,” Castleman marvels. “The campaign security people ripped up her admission ticket and wouldn’t allow her in.”
“A schoolteacher wasn’t allowed in to see Bush because she had a Kerry sticker on!”
“Oh, I saw that! Isn’t it dreadful?” Caroline Castleman is a registered Democrat, her party affiliation dating back to New Deal days.
“Come on, Lily, let’s go down to the beach,” Carol says to her sister. She can tell the adults aren’t about to move any time soon. The girls run off the porch and down to the lake. An evening calm has come over the water, and the sun is sinking over in Wisconsin.
“I belong to a writers group,” Castleman tells his mother, his voice raised, “and there are these two guys who are on opposite sides of the issue. One’s a Bush supporter and the other’s a Kerry supporter. One guy writes super-patriot stories about a Middle School basketball coach who’s a spy on the side, and the other writes screenplays that expose American greed.”
“It’s just awful,” Caroline Castleman declares. “What he’s done to the economy with these tax cuts, the war in Iraq, and it just horrifies me the way he’s removing the barriers between church and state. Faith-based initiatives. What a disgrace! What a – what a shipwreck!” she concludes, at a loss for the right description.
“People should look up the definition of ‘evangelism’ in their Funk & Waganalls’ if you ask me,” Caroline Castleman goes on, unheeding. “Crusaders! That’s what they are. Zealots! People should be more concerned about the political activism of the evangelicals than they are. All they do is propagandize and proselytize. They want the government to do the job their preaching isn't doing for them, and they’re too hidebound to recognize nobody wants to hear any of it! Nobody’s buying what they’re selling at all. But they aren't going to be happy until they’ve imposed a theocracy on all of us. People are just too complacent about these fanatics. These lunatics.”
“Religion should be kept personal,” Castleman agrees. “Or at least within the circle of people who share the same beliefs you have. Evangelists and missionaries may do a lot of good, but they don't do it out of altruistic motives. They do it to promote their agendas. Sure, they run homeless shelters and soup kitchens. A meal or a warm place to sleep attracts a captive audience. Eat the meal or use the cot and you are obliged to sit and listen to their sales pitch. An age-old practice. Sometimes it’s used to promote Jesus. Sometimes it’s used to promote timeshares. I just don’t see the religious people getting into some of these programs out of the goodness of their hearts. They have ulterior motives, and I would hate to see their causes financed with tax dollars. I don't trust those guys any more than I would a timeshare peddler.”
It’s a bravura performance on Castleman’s part. He hasn’t talked so much in ages. Or at such a loud volume.
“So you think Al can get in on the faith-based initiative money?” Jodie asks, amused. Roger’s brother is a storefront preacher in Saint Augustine, Florida, a confidence man. He has a plan to bottle vials of water from the “Fountain of Youth” and sell them on the internet. Everywhere, “anti-aging” strategies are popping up on the internet spam everyday. Why not take this to its logical conclusion?
“Why not? He outlined his paradise strategy to me when I talked to him on the phone yesterday. Paradise. He’s parlayed his credentials as a preacher into peddling paradise. He was going on and on about the various conceptions of paradise. It all ties into the Fountain of Youth scheme. So sure, if he hypes up the born-again aspects of his grand vision, I bet he can be sucking on that faith-based initiative tit as much as any fundamentalist preacher. Nobody knows about his sub rosa activities.”
“You don’t think they’ll poke around his ‘sub rosa activities,’ as you call them? Flush him out in a minute?
“What about Paradise, anyway?”
“Paradise?” Caroline Castleman exclaims, the word penetrating the wall of her deafness. “Has Al been talking to you about Paradise, too?”
Raising his voice so that his mother can hear him, Castleman summarizes his conversation with his brother. “First of all, he mentioned the idea of ‘immortal longings’ that he says are the basis of what it means to be human – happiness, harmony, an essential ‘stillness’ that amounts to immortality and eternal youth.”
“Immortal longings,” Castleman emphasizes, ever the English professor. “That’s what Cleopatra says just before she applies the asp to her breast, commits suicide to join Antony in death. ‘I have immortal longings in me.’ Act five, scene two.” In a lower voice, self-mocking the pedant professor, he adds to Jodie, “Of course the asp is an obvious phallic symbol.”
“What?” Caroline Castleman demands.
“Shakespeare!” Castleman shouts. “Al was going on about these immortal longings that form the basis of his sales pitch. Talk about timeshare salesmen, Al’s offering a slice of paradise. Even before there was a Garden of Eden, he says, which was made for humans, there was a city identified in ancient Sumerian myth called Dilmun which was made exclusively for the gods, a paradise. It’s in the myth of Enki and Ninhursaga. Enki was the god of fresh water that flows under the earth, and Ninhursaga was his consort. Dilmun is modern-day Bahrain. Dilmun was ‘pure’ and ‘virginal’. There was no disease, no death, no getting old.
“What Al doesn’t mention, by the way, is that even though this notion of paradise goes all the way back to Mesopotamian myth, it’s literally a ‘utopia’ – a ‘no place’. Because Enki persuades Ninhursaga to have sex with him, and then after she gives birth to a daughter, Enki has sex with the daughter, and then the daughter’s daughter and so on. The point is that you can’t have paradise and civilization both. The only way there’s an absence of death is if there’s an absence of birth. There’s no sense of nostalgia for Dilmun the way there is for Eden.
“But anyway, Al launches into these original myths of paradise to prove that there really is a paradise, because people have always believed and longed for it, so it must be so, and not only that, but it’s available now; you don’t have to die to get there.”
“Who is he telling this to?”
“Nobody yet, at least I don’t think so. He’s gotten some senior citizens to worry about getting Alzheimer’s, but I don’t think he’s taken the next step yet. It’s possible that he worked some of this stuff up in his sermons back in L.A., too.”
“Al was telling me some interesting things about – I don’t know, the Aztecs, the Celts.” Caroline Castleman gestures vaguely and looks out toward the horizon on the lake.
“That’s right,” Roger recalls. “Aztec paradise was called Tlalocan or something else that’s equally difficult to pronounce.”
“Avalon for the Celts, the place where King Arthur went to die,” his mother muses. “A blessed place where it’s always summer and full of fruits and flowers and nobody experiences sorrow.”
“And don’t forget Valhalla!” Jodie adds sardonically. “Odin’s palace in Asgard. You get to it by crossing the rainbow bridge, Bifrost. But I forget whether you take a left or a right once you’ve crossed the bridge.” She ignores Caroline Castleman’s request to repeat herself since it would only spoil it to explain her joke.
“Only warriors get to go there, though,” Castleman clarifies, “only those slain in battle. And the only females there are the Valkyries. At least the heroes’ goblets never run out of mead.”
“It doesn’t last forever anyway, does it? Valhalla. They live in the palace until Doomsday – Ragnarok. Then they have to do battle against giants, with Odin. They’d probably be feeling pretty restless by then anyway.”
“Then there was Hades in Greek mythology, and Olympus, of course, where the Gods cavorted. Sheol is the Jewish equivalent of Hades. A gloomy place with insubstantial shades flitting about,” Castleman ticks off other afterlife venues, almost as if he’s listing the movie selections at area cinemas. “Islamic paradise is an eternal place of bliss and comfort, the ‘garden underneath which rivers flow.’ And of course we all know about the houris, the virgins of paradise that righteous men will get to enjoy for their good actions on earth. Suicide bombers.”
“The word ‘houri’ comes from the Arabic ‘hur,’ which means ‘astonishment’,” Jodie says.
“The Australian Aborigines believe in a time beyond living memory that they call The Dreaming. When a person dies, his spirit goes there, to join the ancestors. It’s not a reward or a punishment. It’s idyllic, though.”
“African religions have a similar belief in an ancestral afterlife where the dead exist as spirits in this life, but the Bachwa tribe in the Congo have a belief in an afterlife where there’s no illness or hunger or death. Just comfort, happiness and easy hunting. And then there are the Rastafarians of Jamaica, former Christians, who believe that Ethiopia is the site of the original Eden, or paradise, and they smoke dope, the ‘holy herb,’ ganja, to help meditate on holiness or whatever.
“Rastafarian paradise is a perfect example of one of Al’s themes, by the way, exile and return. That’s Miltonic, too, the exile from the garden. The nature of existence is exile; the goal is to return. Al preaches that we can return to the garden, and he knows the way. For a price, of course. The Golden Age, the Elysian Fields, the Isle of the Blessed.”
“I don’t know where he’s going with all this,” Caroline frets. “It’s comforting, I suppose. People need comfort.”
“Where he’s going with it,” Castleman echoes. “All the way to the bank, he hopes.”
“So have we decided what we’re going to do this evening?” Jodie asks, bringing the conversation back to its origin.
“What?” Caroline asks, scrinching her face, and all at once her son realizes they’ve been blithely talking about how to cheat the grim reaper, how little time his mother actually has, how soon she’ll be gone, how much he is going to miss her. The slow, inevitable tumble into oblivion, as in a dream.