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0 Comments | Jul 11, 2016

As God is My Witness

suburban_sunset_by_framedbynature-d2g4rwpThe grandfather clock in the corner chimed 6:30 as Buster sat deeply and comfortably ensconced in his recliner, repeatedly belching up the taste of the spaghetti with sausage and marinara sauce leftovers he had nuked for supper. He loved the sausage, though he knew well that he would still be tasting it well past bedtime. The TV was tuned to the evening news, or at least what Buster still preferred to regard in that way. It wasn’t the evening news any more, though, was it? It was the all-the-goddamned-time news. It was just that Buster had spent most of his adult life in the era of three channels, each of which aired a half hour of local news from 6:00 to 6:30, followed by national and international news from 6:30 to 7:00. And if you couldn’t fit the latest war, famine, or murder coverage into that half-hour, then it would just have to damn well wait until the next night. It had been the era of Cronkite and Huntley/Brinkley and, well, some habits were just really hard to break, so Buster made a point of watching at six, even though he could just as easily watch anytime he liked. At the moment some blonde woman was describing the latest Middle East calamity. Buster belched once more, making no effort to suppress the basso tone. He lived by himself, so who the hell cared.

As for this particular installment of the news, Buster was really only half watching because his attention was diverted by a worry that the batch of cookies he had in the oven would burn, since the stove’s timer was broken and he was thus obliged to time his baking by repeatedly consulting a wall clock that was also in the kitchen, but which he could see only one side of if he leaned back at just the right angle in his BarcaLounger. He had to take care, though, that he didn’t lean too much to one side, as the right arm of the chair was loose and all he needed at this point in his life was to have to explain to paramedics how he’d broken his hip falling out of a recliner trying to see a clock in another room. All of which is why he was only half watching the evening news. Twice already this week he had tried this technique to cook his supper, only to be sidetracked by a particularly compelling news item and lose track of the time, resulting in a TV dinner that was ten or fifteen minutes overcooked and thus the consistency of his car’s front floor mat.

The news coverage had switched now to a guy with a gray beard and glasses talking about some country or other working to build a nuclear bomb, saying that if this country succeeded it would initiate a Middle East arms race that seemed certain to lead to Armageddon, and all Buster could think about was that back in Cronkite’s time a gray beard and little round glasses was a pretty good indicator that you were a communist. Yet here he sat watching the guy talk about nuclear weapons and arms races. The story was actually turning out to be interesting enough so that there was a good chance Buster would again lose track of the time and have to eat a batch of burnt cookies. Except that, as if this wasn’t a complex enough situation already, just about the time Buster was forgetting what time it was, the doorbell rang with the pathetic sound of a cat whose tail had been caught under a rocking chair. There was something wrong with the buzzer but Buster had grown accustomed to the sound and decided to regard the malfunction as an improvement, and rather than have it fixed he had actually a couple of years earlier written to the company and recommended they modify all their doorbells to sound that way. He had never heard back.

With great effort, several quiet curses, and an additional sausage-tinged belch precipitated by all the squirming required to pry himself from the chair, Buster rose at last, just as the doorbell screeched once more.

“Just a goddamn minute,” he said, aiming the remote at the TV and turning down the volume. He made his way to the front door and turned the knob. But the moment he saw the pair of well-dressed men with thin portfolios tucked under their armpits, he knew he had made a terrible mistake. And it wasn’t as though he hadn’t been warned either. Only yesterday down at the IGA he had run into Clint Jackson in the produce section and Clint had said to him, “Buster, you be damn sure you peek out your front window before you go opening your front door. Them Jehovah’s Witnesses are all about the neighborhood this week and they barged their way into my sister Lou’s place two nights back and she practically had to call the cops to get rid of them.” Or words to more or less that effect. Still, despite the warning, here stood Buster face to face with two identically dressed men, both smiling to beat the band, and the first thought that popped into Buster’s head was ‘well it was gonna be a slow evening anyway. I believe I will have a spot of fun with these fellars.’

“Yes, yes, come in,” Buster said, mustering as much enthusiasm as he could, so much so, in fact, that the two men appeared momentarily taken aback, which was hardly surprising given that on most occasions people were just plain rude to them and in a few cases they had even been known to have firearms pulled on them. “Gentlemen, your timing is most propitious! I’ve just made cookies. Please have a seat. I won’t be a moment.” He continued talking animatedly over his shoulder as he made his slow way toward the kitchen. “You know,” he said loudly over the clamor of the opening oven door and dishes being taken down from the cupboard, “a good friend informed me only last night that you fellows were out and about the neighborhood, and I did so hope you’d stop by.” He reappeared a moment later bearing a large plate of cookies and a fistful of napkins, all of which he set on the coffee table. “Please, help yourselves,” he said smiling broadly. He retook his own place in the BarcaLounger. “Now what exactly is it I can help you fine gents with this evening?”

“Well, uh, sir,” the taller of the two men said, glancing momentarily at his companion as though unsure just how to proceed. “You see—”

“Oh goodness,” Buster interjected, “where are my manners? I am Buster Pennington. And you are?” He leaned forward in the chair and stared at the shorter man, who had as yet uttered not a word.

“Uh, Chester, sir. Chester Pitts. And, and, this is my colleague Bruce Yancey.”

“Thank you, gentlemen. Thank you indeed. Now Bruce, you were preparing to explain just what is the purpose of your visit.”

“Yes, sir … Mister Pennington. Indeed I was. Well you see, in a nutshell we’ve come to discuss your immortal soul.” Yancey stopped with this grandiose opening and stared in Buster’s direction, whether in expectation or simply collecting his thoughts wasn’t clear. Buster returned the young man’s gaze while leaning back abruptly in his recliner.

“Immortal soul indeed?” he exclaimed. “Well, gentlemen, let me say you couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate home for your efforts if you’d endeavored to do so. I will assume, since you haven’t mentioned it, that you’ve not conducted sufficient research prior to your visit to fully appreciate the good fortune you have in coming here today.”

“Why exactly is that, sir?” asked Pitts.

“Because if you had … done your research, that is, you would know that you are sitting in the very living room of the oldest man in the sovereign state of Texas. I have held that esteemed title for nearly eleven months and I aim to continue holding it until the good Lord,” he glanced momentarily upward affecting great reverence, “deigns to relieve me of it, if you take my meaning. But in the meantime, you should know that you have selected the one man in all this state who is unquestionably closest to requiring your services. I mean, who better to explain the nuances of the afterlife to than the man who is closest to it?”

“It’s a fair point, Mister Pennington. A fair point indeed,” Yancey said. “Still, I can’t help but observe that you appear to be in an entirely reasonable state of health and vigor and not likely to depart this mortal plain anytime soon.”

“I thank you for saying so,” replied Buster, “and I’ll hope you’re correct in that assertion. Still, that fateful day must inevitably come, if not sooner, than surely later. And it is that day, is it not, that you’ve come to illuminate me about, yes?”

“It is indeed,” Pitts said, “and you demonstrate great wisdom by your willingness to learn about the consequences of that final reckoning that awaits us all.”

“So tell me,” Buster said, leaning forward awkwardly to take a cookie from the plate on the coffee table, “just what is it I have to look forward to on that blessed day when the trumpets sound and the clouds part?”

Yancey reached into his briefcase and extracted a handful of pamphlets, two of which he extended toward Buster, who only gestured toward the coffee table.

“You’ll forgive me if I confess that I’m not much of a reader. You can just leave those there by the cookie plate. No, I’d rather hear it direct, as it were, from the horse’s mouth.”

Yancey slid the pamphlets onto the table and paused a moment longer before launching into his prepared presentation.

“No offense, of course,” Buster said with a loud laugh. “The horse comment I meant. You’ll have to forgive me. I’m just an old man who lived most of his life on the farm. Figure of speech, you know.” He leaned back in the recliner and waited smiling.

“Mister Pennington … Buster, if it’s not too forward of me. The word of God tells us that when we draw our last breath, there are but two paths that await.”

“Heaven or Hell, if I am not mistaken,” Buster interjected.

“Quite so, Buster. Eternal perdition or a seat at the right hand of the Holy Father. But the truly good news—the reason for our visit today—is to let you know that the outcome of this choice is entirely under your control.”

“Well,” said Buster, “if true, it would be one of the few in my life that so qualified. Seems like most things in my long life have been decided for me either by my parents for the first eighteen years, or one of my three wives in the years thereafter. And, of course, now that I am in the advanced state that you observe, most decisions are determined by my possibly misguided desire to retain my title as oldest man in Texas.”

“It is certainly true,” Pitts chimed in, “that many decisions in this life are determined, or at least heavily influenced, by others. However, as Bruce here says, the decision concerning where and how you spend eternity is up to you and you alone.”

“Refreshing news indeed, gentlemen. Oh heavens, again with the manners. This is the sort of thing that happens once you enter your second century. I’ve given you cookies and nothing to wash them down with. Can I offer either of you something to drink. I have water, soda, beer … goodness, there I go again, offering beer to righteous men who’ve come all this way to rescue me from perdition’s flame. My apologies.”

“None required, sir. I don’t believe anyone will suffer the torments of hell for having the occasional beer or glass of wine. I’ll be the first to concede it.” Pitts asserted, glancing Yancey’s way for a second as though this point required corroboration. “But no, sir. We’re fine with what you’ve already generously provided. And let me just say that it’s refreshing indeed to be so welcomed into your home, particularly considering the reluctance with which most of your neighbors have regarded our visits.”

“Ah, gentlemen, don’t hold it against them. They’re decent people all … well except for Forsyth four houses down, opposite side of the street. He’s a real piece of work, and he’d as soon sell his mother as not if he thought he could get a mortgage payment in exchange.”

“We’ve already had the pleasure of meeting Mister Forsyth, Buster, and while the subject of his parsimony did not come up in our brief interaction, he was, let’s just say, less than receptive to our overtures.”

“Hardly surprising,” Buster agreed, “he’s not even receptive to accompanying me to the BINGO parlor or joining me for supper. Good Lord, there I go again—first offering you fine upstanding gents beers and now confessing to my participation in gambling. Seems I’m as likely as not to spend eternity in the less desirable of the two options you were describing earlier.”

“Not necessarily so at all,” Yancey exclaimed. “We were just getting to that. As I said earlier, it’s entirely up to your discretion how you spend eternity.”

“Well, as I said, that’s wonderful news indeed!” Buster leaned forward in the BarcaLounger as though expecting to be told he had just won the lottery. “So tell me, what is required of me in order to walk the streets of gold for eternity?”

“Simplicity itself, Buster,” Pitts said, lowering his voice reverentially. “You have only to sincerely confess your sins and accept God Almighty into your heart.”

“Confess?” Buster asked, leaning back once more. “You mean to a priest, like the Catholics?”

“Goodness no,” Yancey replied. “Nothing so formal is required at all. It’s entirely between you and God. You can do it in your own bedroom. You can even accept God’s love right here and now if you feel sufficiently moved to do so. We’d be honored to help you through it.”

“Well, it’s a big decision now, isn’t it,” Buster said. “I mean, we are talking about eternity, yes. You said so yourself.”

“Indeed, it is a big decision, Buster,” Pitts agreed. “The biggest you’ll ever make in your life, I’d venture to say.”

“Tell me this,” Buster said, after a moment of silent reflection. “How do you know?”

Both men seemed momentarily taken aback. “How … do we know what exactly?” Yancey finally asked.

“All this,” he waved his arm in a sweeping arc as if to encompass the entire breadth of the conversation. “… this eternity business. God, Heaven, Hell, salvation, all of it. How do you know your interpretation of things—your beliefs—are the correct ones and that all the Muslims and Jews and Catholics, the Hindus, the Buddhists, all have it wrong?”

“We know because of this,” Pitts said, lifting his Bible reverently with both hands in Buster’s direction. “It’s all right here.”

“But, Mister Pitts, surely every faith on this earth has their own version of your book. I don’t mean to disparage your beliefs, honestly I don’t. But what makes your book any better or worse, more true or less, than all those others?”

“Buster, it’s a difficult question. There’s no denying that.” Yancey ran his hand tightly over his forehead. “I can speak only for myself and the members of my faith when I say that Almighty God has spoken to us and instructed us in what we believe to be the one true path.”

“I understand, gentlemen, or leastways I think I do. Only here’s the thing of it. I’ve had a bit more than a century to reflect on what you’re saying. And, oh yes, believe me, I’ve been hearing it since first I heard anything at all, and it may comfort you to hear that the details of the story have not changed appreciably in all those years. But there are aspects of the thing that I simply cannot wrap my head around, like, for example, this vexing question of how a supposedly loving God could sentence many of his supposed creations to eternal damnation, or why God, if he’s as all-powerful as is said, nevertheless allows the enormous amounts of suffering that we see in this world every day.”

“Perhaps, Buster,” Yancey said, “if you could find it in your heart to join us at one or two of our weekly services, your questions and concerns could be better addressed.”

“Mister Yancey, Mister Pitts, I need to make a modest confession to you both. When you first arrived at my door, my reaction was chagrin at the thought of my evening consumed with a bout of over-zealous proselytizing. Indeed, I’m a bit ashamed to say that my initial agenda in opening my door to you was to mock your zealotry for my own amusement. You see, gentlemen, there are many labels for my own personal belief system—atheist, agnostic, naturalist, humanist—the list is endless. But in the end it boils down to one simple thing. I do not believe in deities, good ones or bad. And I do not believe in an afterlife. If it turns out you are correct in what you’ve been telling me, then I will have made a horrible mistake and will have all of eternity to rue my misjudgment. And so, therefore, while I respect entirely your right to believe what you like, you’ll forgive me if I do not, as well, accept the actual things that you choose to believe. Your fervor seems entirely genuine to me, and that is, I suppose, for the best, particularly if you mean to continue walking through neighborhoods going door to door to share it. You certainly won’t find me mustering the energy to go actively spreading the word of atheism. It’s been my experience that folks—most of them anyway—aren’t too terribly receptive to what it is I believe, so you have that to your advantage. I do hope, gentlemen, that you don’t feel, after all, as though I’ve wasted your time tonight.”

“Under no circumstances, Buster, none at all,” Yancey said, beginning to collect his things. “There can be no wasted time spent spreading the word of God. You’ve clearly given the matter a great deal of thought—more than most of us in fact.”

“I expect you’re correct about that,” Buster said, smiling broadly. “Oh, and I’m afraid I wouldn’t hold out much hope on my making it to one of your services. Pastor Cressey just down the road has been by here on numerous occasions over the past thirty or so years, bearing more or less the same tidings as you gentlemen. We have debated all of these matters many a night, and I feel certain that I am by this point one of his greatest professional disappointments. Still, he is not easily dissuaded, and he has extended his own invitation to attend one of his services, and I’ve yet to take him up on it.”

“Buster, nevertheless the invitation remains open, both to join us for service and, more importantly, to accept God’s love and enjoy the eternal rewards that accrue to those who do.”

Buster rose slowly from his chair and made his way to the front door, with Yancey and Pitts close behind. He extended a hand in their direction.

“Gentlemen, you’ve done your duty this evening. That your seeds have fallen on barren soil is no fault of yours. I will thank you for your visit and bid you a good night.”

Buster shook hands with both men and stood at the front door watching as the two men descended his steps and made their way down the street, the now setting sun illuminating their backs as they departed. He drew the door closed, walked slowly across the living room, and selected a cookie form the tray before falling once more into the BarcaLounger. He unmuted the television just in time to hear the gray-haired man in glasses saying something about a car bomb and a heavy initial death toll. A small bomb had apparently been first detonated to draw a crowd in closely to help, at which point a large one had been detonated so as to maximize the casualties. Buster shut off the television in mid sentence and leaned back tiredly in his chair, wondering as he sat in the growing silence whether he might have been a bit hasty in his dismissal of the two visitors, and whether, for that matter, the entire world might by now have passed the point of redemption. Buster reflected on these things only just long enough to finish his cookie. A moment later he was asleep and snoring loudly.

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