The Inside-Out Woman
CHAPTER 9: WAR ROOM
Iam switched to abusing her head and yanking her hair, as if she intended plucking it from her scalp to create exit holes for him. She tugged viciously against the tenaciously stubborn follicles until she howled at their determination to remain attached to her. But the tearing alone did the job, for at the entrance to the kitchen her agony seemed to have banished him.
“Oh, no. No way,” she said, staggering at the doorway. “There’s no way I’m letting you see me again, no way you’re getting to me again. Damn clock. Damn you clock. The minute Billy gets home you’re history. In the garbage with you. You’re gone, gone, gone,” she snarled, retreating back, hunched and arched, jabbing a finger at what appeared to her the gateway to Hell.
Dear, it is merely an innocent clock, and cute, too. The kitten is harmless.
“You don’t know,” she mumbled, clasping her aching head and spinning around. “You just don’t know. Nothing is as innocent as it appears. Nothing. I know. Nothing. Nobody. Not letters …”
“But why?” Iam asked Osma. “The story seems innocent enough. Actually, in many places, he’s very complimentary. Like here, where he talks about our drug rehab program, and our—”
“Please, no more,” said Osma. “We have an assault to stop. That’s why Pater assigned you to the Countervailing Committee. He believes you are a warrior. It’s why he granted you the name Marcella, why you’re starting at the college to study criminal investigation, and why you’re assigned to help me with this important and sensitive mission.”
“I’m just saying—”
“Forget it. Pater’s word is supreme. He decides who are our friends and who are our enemies.”
“It just seems, I don’t know, so innocent.”
They were in the basement of the Worship Temple seated at an old gray metal desk in a makeshift office crammed with file cabinets, three locks on the metal entry door and a hand-lettered sign in red marker taped to the outside notifying: “War Room.” Every cabinet, save one, contained dossiers on hundreds of Universal One members, the chief contents of each the extensive self-reports Pater required of all members upon their initiation. Those beyond the initial reports described transgressions and consisted of confessions and penances. In the lone nonmember cabinet were dossiers on individuals of interest to the Church; it was labeled in the same red marker used for the door sign: “The Rat’s Nest.”
Osma snickered. “How naïve are you?”
“I’m not. I’m practical.”
“Yes, I am. I mean, why alienate this reporter when he hasn’t written anything too bad about us?”
“Have you considered there is more to this than you suspect?” Osma’s eyes were bright green lanterns that sparkled with the promise of secrets.
“No, I’m just going on what I’ve read—”
“I shouldn’t say any more, but the story is like an iceberg.”
“Yes, an iceberg, Marcella. Must I spell it out for you?”
“Something’s going on below the surface, you mean.”
“A lot, but I can’t say more. Sufficed to say, Mr. Harlan Johnson is not a friend, and the only reason his attack is blunted is Pater. Pater got wind of the real story and vowed to drag Mr. Johnson and his paper into court and prove them the liars they are.”
“Mr. Johnson is a vicious, distempered pit bull and scandalmonger. His mind is deranged and he has razor fangs that drip with the blood of his complacent victims.”
“You should hear Pater go on about Mr. Johnson. He received the word Mr. Johnson is working on another attack article. Not for the paper. The paper won’t touch his lies, not after Pater persuaded them to back down. It’s for a magazine. Pater says it’s brimming full of the worst garbage you can imagine.”
“Is my repeating Mr. Johnson’s lies necessary? Look, Pater was good enough to invite this devil to services. He allowed him to speak with any Anointed People he wished. Pater even granted him a personal interview and freely answered his questions. I was present, Marcella, and some were disgusting, questions you won’t put to the scum crawling in the city’s sewers. Pater answered them. He set Mr. Johnson straight.”
“Why what? Why is Mr. Johnson against us? He can’t tolerate the truth, that’s why. They’re cynical, people like Johnson, like the newspapers and television. They can’t stand good, Marcella. You can see that for yourself. Everything they print, everything they show on TV, it’s about evil. It glorifies evil. You see that, don’t you?”
“You haven’t noticed a newspaper anywhere around the Temple, have you? No televisions or radios?”
“No,” Iam said, “no books, either.”
“No, nothing from the outside. Pater prohibits the Anointed from immersing themselves in the trash of the world. The world is corrupt, Marcella. It is as Pater teaches, a rotting corpse. It stinks, Marcella. After you’ve been in the Temple and step outside, oh, the foulness of it; it is like plunging into a pool of excrement and decay. In the Temple, we purify people. We live in the purity of the divine word, of the divine promise, of the divine presence of God in the flesh of our Pater.”
“I understand, Osma, I do,” Iam said, placating her in the hopes of sparing herself another of Osma’s endless harangues; Iam was a believer and didn’t feel she required regular rabid efforts of re-conversion. “What are we to do?”
“We’re going to expose Mr. Johnson’s dirty little secret.”
“Yes, Mr. Johnson is an adulterous pig.”
“He’s married? He’s cheating? That’s terrible.”
Osma shrugged. “He’s a swine. What would you expect?”
“Does he have children?”
“Children? I don’t know. Pater didn’t mention children. Does it matter?”
“Cheating when you have children, it’s … it’s traumatic for them.”
“Hmm, you have point, Marcella. I wish Pater had said. But never mind. I think we can work around the issue of children quite nicely. I have an idea.”
“Yes, I do. First, though, take this key and open the cabinet over there on the right.”
Osma indicated one of the three gray cabinets occupying the far wall. Each reached the ceiling. Each was deep, contributing to the claustrophobia of the War Room. An oversized lock sealed each.
After Iam opened the cabinet, Osma instructed her to bring her the paper in the cranberry box on the upper shelf.
“Lock the door and let me have the key.”
“Now open the cabinet on the left,” Osma said, handing Iam another key.
Iam did and pedaled back in surprise.
“I’ve told Pater we should use computers,” Osma said. But he insists these are best for our purposes, at least for the time being. He says they have more character and lend a bit more personal impact to our message.”
Iam gaped at four shelves of typewriters representing various brands and styles, from manual to electric, office to portables.
“Let’s use the small blue one there on the third shelf down.”
Iam picked it up and brought it to the desk.
“You type?” Osma asked, extending a hand for the cabinet key.
Iam displayed her index fingers.
“I’ll expect you to learn to type. It’s an essential skill for members of the Countervailing Committee. You can practice on the electric in the Temple office upstairs. You may use my old typing book.”
“Osma, why the different typewriters? Why so many?”
“We don’t want our enemies tracing certain activities back to us. Pater says it is best to keep our actions anonymous for now and that typewriters are like fingerprints. We use them a few times. After, we destroy them and acquire replacements.”
“There’s time enough for the questions. Roll this in,” Osma said, handing Iam a sheet of the stationery. “It’s time for toil and trouble.”
“I like the color and the border of little flowers. It’s pretty, Osma. It reminds—”
“A little too pink and frou-frou for my taste. But it has just the right feminine feel for the job. How fast are you with those fingers of yours.”
“I’ll talk and you type what I tell you.”
Iam positioned her fingers over the typewriter’s keys.
“Dear Mrs. Johnson.”
Iam tapped the salutation and looked eagerly at Osma.
“You don’t know me. However, I know you quite well.”
Iam typed and when she finished, she said, “You know Mr. Johnson’s wife?”
“Never met the woman.”
“Harlan speaks of you often. Iam, type. Harlan speaks of you often.”
Iam punched the keys.
“Over the months we’ve been together, I’ve come to know you as a lovely person, a lovely woman who doesn’t deserve to be deceived any longer.”
“Osma, what are we doing?”
“We’re following Pater’s orders. We’re striking an enemy a mortal blow.”
“But … but it seems like we’re … we’re making up at lie.”
“Do you want me to do the thinking, the talking, and the typing? Do you want me reporting you to Pater, reporting you were more concerned about the enemy than Universal One?”
“No, please, Osma, no. It’s just I don’t like lying.”
Osma’s green eyes flashed and she reached for the typewriter.
“Please, I want to,” pleaded Iam.
Osma withdrew her hands, fiddled with the stack of cranberry stationery, saying, “Okay. I know Pater likes you, Marcella, and it is his desire for you to be more engaged in the most vital Church work.”
“Drop the childish pretense, Marcella. I’m number two, behind Fidella. I know everything. Pater confides everything in me. He values my opinion. I told him you showed potential.”
Osma nodded. “I hope I wasn’t wrong. I’m usually not. But—”
“No, no, Osma, you’re right. You’re right about me. I love the Church. I love Pater. Pater saved me. I want to do what’s right.”
“Good. You understand, Marcella, that sometimes right can seem … well, not right?”
“Yes, I think I do.”
“Killing is wrong, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is. God forbid it. ‘Thou shall not kill.’ It’s a commandment.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Yet,” Osma lectured, “the military encourages soldiers to kill the enemy. In fact, they must kill the enemy. Same thing with the police. If a criminal threatens you, you are justified in killing him. God’s commandment declares ‘You shall not kill.’ But circumstances sometimes dictate you must kill, and then killing isn’t wrong. We accept this. By we I mean everybody, not just you and me, but everybody in Los Angeles and California and the U.S. and the world.”
Iam stared at the words on the cranberry stationery and nodded stiffly.
“You don’t appear entirely sure, Marcella.”
“It’s just the army, the police, they have permission—”
“They’re authorized. Is that what you’re getting at?”
“So are we, Marcella, so are we. Except our right to defend ourselves comes from the highest authority, the authority over all men. It comes directly from God. It comes directly through God’s Chosen Delegate on earth, who is divine, who is a part of God, our Pater. It flows from God into Pater and from him to us sitting here in the War Room. We are linked directly to God, Marcella. We are fulfilling God’s wishes. We are defending the Anointed People of God from His enemies. God’s enemies are our enemies, Marcella. Do you see that?”
“Yes, Osma, yes, I do,” said Iam with stirring, quiet enthusiasm.
“God’s work isn’t always easy, Marcella. God demands much of His chosen people, of the Anointed People, who, you know, are the only true defenders of God’s word in the world today.”
“Yes, I understand, Osma.”
“God challenges us, Marcella. He tests us like he tested Abraham. And like Abraham we must embrace our duty. And if God decides another course, he will intervene, as He did to spare Isaac.”
“Yes. Thank you, Osma.”
“Good,” Osma said, smiling graciously upon Iam, giving Iam the impression Osma was bathing her and the room in a comforting summery green light that cleansed dirty doubt. “And you will be happy to know that Mr. Harlan Johnson is having an affair.”
“Of course he is.”
Osma’s smile broadened and her glow intensified. “Yes. Pater does not act rashly. He meditated long and hard on Mr. Harlan Johnson. His Father, our Father, too, spoke to Pater. He revealed how and with whom Mr. Johnson broke His commandment of marital fidelity. Pater told me God placed him into the mind of Mr. Johnson’ paramour with two purposes: to absorb the details of the affair and to implant in the woman an abhorrence of the affair and Mr. Johnson, and a love of the offended wife.”
“It’s miraculous, Osma.”
“Yes, to be touched by God, well, I can’t put it into words. And while in the mind of the woman, Pater heard her think of what she would say to Mr. Johnson’s wife should the opportunity present itself. The words I am dictating to you come from her, Marcella. They are not my words. I am not plucking words from the air. They are the woman’s words as told to me by Pater.”
“Thank you, Osma. Thank you.”
“So, where were we?”
“I’ve come to know you as a lovely person, a lovely woman who doesn’t deserve to be deceived any longer,” read Iam.
“Yes, I now regard you as a friend, and I realize Harlan is a deeply troubled man who might do either or both of us and those we love great harm to have what he wants.”
“The children,” said Iam. “He would hurt his own children? And she has children, too.”
“I’m assuming, Marcella.”
“But what if—”
“Please, focus on the job at hand. It doesn’t matter. She’ll fill in the blanks.”
“Is Mr. Johnson really dangerous?”
“The most dangerous man there is for us. Now you’ve broken my train of thought. Read it back from the beginning, without interruptions, please.”
“Dear Mrs. Johnson,” read Iam in a steady, strong voice of purpose, “You don’t know me. However, I know you quite well. Harlan speaks of you often. Over the months we’ve been together, I’ve come to know you as a lovely person, a lovely woman who doesn’t deserve to be deceived any longer …”
Dear, how many times have I told you, you will grow into a lovely woman? However, you must improve your posture. Stand up straight, Iam, not bent over like a crone attending her caldron. Up now.
Images of cabinets and typewriters and letters, of rats and witches and their nasty brew, vanished as Iam straightened.
You must feel one hundred percent better, dear.
“Not so better,” Iam muttered vaguely.
No wonder. Utter nonsense clutters your mind. Enemies, betrayal, letters, and that thing about innocence. What a carload of nonsense, dear.
Yes, poppycock. You have two innocents upstairs. You must pull yourself together. You look a fright. Comb your hair, freshen your makeup, put your clothes in order. After, go to them. They need you, dear.
“This is ridiculous,” Iam said, examining herself in the oval portrait mirror over the sink in the tiny half-bath Billy had converted from a closet under the staircase. “I am a fright.”
She smoothed her hair and winced when her sore scalp rebelled at the effort. She scrubbed her face and groaned at the coarseness of herself without makeup. She pulled a drawer on the vanity under the sink. There was a first-aid kit; two tiny tubes of toothpaste still in their boxes and toothbrushes still in their wrappers, compliments of the dentist; an unused adhesive lint remover, a Christmas gift from the drycleaner; a sealed package of bottle nipples; two well-worn binkies; a small army of dismembered toy soldiers; an assortment of batteries that might or might not work; but nothing to restore her to the woman she’d set out as in the morning.
“What crap. What a load of shit. Shit and crap,” she said, emptying the drawer in three scoops, pitching the lot into the hallway. “Where’s my stuff? Why can’t I have stuff? Why can’t everybody leave my stuff alone? Not even my box of stuff? Not even that? They have to sneak around looking here and there for Mommy’s things. What can we take from Mommy? Let’s play with Mommy’s stuff. Let’s pry into Mommy’s life. Let’s see if she has secrets.”
The binkies arrested her eye. In that instant, she didn’t know what to make of them. They aroused the roots of feelings in her, maternal love, amusement, endearment, of understanding and forgiveness.
Marcella, you are a warrior. Warriors do not weep over their enemies. They do what is necessary. Dominic must be taught, Marcella. The girl must be dealt with. There is nothing innocent about a potential betrayer. There are no innocents outside the One. You are a believer. You know it to be true, Marcella.
Iam stomped the binkies. She crushed them under her shoe like she would kill an insect. She kicked them toward the front door and the staircase.
“Dominic,” she shouted, “you’d better have that report finished, and it better be terrific, stupendous, if you know what’s good for you.”
She plowed through the garbage on the floor to the head of the stairs. “It better be good. It better be very good, Dominic. Or … or I’ll lay the Sword on you. You won’t like that very much, I bet. No you won’t, you little thief. You little betrayer.”
COMING NEXT WEEK, MONDAY, April 20, 2015: CHAPTER 10: THE OFFERING