—John F. Wade, c.1743, O Come All Ye Faithful
Charles Beaumont DeFries, aspiring novelist, ex-college-teacher, moderately successful technical writer, and newspaper columnist, pulls the last sheet of the chapter out of the printer, squints at it briefly through the bottoms of his bifocals, then crumples the whole manuscript and tosses it angrily into the trash can.
Christ, he says, what a bunch of crap! Man, that was a strange turn it took: brain virus to three wise guys. Shit! I’ll never get this goddamned book started.
Tempted to delete the whole misbegotten file from his hard drive, Charles instead stands up and walks over to the campy naugahyde bar by the window of his fourth-floor walk-up to pour himself a whiskey. He grabs the bottle of Jack Daniels, still fuming at his inability to write a suitable opening to his book on the life of Jesus, and spills some whiskey into an ancient Flintstones jelly jar. He looks out the narrow window at the apartment building next door. If he cranes his neck just so, he can see a tiny blue scrap of Little River reflecting the brilliance of the Miami day.
Crap, I wish I could afford to move to the Beach, Charles muses. But that ain’t gonna happen unless I can get one of these damn books published. Although Charles makes a meager living writing software manuals and a column in the Miami Herald, all it buys him in high-priced Miami is a one-bedroom apartment in a two-rungs-up-from-fleabag residential hotel in Little Haiti, not far from the Interstate. It’s a run-down area of the city, literally on the wrong side of the tracks, but only about 20 blocks from Biscayne Bay, and six miles due west of Miami Beach, the art deco heaven where Charles dreams of living. As skuzzy as the neighborhood is, it’s as close to the water as Charles can afford to live.
Charles scratches his stubbly chin and takes a big swig of Jack. Over the last five years he’s written two other unpublished books and managed to snag an agent, although not a very good or prestigious one. He’d hoped that his ex-wife’s recent remarriage—to a longtime woman friend—and the accompanying cessation of alimony payments, would be enough to catapult him up to Miami Beach, but his column in the Herald doesn’t pay much, his freelance work runs in cycles, and he’s in the midst of a downturn.
As Charles stands squinting to see the half-imagined blue, there’s a knock at the door. Who in hell is that, Charles thinks. With few friends in town, and even fewer clients, he rarely entertains visitors. Charles sets his glass down on the bar and walks across the thinning carpet to peer out the peephole. All he can see is a giant eyeball staring back at him, and he immediately knows to whom it belongs. Chuckling, he throws open the door. “To what do I owe the distinct honor or your presence, Reverend?”
Standing at the door, grinning broadly in a loud Hawaiian shirt and too-short shorts is the Right Reverend Lawrence Kenneth Martin, known as Chip to everyone.
“Well, you gonna invite me in?” Chip asks.
“By all means, Pastor,” Charles says, sweeping his arm grandly over his cramped and cluttered apartment. “I’ve tidied up specially to receive you.”
“Cut the crap, asshole!” Chip says jovially, smashing his huge fist playfully into Charles’s shoulder. “Don’t act like one of my star-struck congregants, afraid to so much as fart around the holy man!” With this he stands on one leg and lets one rip. Charles shakes his head and looks like he wants to spit. At 6’4”, 300 pounds, with feet like hams—veritable slabs with blind toes, typically shod in flip flops—and decked out like a clueless New York tourist—pukka shell necklace around his neck and a slightly abused Panama hat on his head—only Chip’s broad, raw-boned Midwestern face reveals his Nebraska origins. He brushes by his friend and flops heavily on Charles’s ancient couch, causing one end to fall off the bricks that stand in for a missing leg.
“Shit,” Chip says, bouncing up and quickly replacing the bricks. As he does this, he spies the crumpled pages of Charles’s latest chapter peeking from the trash can.
“Oh, ho, ho! What’s all this, then? Has my little Chuckster been busy on his widdle book?” Charles hates being called Chuck, and Chuckster even worse, and hesitates a second as he decides how to respond, before realizing that Chip is grabbing the pages from the trash can.
“Wait,” he yelps, and tries to tear the wad of paper from Chip’s hands.
“Not so fast, buddy boy,” Chip says, shivering Charles with a stiff arm as he returns to the couch. “Let’s see what you’ve got here.”
“Now, look, Chip! I obviously am not satisfied with that draft, so please respect that and don’t read it.” Charles makes a feeble grab for the manuscript, but Chip holds him off easily with a massive forearm while running his eyes over the first page.
“Too late, Chuck, I’ve already read page one.” Chip is a prodigious speed reader, often devouring three or four books a week despite his overloaded schedule as the pastor of the Haitian United Methodist church across the street.
Knowing that Chip won’t be denied, Charles sighs and goes to the bar to retrieve his drink. “You want something?” he asks sulkily. “Yeah, pour me a couple fingers of whatever you’re having, no ice,” Chip says distractedly as he plows through the chapter. Charles hunts around the messy apartment for another clean glass and comes up with a Yogi Bear jelly jar. He pours Chip’s drink, freshens his own, and walks back to the couch. “Here,” he says grumpily. Chip reaches out his hand to grab the drink without taking his eyes off the page.
Charles sits in a straight-backed chair across from the couch and fumes. He knows it’s futile to try to stop Chip now, and he’s slowly becoming embarrassed that his friend is reading his substandard work. A red flush is beginning to spread outward from the vicinity of his Adam’s apple.
As Chip continues to read, it becomes obvious he is getting upset: His face, a ruddy barometer of his mood, is slowly turning red, and his already beady eyes narrow. Finally, he tosses the pages down to the floor and glares at Charles.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Groucho, Benny and Burns as the three wise men doing Borscht Belt schtick?! Joseph as Ralph Kramden and Mary as Alice? It takes a lot to shock me, Chucko, as you know, but that really frosts my mini-wheats!” Chip stands up and starts to pace.
“I mean this piece of trash you wrote is wrong in so many ways! Alien Jesus, Honeymooner Holy Family, ‘50s comedians offering gifts, oy!” Chip strides over to Charles’s chair and towers over him.
Charles is nonplussed and a bit intimidated by his looming buddy. He agrees with Chip that the chapter is a hunk of steaming shit, but he hadn’t expected to hit this nerve in the normally extremely tolerant preacher.
“Chip, I don’t get it. What’s got you hot and bothered? And will you back off and give me some room?” Charles pokes feebly at Chip’s substantial stomach. “I agree this chapter sucks. I threw it out, didn’t I? And you insisted on reading it, so don’t blame me!” Charles slips sideways out of his chair and backs off a few feet. Chip resumes pacing back and forth across the small living room.
“Who should I blame, genius? You wrote it. This thing reads like a cheap joke,” Chip says. “I was almost buying the alien Jesus, even the stupid brain virus vaccine from the stars—I mean, at least they’re semi-interesting, if unoriginal, ideas—but, Christ, three Jewish comedians cracking jokes? Man, it’s insulting! I feel like I’ve been sucker-punched.”
“Take it easy, Chip!” He’s gotten his friend pretty pissed off. The flush has reached Charles’s cheeks.
“Look,” Chip says, “I knew you were trying to start a new novel, we’ve talked about that, but I had no idea it was about Jesus. I don’t know why a skeptic like you wants to write about Christ, anyway, and, knowing you, I guess I should have expected your flip attitude, but I got sucked in and then . . . and then . . .” Chip gropes the air for the words. “You stomped all over me!” Chip lands on the couch heavily, raising a cloud from the elderly fabric and rocking it momentarily up off the bricks.
“Don’t take it so seriously, Chip. I threw it out, right? C’mon, man. I knew it sucked. And besides, it’s really hard for me to buy this three wise men business. I mean, give me a break. They’re guided by a star? Really? Have you ever tried to stand under a star? And they came from far away, so this really, really bright star had to guide them for days, and no one else notices? So, I thought I’d use three of my favorite Jews to liven things up a bit. Didn’t work, but where’s the harm?”
“I don’t know,” Chip says, picking at a rip in the sofa arm. “It just really got my goat. I mean, besides being blasphemous, which generally I’m not that upset with, it just felt like a slap in my face.”
“Hold on, Chip,” Charles says, a light dawning. “This wasn’t targeted at you.”
“No, just my faith.”
“Well, as Tonetti says, ‘Faith is a foolish thing,’” Charles says.
“No, you asshole, Tonetti says, ‘Fate is a foolish thing to take chances with.’ And so are you!” Chip’s face almost betrays a small smirk. The two men share an obsession with Fred and Ginger’s The Gay Divorcee.
“I know, I know. I was just riffing. But look, you can’t possibly believe that every word in the Bible is the absolute truth, can you? Even the stuff about the subjugation of women, the keeping of slaves, keeping Kosher, for Christ’s sake, and how about masturbation?” Charles knew that Chip, a lifelong enthusiastic masturbator, would rise to this bait.
“Well, Master Bates, as you probably know since we’ve discussed it before, many United Methodists believe the Bible must be interpreted within its”—here Chip offers air quotes—“cultural and societal context. So, no, I don’t believe every word is literally true, but it is the word of the Lord. That much I do know for sure.” Chip seems a bit mollified by the discussion.
Charles says, “But how do you know what you should take as the absolute truth, and what is still true, but not actual, more a codifying or mythifying of actual events—revelation that is no less true for the fact that it did not happen? Like journalists lying to tell the truth, or like some manifestation of Jung’s collective unconscious.”
“Well, psychobabble-boy, that’s where faith comes in. You gotta believe.” Chip takes off his Panama and sails it across the room, trying for a ringer on Charles’s tacky mechanical parrot on a perch. The hat spats against the motorized creature, which emits a slow-motion squawk.
Charles rolls his eyes and says, “But which to believe? That’s what I’m asking. Believe that the world is only 6,000 years old? That we should keep Kosher? Never pleasure ourselves? Or love our brother as ourselves? How do you pick when the whole damn Bible is so contradictory and, frankly, confusing?”
Chip, calmer now, puts on his counselor’s voice. “Like I just said, dude, that’s what faith is for. You know the truth of the Bible in your heart, you feel God’s love, and you know the right way.”
“Yeah, well, I just can’t believe in this magi fable, the stable, the manger, or the rest of the whole megillah surrounding the birth of Christ—the shepherds quaking, the angels and the star, the fucking frankincense and myrrh. I mean what possible use are these gifts to a poor little newborn?”
“Well, hold your horses there, Slick!” Chip says. “These three guys are honoring Jesus as the Messiah. Three types of gifts represent His three roles: He is the King of the Jews, as represented by gold; He is the Son of God, represented by frankincense; and yet He is a man, subject to suffering and death, represented by myrrh.”
“Well, see, that’s just what I’m talking about!” Charles fairly shouts, gesturing with his glass and sloshing some whiskey on the floor. He absent-mindedly covers the wet spot with his foot. “Where do these wise guys get all these ideas? How do they know Jesus is king of the Jews, son of God, and destined to suffer and die for all sins? Even if you accept that bunch of hooey, it’s just too much for these guys to be sitting around the palace, or wherever, see a star, know its meaning, and then say to themselves,” Charles hitches up his shoulders and affects a Scorcese gangster accent, “‘Hey check it out, youse guys, dat dere star means de Messiah is born. So whaddaya think? You mooks got any idea what kind of highly symbolic gifts can we bring to the newborn king? Gold? Yeah, that’s good, Nebuchadnezzar the Nose! What else we got? Incense? Hey great idea, Southside Shadrach. Now what else? We need one more thing. Perfume? Hey, whaddaya think this is, a friggin’ chick wedding shower? Awright, awright, awright! Quitcher bellyaching. You win, Fat Meschach.’”
Chip smiles in spite of himself at Charles’s awful Joisey accent, and says, “Fuggeddaboudit!
With a wry smile, Charles gets back to his point. “But seriously, I’m sorry, I’m just too well-educated to take such things at face value.”
“Yeah, baby. You got two MAs and a Ph.D., Dr. MaMa Phud!”
Charles, annoyed, continues. “This is just like the Garden of Eden fable or the other creation myths. I mean, Mark doesn’t even mention the birth of Jesus! Mankind cannot believe that the great have had inauspicious beginnings and so we concoct all these fake-o trappings of significance: angels and kings or magi or whatever the hell they were, and all that shit.”
“Well I don’t have a problem with the whole deal. It’s God’s word, after all. No room at the inn, born in a stable, angels and shepherds. It’s all good,” Chip says.
“So, what about the three kings, or rather, three astrologers, then? I mean, they figured out that the messiah had been born using a fantastical pseudoscience, astrology. Doesn’t it all seem a bit farfetched?”
“Well, not necessarily. Matthew says that when they showed up in Jerusalem, Herod set the magi on their search for Jesus, asking that they find the baby so he could worship Him, too. Sure, they say they saw a star, but that was just God’s sign, and not necessarily a reference to astrology, which, by the way, is one of the few occult sciences not condemned in the Bible. Anyway, the three men double-crossed Herod, and took another route home after worshipping Jesus. That sounds real to me; doesn’t that seem like a real detail to you? It sounds authentic, and it all works for me.”
“What, that a star led them to the stable?” Charles sits down on the other end of the sagging sofa.
“Why not? I believe in miracles. Matthew could have meant that the star appeared to rise above them, too. It didn’t really need to move across the heavens. It coulda just risen, like the moon.”
“OK, but why does Matthew say Herod and all of Jerusalem were frightened and disturbed by what the heathen magi said about the newborn King of the Jews? How come nobody else wanted to find him, besides that murdering asshole Herod?”
“That’s the beauty of the passage, my bony boy. Pagan astrologers are digging on the newborn king, and devout Jews are ignoring or feeling threatened by the event. It’s kind of a continuing theme in Matthew—Jews rejecting Jesus. But, hey, you know what? I’m over it. I’m cool with your draft. I think I get where you’re coming from on the magi. Don’t know as I would have selected the comedians you did. I’m more partial to a different Marx brother. Imagine Harpo doing that schtick—grabbing Joseph’s hand and placing his leg in it! Honking his horn and waking baby Jesus. Heh.”
Chip has clearly calmed down, and is smiling indulgently, which ticks Charles off. He leans back against the arm of the sofa and takes a big swig of whiskey. Then he rummages in the pockets of his sport coat but doesn’t find the package of smokes he’s looking for. Not only has his friend read, without asking, a manuscript he threw away, he has the temerity to get insulted by it. Then he ends the theological discussion just when Charles was making a few points.
“Well, Chip, you said you liked the brain virus business . . .” Charles gets up to get a new pack of cigarettes.
“Didn’t say I liked it. Said I was almost buying it.”
“OK, OK, whatever. What do you think of the idea?” Charles sits back down, opens the package, extracts a cigarette and lights it.
“Well, I’m not sure you’ve developed it properly. You just kind of throw it in at the beginning.” Chip turns towards Charles and leans forward. “I don’t really get the motivation of the aliens, here. What is their relationship with this brain virus? I mean, sure, it’s kind of interesting, in a trite sort of way, to think that we’re lots smarter than we act because of some external influence that makes us stupid. Reminds me of an old sci-fi story about the Earth finally, after eons, passing out of a cone of radiation or whatever that slowed down the neurons or something, and all of a sudden everyone became a genius. What the hell was the name of that one? You read it?”
Charles is now fuming. His friend hates his story, and now is accusing him of plagiarizing part of it. He opens his mouth to say something, but snaps it back shut.
“Where were you going with that?” Chip asks.
“Well, if I hadn’t hated the whole chapter—like I told you, it took a damn left turn on me there—the idea was that the baby Jesus, being immune and all, is brilliant, in addition to being able to morph and present a pleasing image to all. He’s able to pass this brilliance, or rather the immunity to the virus, down through the ages. So, all the major smart guys, Da Vinci, Galileo, Newton and so on, were of his line.”
“Well I got to say, that bit I think is pretty good, although it smacks a bit of The Da Vinci Code.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Chip! I’ve got drafts of a story based on this idea going back to the late ‘80s. Dan Brown can bite me!”
Chip grins at having gotten Charles’s goat yet again. “Take it easy, buddy, I wasn’t accusing you of anything. Although your choice of phrase there—bite me—has always puzzled me. I mean, when somebody says that, generally when expressing hostility, what is it they hope will happen? Surely it wouldn’t be pleasant for Dan Brown to come over to your apartment and bite you, on the dick or anywhere?”
Charles sighs. “Well, it’s not to be taken literally, obviously.”
“True, true. But take a look at other hostile expressions. Say, fuck you, for example. Are you wishing that I would have someone make love to me? This is some kind of horrible thing to happen? I’m not so sure. Or do you mean you’d fuck me? Well, if a man says it to another—straight—man, perhaps that’s a threat, but still equates lovemaking with aggression.”
Charles says, “So what’s your point?”
“Look, it’s obvious that Western society at least, and probably mankind in general, is a bit, how shall we say, ambivalent about the physical act of love, right? But when did it become fashionable to use sexual terms to curse or put down another? I mean, I guess I can kind of see ‘suck my dick’ as an expression of dominance. You’re commanding the other to service you sexually, but the rest of them, fuck you, eat me, bite my crank, and so on, just don’t seem to make much sense.”
“Well, I guess it’s just the shocking use of mildly forbidden terms to associate with the person you’re mad at, and nothing more,” says Charles. “Of course, on the other hand, there is the tendency of some folks to refer to everyone as motherfuckers, you know like what that guy says in Blade, ‘Some motherfuckers are always trying to ice skate uphill,’ or pick just about any black comedian. Using about the worst epithet possible—implying that you fuck your mother—as a general term to refer to random other people without much of a value judgment just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“True that, my brutha,” Chip says, and reaches over to give Charles a clumsy white-guy high five.
Chip continues, “I remember seeing a concert, must’ve been back in the early ‘70s, by Lee Michaels. You remember him? Had a couple near hits, but I just really dug his organ playing. Anyway, he toured with just his keyboards and a fat drummer called Frosty, and I saw him at college, opening for somebody or other. Anyway, things were going fine until Frosty got out from behind the drums and did a Theremin solo. I shit you not. You remember the Theremin?”
Charles shakes his head no.
“It’s this weird squat box with like an aerial sticking up. The Beach Boys used it to do that ‘ooh-eee-oooh-ooooh’ part in “Good Vibrations.” Anyway, Frosty does like a 10-minute solo on this thing, and by minute two, he’d completely lost the audience, who started jeering at about minute eight. So, the second he’s done, he sets the Theremin to scream this tremendously high-pitched tone, then turns his back to the audience and takes his right index finger and points to his asshole.”
“Weird,” says Charles.
“Yeah, it was an obviously hostile gesture, but what did it mean? Stick your dick in my ass? Fuck me in the rear? How exactly is this insulting? So anyway, about a year later, Jethro Tull was in town; this was during their Passion Play tour. And Martin Barre—one of the most underappreciated guitarists ever, by the way—does this stinging solo in the middle of this complicated bit of Tull music. I dunno what the deal was, but even though the crowd erupted in cheers when he was done, something pissed him off, I guess, and he turned his butt to the audience and made the same damn gesture Frosty had. I totally couldn’t figure that out.”
“Well,” Charles says, “I guess that just supports my theory that the insulting part isn’t the suggestion of a sexual act, but the use of forbidden words or gestures in connection with the person you’re pissed at.”
“Yeah, it’s a conundrum alright,” Chip agrees. He sits back, cocks his head and stares at the ceiling. “Anyway, getting back to the brain virus thing, think of how so many exceptional men and women seem to be so out of place in their times, having the ability to see things as they are, unclouded by the prejudices of those around them or the received perceptions of their times. What if it isn’t some immunity to a brain virus? What if it’s just the love of God that makes them great?
“Wait, wait, wait,” Charles breaks in. “I think you’re missing the point. I agree that there is inspiration, and by that, I mean inspiration in the original sense of being filled with some kind of spirit. But are these colossal geniuses freaks, mutations that just happened to wake up from the stupid dreams mankind is ordinarily dreaming? Or, they’re just immune to the brain virus. Perhaps that’s what genius really is.”
Chip snorts. “Genius. God, I’ve known so many people who thought they were geniuses.” He looks meaningfully over at Charles, arching an eyebrow. Charles grabs a pillow and fires it at Chip’s head. “Shut the fuck up, you fuckin’ motherfucker, and suck my dick! I point my asshole in your general direction!”
Chip roars with laughter. “I’m hungry. Let me take Mister, sorry, Doctor Genius to dinner.”
As the two men get up to leave, Charles says, “You know Chip, I gotta say this manger story has always perplexed me. I remember when as a young child, if I couldn’t sleep, my mother would hold me and softly sing Christmas songs. My favorite was one I called ‘Come All Ye Fawfoo.’ Even as a child, though, I wondered about the round virgin in ‘Little Town of Bethlehem.’”
Chip throws his massive arm across Charles’s bony shoulders and says, “Dude, she was pregnant, so of course she was round!” Despite himself, Charles laughs as they walk out into the hallway and down the stairs.
Chip says, “Hey, that reminds me of this joke I’m thinking of using in my next sermon.” Charles rolls his eyes. His friend is constantly telling him terrible jokes, or jokes Charles doesn’t really get.
“There once was a rich man who was near death. He’s very upset because he worked so hard for his money and wanted to be able to take it with him to heaven. So, the rich man prays that he be able to take some of his wealth with him. An angel hears his plea and appears to him. ‘Sorry Rich Man, but like they say, you can’t take it with you.’ The man begs the angel to speak to God to see if He might bend the rules. A week later, the angel reappears and informs the man that God has decided to allow him to take one suitcase with him.
“Overjoyed, the man finds his largest suitcase, fills it with pure gold bars, and places it beside his bed. Soon afterward the man dies and shows up at the Gates of Heaven to greet St. Peter. Peter sees the suitcase and says, ‘Hold on, you can’t bring that in here!’ The man explains he has permission and asks him to verify his story with the Lord. Sure enough, Peter checks and comes back saying, ‘You’re right. You’re allowed one carry-on, but I’m supposed to check its contents before letting it through.’ Peter puts on rubber gloves, swabs down the outside of the suitcase with a piece of cheesecloth, and opens the suitcase to inspect the worldly items that the man found too precious to leave behind. Seeing the gold Peter exclaims, ‘God said you could bring anything at all with you and you brought pavement?!?’”
Both laugh, with Chip’s booming laugh probably audible all the way to the beach.