Is an ignorant snake-handler effective?
Oklahoma, during the first two weeks of May, is hell, what with a thousand percent humidity and forty-seven snake species. Of those, eight serpents are venomous: five different rattlers, the copperhead, the cottonmouth, and, of course, the most common and dangerous of all, the Southern Baptist pastor. Observed in nature, the first seven species usually hang out, searching for food and fleeing from humans. However, the pastoris serpentis behaves with aggression, thriving in public places, and, before they can been seen they emit the undeniable musk of Stetson cologne, stale coffee, and the occasional secret Marlboro.
This odor barraged the olfactory of Eric Calanthe as he walked down the fluorescent-burnt hallway in the administration offices of Redwater First Baptist, the flattened beige carpet adding its own smells of rubber soles scraped against the fibers: the memories of teenagers dragging feet from one antiquated story to the next. Calanthe’s feet stomped over the time-capsule of carpet until he came to the last door on the right. It was open, a sliver of space, and from within the pastoris serpentis nest, someone spoke in his best “good ole boy” tone. Calanthe hit the door with the bottom of his palm, a burst sending the door slamming against the couch behind it. He walked in to find Tripp Goode stammering on the phone, telling the other party he’d get back to them before placing his device face-down on his desk.
“Eric Calanthe, the goodliest writer of Oklahoma!” Goode said. He pushed his large frame from the abused chair, rushing around the desk with his showman’s smile, bright and expensive, his right hand held way out from his body.
“No,” Calanthe said. “We’re not doing that. You can’t appeal to my ego, and I have no money. What do you want?”
“Have a seat.” Goode waved his outstretched open palm over the sofa/door stopper. Calanthe raised an eyebrow. “C’mon, make yourself at home. We have some details to hammer out, and it might take some time. Unless you’re more cooperative than your reputation warns. In that case, we could be out of here in mere minutes.”
“Yeah, you know, I’m good standing.” His arms crossed, Calanthe worked to ensure his face matched his inner bitch.
“Interesting you bring up your financial situation. You’re the most famous thing to come out of Oklahoma since Will Rogers!”
“I think Kristin Chenoweth and Rue McClanahan would disagree.”
“Mmmm-hmmm,” Calanthe said while he rolled his eyes. Pastoris serpentis was a troglodyte. Gross.
“I want to start off by thanking you for responding to my letter in person. You’re the only one to respond at all,” Goode said. He raised his hands, a show of confusion, while a dry chuckle stumbled from behind his lips. Indeed, why wouldn’t everyone come running to the good Pastor Goode to inquire of his aid? Goode’s ass crushed the vinyl cushion of his chair while his body and seat grunted their protested harmonies. The man sighed, his business-face grave yet concerned, and he removed the wire-framed glasses from his nose.
“I’m not everyone else. I won’t just sit back and let you run over me. I know what you want, and you can’t have it.”
“This isn’t about what I want,” the pastor said while he leaned back and placed his hands behind his head. “This is about what God Al-mih-ty wants for His flock. The truth is, He’s so popular on our watch, we need your land in order to expand His ministry. See, in that snaky swamp town you call home, your little rural neighborhood is the one spot of land above the flood zone by about two feet.”
“If He’s so popular, why does He need you?”
“I am in an honored position, one of prestige and privilege-“
“-and I’m who He wants to use to protect His people.”
“So, what? God is the don and you’re one of His captains? Wait, are you leaning in on me?” Calanthe laughed, the imagery absurd.
Goode didn’t laugh, didn’t smile; no, he sighed, and his business-face was impatient and ugly. He bit the inside of his bottom lip.
“I am the facilitator of His works, and I will do everything it takes to see His will carried out.”
“Please. Redwater County knows what a scam you are,” Calanthe said. “I’m not playing into whatever game you’re making up as you go. Your rules don’t apply to me.”
“Do you know what people get wrong about us?” Goode asked as he stood. He walked to the side of the desk and placed the tips of his fingers on the polished wood. “My people are often misunderstood for ignorant, backwoods folk, simple and happy. And that’s maybe the reality for most of our parishioners, those who work long days on the farm or in the fact’ry. I’d bet very few members read a book or even research what they’ve heard. You see this way of life as something harmful, negative, even. For me? It’s what drives my company, it’s the foundation upon which faith must rest. And even with that as fact, do you know there are some of us who aren’t illiterate? Can you believe that, Eric? I like researching. This state we live in, created in His omniscience, interests me with the statistics, especially regarding the people who publicly represent us.”
“This self-indulgent road is long and curvy.”
“Indeed. Your Wikipedia page seems positive, very affirming. And if I was a simple man, I might have just taken you at its face-value. But something didn’t sit right with me…it was, what? Too perfect, especially given the rumors about your hedonistic and flamboyant lifestyles. I knew about the drugs and the, uh, gatherings of your kind-“
“-but I had no idea you’re broke. It makes sense. The thing about opulence, it’s never permanent. Was that your downfall? Was it the lack of foresight? It never even entered your mind, did it? You just kept milking the cow after it gave no more, tugging and squeezing every teat to no end. And how much do you owe the process that bestowed so much upon you? How much did your publisher get you for when you shattered your contract, when you were too screwed up to write?”
“Okay, first of all,” Calanthe said as he leaned, his head tilted, “drugs were never offered at my parties. Only alcohol-“
“And pot, I believe, has been alleged.”
“-but there were no drugs. What does it matter to you what I did?”
“Oh, believe me, I don’t care about what you do to your life,” Goode said, “but He cares.” He pointed his index finger upward.
The office door opened, and Calanthe moved as an older woman with glasses and delicate skin and bones dropped a muffin onto Goode’s desk before placing a fresh cup of coffee down next to it.
“I brought your lunch,” she said, smile empty, eyes vague.
“Yeah,” Goode responded. “Your mother taught you better manners than barging into a meeting. You will be mindful next time, Mrs. Goode.”
Calanthe’s brows crushed the top of his forehead. Was she his…his wife? She was feeble, a tiny little woman seeking attention. She opened her mouth, maybe to apologize, then shut it. Mrs. Goode bent her neck and exited the room quietly.
“Jesus, what was I saying? We were talking about you, and…oh yeah! Our Lord cares about you, He wants to see you thrive.”
“I really don’t think so. I think you might be jealous. Why? Is it the male attention? Are there…latencies?”
“I assure you, Ah am a full man, made the way God designed, not some weak and swishy kuh-ween!” Goode said, his rotund body quicker than Calanthe would’ve ever given him credit. As a magician, Goode was now in front of the writer, his face red, sweat twinkling under the unforgiving white-wash of the fluorescence. Calanthe moved back just a step.
“Look, you’re not getting my house so you can dupe these poor people into thriving your ego.”
“You’re in no position to be turning me down. The bottom line is, I’d suspect you owe much more money than you have coming to you. You can’t afford to refute my offer. You need me.”
“I will never need you or anything you could possibly offer,” Calanthe said as he stepped forward. Their faces volleyed alpha energy, fueling the other, an intense and short space between them. “My house is mine, bought with my money. You will not win this war.” His jaws worked against each other, abrasive and unholy.
“Pastor Goode?” from Mrs. Goode as she poked her head in the room. Calanthe turned from the social fire. “You requested Minister Goode?”
“Damn it, Sarah!” Goode said before wiping his brow with the back of his hand.. “Just…give us a minute.” The door shut with a soft click!, and Calanthe’s face turned toward the Goode heat.
“Look, I don’t know what power you think you have, but-“
“I want your land,” Goode said. “That’s all. With your neighborhood on higher ground, God wants a building that doesn’t flood, yet meets the requirements of His believers, something they deserve. Go ahead. Sit down.”
Calanthe did so, his skin icy even though his fists were sweaty balls pressing onto his legs as he awaited whatever axe Goode was holding.
Goode leaned against the desk with his hip, his arms crossed and face red. “You’re probably the most horrible and disgusting person I’ve ever met. It’s like you want to be the spokesperson for sin, a manifestation of the king of this world. Do you want to be Satan?”
“I don’t wanna be you.”
“No, of course not. That bar would be impossibly high, too overwhelming to start with. Your mom, she’s still alive, right? At 234 Eighth street in Port DeSoto-“
“I’ll kill you. Do you know that?” Calanthe asked, his teeth too tight against each other, the tip of his tongue rubbing raw against the back of the enamel.
“Calm down. Nobody is hurting your mother. But what if she knew the darkness of your heart? What if, and just hear me out here, what if your mama received a package in the mail, maybe a manila envelope, if you will. Aaaaand, maybe inside, there’s a health report from the OSU Medical Center. What do you think she’d make of that? My question, though, is would it be worse for your mama to find out, or do you think it’d break you more if your fans found out? Both would probably crush your existence, so that’s gonna be my answer. Do you have any questions I might answer?”
Calanthe had no questions, no smart-assed retorts, nothing but nothing as warmth overtook his body evaporating his breath.
“Now,” Goode said as he stepped to the door. “My son-in-law will be happy to show you around the campus, to give you a feel of our family. We want you to see how your generous contribution will further His will. You’re free to leave.” The pastor waved his hand to the door.
Eric Calanthe stared. What could he say? Or do? Even if he could answer to his satisfaction, would it progress his stance, or would it more likely cause something sinister?
He departed the office, and once the door was closed, Jesse, the Goode son-in-law chittered pointless accolades at the writer, a zombie of a man. They went about the tour, this building, that building, but…did it matter anymore? What…what was he even doing here? Playing Tripp Goode’s game he swore he would never take part in?
Even though music played and life noises penetrated his car, he drove home in silence. What would it take to ensure this envelope never surfaced? What could he do?