The Inside-Out Woman
CHAPTER 17: THE WORST
“What we need,” Cornelius O’Connor intoned, rocking to and fro on his giant Chesterfield throne, a man who by his expansiveness, Billy judged, knew his corn, and consumed plenty of it. “Give it a second crack at us, and maybe it’ll do real damage. Give me a chance to collect on those premiums.”
Corny—he’d obliged Billy to address him as Corny after several Mr. O’Connor’s—laughed and the power of it animated his legs and his feet, and a wayward foot encased in a wingtip thrashed the desk, and he laughed harder at how the wham of the strike punctuated his good nature. He’d explained, “The Kernel hates it, the belly laughing and the banging. That’s K-e-r-n-e-l. Her name’s Katherine, the wife, but she’s been the Kernel since we got into the corn storage and transport business. Corny and the Kernel. Doesn’t care for the Kernel, but tolerates it. ‘You look like you have ants in your pants.’ I look around for the ants and smash ’em. She shakes her head. Yeah, I’m incorrigible, but I’m lovable, and a simple Hoosier.” Billy liked him.
“Okay, kidding,” Corny said, retracting his feeble insurance joke. “No, I feel pretty fortunate. Lose a little patch of roof over the office; a big puddle, it’s nothing. I’ve seen plenty worse. You, too, I bet.”
“Yes,” Billy said, “worse is my business.”
“Looks like rain this time. Just a good old summer downpour. Haven’t got far to go, I hope?”
“No, a few visits left. I’m a little early.”
“CK efficiency for you. Me and the Kernel run a tight ship. Well, you’re welcome to hole up here. No sense sitting in your car when you’ve got all the comforts of home right here at CK.”
Billy was about to thank Corny and beg off, when the newspaper headline intruded. “I think I’ll take you up on your offer, Corny.”
“Sure. We’ve got coffee in the break room, and the Kernel baked a basket of corn muffins, it being Saturday, and we’re here. Makes it feel like the house, sort of.”
“I appreciate it. Is it possible to set me up at a desk with an internet connection?”
“No problem. Use mine. Get right around here,” he said, standing and proffering the throne. “You know our secrets, anyway.” He laughed and the chair swiveled under his grip.
“I don’t want to inconvenience you.”
“Not a bit inconvenient. You’d be saving my life. I need a break, and the Kernel’d swat me for my inhospitality if she didn’t see you in my chair.”
Billy sat and the chair engulfed him.
“Comfy, yes? Give me a minute to get your coffee and muffin.”
Waiting for Corny, Billy swung to the window. Sheeting rain had transformed the late, sunny afternoon into an undulating gray mass of buildings and cars and flaring lights. There was little wind, for which Billy was grateful. It was nothing that would hold him up. He figured he’d easily arrive home by midnight. He decided to put off phoning Iam, though. No sense disappointing her if the situation changed.
“Here you go. Homemade muffin from Indiana corn, and a mug of coffee.”
“My idea,” Corny said of the mug that featured a green husk handle and a wrap around Mack sporting the CK logo, two corn cobs in overalls and gingham Billy assumed represented Corny and the Kernel. “Watch the corn, though. You’re not careful it could get you in the eye. Say goodbye on your way out. I’ll be in the Kernel’s boudoir. That’d be accounting, so don’t worry about interrupting anything.” He left with his hands shoved in his pockets, laughing.
Billy sipped the coffee, sampled the muffin, savored its grainy sweetness, and devoured half of it immediately, going to the Los Angeles Times as he did. The “Feed the World” mass execution story was too old to show up in his site search.
He switched to Goggle and the search yielded thousands of citations for “Feed the World,” Universal One, mass killings, pornography, and a couple for Jim Smith Miller, including a write-up on Wikipedia. He clicked Wiki.
In an instant, Jim Smith Miller, the Pater, captured Billy with piercing blue eyes, eyes that seemed possessed of hands; eyes that lurked and stalked from under a canopy of jet-black hair, a thick, perfectly combed confection that shined as if caramelized and over which hovered, to Billy’s eye, a twinkling star, the reflected light of the camera’s flash. He tried several times to scroll down the page but discovered he could not break away from the eyes, from the taffy face, from the beckoning expression that promised solace, purpose, and happiness. He muttered, “Father Jim,” and admitted that, yes, it fit.
His coffee had cooled and the remnants of his muffin had lost its moisture when he finally scrolled past the headshot. He saw the photo from the newspaper not far below it, and beyond several more photos; of the Los Angles Temple marked with banner signage; of Jim Smith Miller as a baby, a doughy schoolboy, a slim college graduate; of Pater Miller preaching from a raised pulpit under his topping of styled hair, in a white robe, arms reaching for the congregation as if in the next moment he had leapt into their midst and embraced the invisible masses; of Pater Miller under a roughhewed “Feed the World” sign, pointing up and back to the squat compound in the distance, radiating joy and excitement; of Pater Miller on the makeshift stage of picnic tables, on a lawn chair, holding forth, bitter-faced; of Pater Miller in his tipped lawn chair, eyes wide open and blank, his hair melting into a pool of crimson.
Billy jumped to the top of the article and started down again, this time running his eyes over the words, absorbing them without thinking about them, storing them for retrieval, for analysis, for interpretation later.
At the end, Billy scanned the citations and noticed a documentary about Universal One and the massacre. He clicked and landed on YouTube. Someone had uploaded the complete documentary titled “Harvest of Death” in ten parts. He consulted his watch and it said he couldn’t spare an hour and half to watch. He skipped the first several parts. He clicked the ninth. It recorded the last days in the compound and incorporated home footage shot by a member. It showed Pater Miller on his stage in various acts of exhorting the members, chanting with them, slumping in his lawn chair and cradling his head, receiving consultation from a young, slight woman. He focused on the woman and, though the film was jittery, grainy, and blurred, he breathed a sigh of relief.
His index finger was about to close the site, when he decided another minute wouldn’t make him any later. He opened the fifth part for no other reason than it was the middle. It covered the years when Pater Miller earned the accolades of community leaders and politicians for Universal One’s work among poor African-Americans and Latinos. Included were food distribution and drug rehab programs, and political organization on behalf of the disenfranchised. It seemed every important city and state politician of the period had curried the favor of Pater Miller. Billy pulled the slide button through the segment without pause, until a third from the conclusion. Pater Miller spoke from a podium on a real stage. Behind him sat a line of people. Many were older men and women who Billy assumed were politicians and officials. But together toward the end, almost cut from the frame, sat two women. Both were young, girls he thought, thin, gangly, like high schoolers. One looked like the girl in the ninth part, perhaps Osma, whom he remembered from the newspaper, Emily Jennings, Pater Miller’s executioner. The other was familiar but she was indistinct. He crept the button forward, hoping the poster included the end of the presentation, when everybody usually glad-hands with the speaker. And there it was, brief, a blink before the dignitaries engulfed him, of Pater Miller handing his notes to the Jennings girl and she, in turn, passing them to the other girl, who clasped a satchel to her chest. For some reason, the person filming attached importance to the papers and focused in for a close up, along the way gliding over the face of the bag girl. The frame Billy froze was badly tiled, but he could see he was looking into the determined child-like face of his wife.
“Whoa, sorry. I didn’t know you were still here. Hey, what’s wrong? Bad news? Or you poked your eye with the corn handle. I warned you.”
“No, I’m fine,” Billy said, closing the site and the browser. “Tired, I guess. Ready to go home.”
“Pretty ugly out there.”
Billy stood and turned to the window. A brisk, erratic wind had kicked up and blew the teeming rain in cascading sheets and the flood in the streets into angry waves that washed over the curbs like ocean water over sea breaks.
“A Hampton’s two blocks from here. Might be a good idea.”
“Thanks, Corny. But, you know, the worst. I’ve got to leave.”
Twenty leaping steps to the car and Billy climbed in drenched, and the moment he’d squeegeed his face with his hand the storm retreated to a drizzle. He started the car, switched on the wipers, observed as they cleared the windshield with syncopated steadiness, and allowed the thought that he would not have to clean away insects to seep into and occupy every corner of his mind, to the exclusion of everything, until he couldn’t retain the image any longer, and Mrs. Billy Brick filled every space, every iteration of her: the happy child, the raped girl, the waitress, the stranded waif, the young bride, the pregnant wife, the mother, the lover. He believed he possessed a complete map of Iam, through time, her form and flesh, her heart and mind. More, he believed they were one, just as the priest had said when they married, two into one. That was his desire, to be one with her, to be merged into her, to be absorbed by her, and she by him. When they made love, still, he pushed tightly against her, pressed his full weight onto to her, thrust as deeply as he could, never deeply enough, though, with the idea that it was insufficient to be on her; that he needed, obsessed to be in her from head to toe to such a degree an observer would not distinguish two bodies on the bed, that it was a new breed of human, the fulfillment of two into one. And while he understood it was impossible, he believed he and Iam had come as close as any two could; until Dominic showed him the box; until YouTube showed him he might not know her; that he might be married to a counterfeit.
How he arrived at his appointment, he could not say. Thankfully, he found minor damage, and the same was true of his last appointment. The activity of nosing around, however, tapping the stylus on the tablet, chatting with the claimants, devoured time but also preoccupied his mind, holding in abeyance the disturbance throbbing for release, quelling the mad restlessness in his legs to dash to the car, tromp the gas pedal, and race home like a reckless maniac.
He finished and left in the gloaming, under a light mist, with the idea that there must be an explanation, with the hope that maybe he’d been wrong, with the counteracting, poisoning despair that, no, he’d been right; that the home in New York, the family, the rape, Johnnieee in New York City, none was real; that he wasn’t close to uniting with her; that he was, in fact, a million miles from her; or, worse, that he was nearly one with an alien.
And when he demanded himself to stop it, stop dwelling, give her a chance to explain herself, he discovered himself slamming down the pedal and rushing up to Sullivan County like a besieged lunatic.
It was the returned rain, huge, thick, impenetrable washes of it, like an tsunami falling on him; it was the wild wind buffeting the windshield and forcing the car to claw a path forward through the sea, next pounding the car sideways toward the shoulder in an effort to shove it into the culvert, then cutting underneath the car, lifting it up until Billy couldn’t steer; it was his fear that forced him to break, pull over, and succumb.
Words, images, and speculation sprang to life in him, and as he sifted and studied and weighed what he’d read and seen, the question he strained to answer; that, in spite of his effort, went unanswered was: how were Iam and Jim Smith Miller, the Pater, connected?
In the rivulets of rainwater, he recounted the sketch of the Pater’s life, his church, and the destruction he’d wrought. He was born in Las Vegas as the modern Vegas itself was birthing. Mom was at turns nurse, showgirl, nurse again, an early feminist who didn’t take kindly to the yoke of domesticity; she was constantly busy, but not with Little Jim. Dad was a mediocre mechanic, next a mediocre blackjack dealer, finally nothing when he mistakenly flattered himself a very slick operator. Little Jim grew up in a neighbor’s house, and the neighbor was a Pentecostal, who went by the name of Sister Jubilee. He was a precocious child. He read at four. He spoke in fluid syntax at six. He thought big, and what obsessed him was, “What’s it all about?” Sister Jubilee and her Pentecostal partners inculcated their beliefs and practices into him, and for the rest of his days, his life was about getting to another place, the better place, even if that place was null.
However, the trip wasn’t easy, for life was nothing less than an epic war fought on temporal and spiritual planes, and these membranes of existence continually crashed into each other. Jim’s enemies were anybody or anything that stoked his feelings of insecurity, assaulted his need for love and unity, and fanned his pernicious paranoia.
Among Sister Jubilee’s enthusiastic worshipers, he ascended to stardom at ten. He’d read the Bible thrice over by that age and committed whole swaths of it to memory. He didn’t comprehend most of it, but he could regurgitate it with a vivacity, often in a frenzy, the Pentecostals fed upon. That his father was a murdered no account; that his mother nurtured, generally, by showing up in time to tuck him in; it mattered not, for he had a family, and they believed he piped the way to their salvation.
Life twisted brutally for Little Jim when his mother forswore her showgirl career and resumed nursing and fulltime feminism. She wasn’t a secularist, but neither was she religiously flamboyant. She was a plain, middling Catholic, and the displays of zealotry, glossolalia, dancing, discernment, and healing, of which Little Jim proved an integral part and polished practitioner, offended her. More, that he expressed his desire to don ministerial robes frightened her straight into action. She severed his connection with Sister Jubilee, cut back her activities at work, toned down her feminist endeavors, and became his mother. The first months were difficult, akin for Little Jim to drug withdrawal. He pleaded; she denied him; he writhed; she swabbed his brow; he ran away; she found him; he feigned illness; he nursed him; he threatened suicide; she hid the cutlery. He conceded. Over the years what neither conceived possible came to pass: they grew devoted to each other, and forever after Pater Miller required women surrounding him to care for him, to protect him, to heal him, to satisfy him, and, as his mother came to, to deify him.
As a boy, Jim excelled in school. He earned a scholarship and attended the University of Nevada/Las Vegas. He studied business and graduated with honors. He launched a sales career and succeeded in providing well for his mother and the young woman he’d courted and married in college, Carol Simmons.
Carol was the bookend of Jim’s mother, a woman who desired independence but who bowed to his needs; who gained satisfaction from helping people and graduated a nurse; and who, the daughter of a Methodist minister, practiced religion reservedly. It wasn’t Catholicism, but neither was it Pentecostal theater, so when Jim began spending Sundays with Carol at her father’s church, and ate Sunday supper in Carol’s home, and genuflected to the Reverend Simmons’s theological tutelage, learning from the elder the meaning and the nuances contained in the Bible, his mother didn’t object.
Seminal experiences may retreat into abeyance, but hardly ever do they vanish, and Jim’s simmered for years and boiled over and scorched him with vengeance. He went to bed a super salesman in a large track house in Vegas; he awoke the reincarnated child of God—in Universal One creed, The Awakening—armed with a stewed theology to which he would add ingredients that appealed to him or advanced his mission, for as the Awakened One everything was a mission to him. In a chaotic week, he sold his house, gathered up his wife and goods, and drove to Los Angeles in a U-Haul—another Universal One landmark, The Hegira—fleeing the new Sodom, migrating to where the poor and downtrodden, he believed, awaited a savior from out of the desert who would build them an empire on earth and raise up a golden ladder to Heaven.
He rented a storefront in Hollywood, painted “The New Church of the Fundamental Truth” on the window, swung open the door, and nobody walked through it. He placed a sign in the window advertising “Free Breakfast,” and handfuls entered, half listened, and left after eating. More failures followed, three months of them; none dampened his spirit. He used his time wisely to refine the theology, which he thought of as his unique selling proposition, of his new church. He attended services in churches throughout Los Angeles, participating in those that encouraged congregants to express their love of Jesus. His childhood skills returned to him and he preached and discerned and healed like no one the storefronts and local Pentecostals had seen in their lifetimes.
He gained a reputation that drew people to his storefront to hear the word directly from the man who called himself Pater. They flocked to witness miracles, and he provided them aplenty with refined, stealthy legerdemain worthy of his home town: deformed limbs straightened and jigged upon, cancers expunged and exhibited in glass jars, mental demons expelled and equanimity restored, secrets exposed and hearts reconciled, not to mention discernments—exposing what a person carried in his pocket, what she kept in her medicine chest, what he hid in the bottom of his dresser draw—that convinced many Pater possessed ESP, second sight, and, maybe, x-ray vision; or that, as he claimed, he truly was touched by the hand of God. Los Angeles hadn’t seen such a gifted, controversial preacher and healer since Aimee Semple McPherson had captivated the town and erected the Angelus Temple. Even the Temple recognized him and invited him to preach on several occasions.
Pater started as a Pentecostal boy; he succeeded as a salesman; and he merged the two to create a sizzle believers and those who needed dearly to believe could not resist. As he worked at attracting attention and membership to his church, he evolved a theology and ritual he layered onto traditional Christianity. He fed it to the expanding congregation after the show. “Oh, we’ve sizzled today. Oh, we’ve been on fire, brothers and sisters. Oh, yes, the Lord is with us today,” he preached. “And now it’s time to sit at His table and eat the steak of unity.”
His theology was simple and appealing and he preached it with palpable conviction. “Our purpose is to unite as one, to work as one, to care and provide for each other, to do nothing to harm another consciously or unconsciously, to put into daily practice the espoused values of the great religions ignored by those religions and the masses. Moreover, our purpose is to carry the joyful, saving message of unity to everyone, to bring all the deserving into the fold of Universal Unity.”
He re-christened his church The Church of the Universal One. He enhanced the value of membership with a claim of exclusivity. Certain, special people, possessed of qualities discernable to him through a clear vision placed in his heart and mind by God, could be members and no one else. He called members the Anointed People. Upon acceptance into Universal One, in the initiation ritual of Personal Hegira, new members received a membership card and a new name. Members renounced their former lives. They accepted Pater as their direct link to God and salvation. They swore allegiance and obedience to the higher power of Pater and God. They bound themselves to the laws of the Church, though Pater assured them that these laws were patterned on the best practices of civilization throughout history, of the United States, of the best socialist ideal, in particular egalitarianism and communalism. And, as the symbol of their new life and a manifestation of the Church’s theology of equality, members cast off their birth names in favor of new Latin names. In Universal One, there were no whites or blacks; no Americans, Mexicans, Africans, Canadians, Germans, Poles, or Asians; no Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Hindi; no northerners, southerners, or westerners; there were only the Anointed People, everyone equal in the eyes of the Church, and in the eyes of God’s Chosen Delegate on earth, the Pater. The purpose of life was salvation. The promise was the Anointed People would be saved and raised up to Heaven when the end came. And the end was coming sooner than anybody imagined, and all save his special flock would be caught unaware and sinful, and the punishment for ignorance and self-indulgence would be damnation.
Under the storm, darkness had fallen quickly. Billy peered through the windshield into a blackness so dense he couldn’t see the rain, only heard it drum on the car. He squeezed his watch light on and saw he’d been parked for an hour. He slammed the steering wheel. He started the car, toggled on the lights, the brights, and shifted to drive. He eased onto the road. He accelerated to thirty, held his speed for a couple of minutes, and when his nerves couldn’t suffer it any longer, he moved cautiously to the shoulder. He didn’t want to wait, but he had no choice. He hadn’t called her from CK, and now he realized he should have. He reached for his cell phone and fingered in the number. He listened as the house phone rang six times and shunted him to voicemail. Iam, Dominic, and Dominica, in a singsong chorus, informed him they were busy and would return his call if he left a message. He didn’t, and he couldn’t say why he didn’t.
He stared at the windshield, at the sheets of rain spotlighted in the headlights, and thought about flooding. The big storm and tornado earlier in the week and this drenching. He’d be back in Knox County, Monday probably, handling flood claims.
He didn’t get it. There was the lying. Why she was compelled to lie to him, he couldn’t understand. Maybe the way they met, the ordained collision of like spirits, too perfect to allow corrosive facts to rot the serendipitous union. Sure, she was afraid of what he would think of her. A cult member. A person of weak mind susceptible to patent absurdities. A man who claimed to be a step below God, perhaps God himself; a divine who possessed the secret to eternal life. She may have been right; he couldn’t grasp it. How could she not have seen through this Pater, not recognized him for what he was: a charlatan? Worse, he was a psychopath. Anybody who would commit murder was sick, the worst kind of sinner, who would take God’s gift of life and throw it away. This Pater went to the extreme; he took one hundred forty-four lives, maybe more, with him.
It wasn’t as if his intensions were a secret. The article, what did it say? Pater demanded blind alligeance. He built a closed society, where members worshiped and socialized with each other to the exclusion of relatives and friends, unless these people also were accepted into the Church, which, along with statewide and cross-country missions, was a common Church recruitment technique. Egalitarianism; that translated into giving your money and possessions to the Church, signing over your welfare and Social Security payments. It was the most severe form of tithing Billy, who rankled at the Catholic Church’s ceaseless drumbeat for money, ever heard of. In exchange, the Church promised to care for you, for your physical and spiritual life, forever. And what about the form of that care? Ultimately, it meant hard labor on an ill run farm near a place called Raisin City, followed by death. No murder; it was murder, calculated and horrendous. And premeditated, too, of that there was no doubt. From the beginning, this Pater was working toward his own version of Armageddon, of Revelation come to life, of prophetic fulfillment.
What a stigma being a former cult member. What are you, a lemming? Maybe her first impulse about him had been right. He wouldn’t have understood. Falling into a cult was illogical. A sane, rational, intelligent person, meaning himself, would never, not in a million years, fall for the distorted, demented rap of a guy like Jim Smith Miller, a fellow who had the audacity to call himself Pater, who resorted to voodoo, black magic, circus to win over the weak minded. Maybe she had been right to lie; otherwise, he might have dismissed her as one of the imbeciles.
The rain was unending, violent, and a conspiracy, something orchestrated from the grave by Pater Miller to keep Billy in his place, to deprive Billy of the smallest distraction, to concentrate Billy’s attention on … on the social practices of Universal One. Billy recognized his nomenclature as pure euphemism, unadulterated avoidance, purposeful evasion; no, he couldn’t stall forever and, the conspirator realized it, as if the conspirator lived at the very moment, as if the conspirator’s wacky proclamation of physical rebirth might have substance, as if the conspirator prowled in the backseat. Billy turned hesitantly, just to confirm the idea was crazy, relieved nonetheless to see nothing, expelling the breath he’s held, for who could be absolutely certain, because there were articles of faith in his own religion, a real, two-thousand-year-old bedrock of … not certainty … of faith, but better stuff then the conspirator’s, tried and true stuff accepted by millions and millions. And the conspirator, the bastard, the Pater, he won. Billy could resist no more. He focused on what the Pater wanted him to focus on: sex.
Iam had been raped. She had lived with a man she didn’t much care for. None of her past, the past he knew of, bothered him. He loved her from the moment he rescued her on County Road 25. But this new past, if it were true, he wasn’t sure. It was different in a way he couldn’t quite define at that moment in the car with the discovery of her secret past life a fresh wound in his mind.
“It’s not the sex,” he said, as if he’d been wrong, as if the conspirator was indeed in the backseat, in his vestment, with his hair glistening, with his eyes bright like blue stars, illuminating the dilemma in a ghastly light. “It’s not even your perversion of sex,” he said, and regretted it, for the images of it unreeled on the windshield, of partners trouping in and out of Pater’s quarters, of Iam on the production line, young women shuttling along on a conveyor, dropping onto Pater’s bed, hopping off and going around again. “It’s not, you bastard, no matter what you want me to think.” The rain, Billy saw, was abating, but not the noise. It was a different noise, though. It was a laugh. Not the robust, honest Hoosier laugh of a Corny or himself; it was a snickering laugh, a snide laugh, an accusing laugh.
And there it was, what the conspirator wanted him to confront the entire time. Billy shook his head. He saw the box. He saw the girl that was his wife on the stage, accepting the words of the Pater for safekeeping in a satchel she clutched to her chest, to her heart. He envisioned her in Pater’s bed, Pater on her, like himself, pushing hard, deep, in an effort to absorb her into him, to make her part of him and him of her. Two into one. And the plaguing question, the tormenting idea, what the conspirator wished him to contemplate was: had Pater succeeded where he had failed? Had Iam loved the charlatan? And did he still possess her? Did she love him to this day, right now, in their home in Sullivan, on County Road 25? Would she forsake him, and Dominic and Dominica—those Latin names, so different, so cute, she said, so like daggers in his heart now—if Pater came back? That Pater couldn’t; that no mortal man could rise from his grave; Billy knew this. But what if you never laid a person to rest? What if eternal life was nothing more than memory and history? What if … if she had loved Pater, and still loved him?
Billy sat frozen. The rain had slowed to a drizzle. He could easily drive home. Yet, he couldn’t take his hands off the steering wheel. He gripped it with such force his arms ached in protest, screamed for relief as he pulled the wheel toward himself and pushed it away, as if he were a man possessed, as if a ghost had insinuated himself into him and permeated his mind with thoughts of deception and hate and betrayal.
Suddenly, she broke through the miasma to purify his mind, broke through with love and need, with the words she’d uttered on the phone, with her call for help, as good as crying, “Billy help me. Billy save me. Billy, I love you only and you love me.”
“No, Willy,” she’d said, “we’re fine. It’s just we miss you. I miss you.” Nothing was fine, and we miss you, yes; but we need you; we need you to save us. That’s what she meant by Willy.
“I’m coming,” he muttered, throwing the car into drive, tromping on the gas pedal, and racing to her like a maniac.
COMING NEXT WEEK, MONDAY, JUNE 15, 2015: CHAPTER 18: ABSOLUTION