Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Last Day

The Last Day
[A Fiction, Of Sorts]
With a hop and a bounce, Scott Eckles straitened his tie as he followed the nurse confidently out the waiting room.  While her back was turned to him, he briefly placed his fists on his hips in the Superman pose, for he had read an article online recently that claimed doing so can spike one’s testosterone, and in turn one’s self-confidence.  His stride made clear: something big was about to happen. You’ve angled the bait, now set the hook! He remembered to tell himself, though he hadn’t fished in years.
“Mr. Eckles, please have a seat,” said the doctor distractedly. Scott sat down across rim-rod straight from him in a power-pose, smiled widely, and waited.  The doctor for his part avoided eye contact (a submissive tick, Scott had read), his hands folded on the desk, his lips pursed—so Scott seized his chance.
“So, Mike!” he said, taking charge of the conversation and creating his own luck, “Have you thought any more about that opportunity I told you about?”
The doctor snapped awake, “Sorry?”
“The Ameriway opportunity!” said Scott, “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten! I told you all about it our last visit. It’s hands down the hottest multi-level marketing plan in America today.”
“In America…?”
“Did you check those brochures I left with you last time? Now, I’m no doctor,” chuckled Scott, “But, lawsuit insurance! Doesn’t that practically sell themselves?”
“Now, now, now, I know what you’re gonna say, you already have malpractice insurance. Requisite of your profession, I know, I know, I’ve read all about it. But how much does malpractice insurance pays you back, I ask you!”
“That’s precisely the genius of it!” said Scott with real enthusiasm, “I sell you lawsuit insurance, and you sell it to two just two others—just two others, mind you!—I automatically collect a portion of the premium from you, and you likewise collect a cut from the two under you.  As I’m sure you’re aware, most MLMs require up to eight or even twelves recruits before you start collecting what’s yours, but with Ameriway it’s only two.  Now you invite those two to sell it to just two more, as well. It's never ending, that's the genius of it! And from the four under those two, then the eight under them—and pretty soon we’re both rakin’ in the dough!”
 “Mr. Eckles, I…”
“It practically sells itself, don’t it?  I mean, it’s something absolutely everybody needs, right?  No scented candles, no oils, not meal plans, no vitamins, no useless products shoved down your throat like all the others (believe me, I’ve tried ‘em all), just the sheer peace of mind that comes of knowing that you’ll never have to pay for a lawsuit again!  In our easily offended day and age, that ain’t nothing to bat an eye at, now is it.  A single lawsuit, man, it could just ruin a man—and then everything you’ve built up for yourself, your big house, your boat, all those sacrifices you made to make it through med school, swoosh, gone like that.”
“Just call up just two other of your ol’ buddies from med school,” enthused Scott, “And have them call up two more of their buddies from med school, and bam—not only are you covering the costs of your Ameriway premiums, but you’re pulling in something on the side, all without working at all! My goodness, you swing this right doc, and you could finish paying off your med school loans in no time!  Imagine, just imagine with me, life without student loans, doc, I know you've dreamed of it.  And maybe, maybe, you could even retire early!”
“Mr. Eckles, if I may…”
“Now, you may just call this a ‘pyramid scheme,' but let me tell you, there’s not another multi-level marketing plan like it. I have an old friend, Harry Wilcox, who, after networking for One Health, was n.f.l…”
“N.f.l., ‘No Friends Left,’” Scott quickly clarified, “He’d driven off everyone in his potential network. He'd gotten mixed up with those One Health folk in the wrong way you see—which really is a scam, I’ll have you know—you know, those folks trying to rope everyone into health supplements, preaching the sky falling about how all the nutrients that have been sucked out of the ground by  pollution and pesticides—I mean, it’s true and all, and I certainly use their health supplements (for what folks never realize is that MLMs really do have the highest quality products around, ya know!), but One Health was going about it all wrong, their network was in shambles, and Henry got the worst of it.”
Scott was a master of over-sharing details to keep the customer off kilter you see, and Scott could see that it was working on the doctor when the latter could only stammer, “Who...what?”
"Anyways, my friend Harry, he was broke as a joke, bank was gonna foreclose on his lovely duplex, his wife and college sweetheart was gonna leave him and everything, but then he started with Ameriway just a year ago, and can you believe he’s already pullin’ in 10 grand a week? A week? Even for a doctor like yourself, you gotta admit, that’s a pretty hefty chunk of change!” Scott paused for emphasis.
The doctor here rushed out, “Yes, Mr. Eckles, I have your results—”
“Yes, yes, the results!” said Scott happily, “Yes, thanks for doing those for me! You came very highly recommended from my wife’s friends, you know. That pain in my lower back, well, it ain’t been killing me or nothing, but it hasn’t left me alone for weeks now, I tell you what.  In fact, one good turn deserves another!  Doc, why don’t Emily and I invite you over for dinner?  We can you treat you and the misses to a good ol’ fashioned barbeque, and talk more about these exciting opportunities over some sirloin steaks…”
 “Mr. Eckles, you have three months.”
“Oh challenge accepted, I can have you turning a profit in two—”
“No, no, sorry, I mean, you have three months.  That’s all.”  And with that the doctor let loose a flurry of jargon and medicinal explanations that did nothing to clarify anything for Scott Eccles save the fact that he had only three months.
“Now that’s not funny, doc…” Scott finally said.
“I sent the tests back to the lab twice to be sure, including the University hospital,” continued the doctor, “I’m profoundly sorry Mr. Eckles, but each time the prognosis was the same: you have three months. Maybe four.  I’m so sorry.”
Scott shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “So, you’re not coming over for dinner on Friday…”
“I'm afraid I will not.”
“Listen, I may need a second op—”
“I pray to God it’s different.  But it won’t be.”
“Should I, um, exercise more or…”
“Won’t make a difference.”
“Pills I could…”
“None exist.  None even under development.”
“Experimental.  Long shots.  No proven success rates.  Not covered.”
“I have very good health insurance…”
“You might as well not have any for all the good it would do.”
“So what should I…”
“Get your affairs in order.  Call old friends.  Reconcile with old enemies. Make love to your wife. Make peace with your God if you have one.  Fly to Paris.  Visit Venice.  Whatever you must do.”
Scott slowly started from his chair. “But surely there are…”
“There aren’t.”
“I can pay you anything…”
“Wouldn’t matter.”
A pause. “So what you’re telling me…”
“Mr. Eckles, I’m profoundly sorry this happened to you, I can run the tests a third time if you want…”
But Scott Eckles was already wandering out the office.
Between the office and the front door, Scott Eckle’s thinking underwent a shift. Not a gradual one, he had no more time for that, but a seismic cataclysm across the landscape of his mind.
By the time he passed the door frame, he was desperately trying to remember his Ameriway sales pitch, for it drained from his tongue like lake-water through fingertips. By the time he got half-way down the short hallway, he’d forgotten it completely, and many other ones besides.
As he re-entered the waiting room, he was desperately trying to recall the last time he’d been fishing—was it with Uncle Russ when he was 10 or Grandpa Keller when he was 11?
As he passed the chair he’d bounded from but minutes earlier, he tried to remember the different types of lures.  And as he passed the copy of Business Weekly he’d been ruffling through earlier, he tried to remember if he’d wanted to be an astronaut or an archeologist as a child. And as he passed an old woman reading a Readers’ Digest, he tried to remember what was the last book he’d read that wasn’t for a class or a sales seminar.
And as he stepped outside, some bored kids hanging outside snickered, for he’d been running his fingers through his hair and the strands of his comb-over were now sticking up high in the air. Scott turned abruptly to face them—not in anger, but bewilderment, for though he seemed to remember being a child, he couldn’t remember what that was like.
As the congregation began to slowly break into parts as the first verse progressed, David Warner, a young grad student home on break, entered from the west foyer and sat quietly in the back row for possibly the last time.  He wore a weary old white-shirt, an un-cinched tie, some wrinkled slacks, and the first sprouting stubble of an attempted beard—and though he refused to tell another soul about it, he was in the throes of a full-blown faith crisis.
            And he hated it—not because he felt the faith of his fathers actively slipping away per se, but because of the horrid cliché that he felt himself becoming.  Heavens, he had actually uttered aloud “I’m on a spiritual journey” just the other day!  Even though it was only to himself alone, he couldn’t stop eye-rolling himself at his own banality.  Goodness, what was next, bookmarking anti-Mormon websites?  Writing angry letters to Church HQ, refusing to “consent” to be a listed member of this church (as though we didn’t have actual rape victims to speak of consent)?  Posting to Reddit?  Gag.  He’d come across an ex-Mormon blog wherein some tool cited Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs as his chief consoling comfort as he exodused the church.  Serious, not even Neon Bible, The Suburbs!  What is it about leaving the Church that renders folks as schlocky, sappy, and sentimental as the church they are supposedly rebelling against?  He had spent so much of his 20s resisting becoming yet another sanctimonious, self-righteous, preachy stereotype that it irritated him to no end to feel himself becoming a sanctimonious, self-righteous, preachy stereotype anyways.
            With a start, Scott Eccles awoke; it appeared he had fainted on the hood of his car, still parked under the tree in the shade.  His keys were still in his hands.  The bearest of sweat had collected on his brow, his upper-lip.  As his mind slowly collected, he briefly considered the possibility that this had all been a dream.  He admired with a certain calm how the shadows of the leaves weaved across the windshield before him, the sun peaking and shimmering through, all while the branches gently waved in the wind, almost as though counting...a moment gone...and another...and another--
      Scott Eccles leapt to his feet and ran away from his car in a wild panic.
            He already knew the normal litany of reasons people leave—had rolled his eyes at those who had done nary a day of real research in their lives then had the nerve to be blindsided after a rough afternoon’s worth of googling: how the Church really did deny black people the priesthood until 1978; how Brigham Young really did say some very racist things; how Joseph really did lie to Emma when he started polygamy.  Some of those polygamist wives were uncomfortably young, and not just for the time-period.  The fascimiles in the Book of Abraham are really from the Egyptian Book of Breathings.  Mountain Meadows was indeed a massacre.  There really is a lack of financial transparency in the church.  BYU is just, well, BYU.  And so forth.
            He’d long had a list of ready-made responses to each of these objections, viz: the Lord chooses weak, faulty human beings, not saints, to run his church, and if the Lord can use such imperfect men to do his work, then that gives hope for us too, does it not?  Besides, insisting on the perfection of church leaders—whether in defending the faith or attacking it—is a form of idolatry.  Furthermore, he had oft preached (to himself if no one else), both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young stated that their greatest fear was that the people would blindly follow the prophet without seeking a confirmation by the Holy Spirit for themselves that what they spoke was true, and thus their minds would be darkened and thus dragged themselves down to hell.  Moreover, Mormon polygamist wives were among the foremost suffragists of the western U.S. at the time—in fact, Utah Territory passed woman’s voting before Wyoming—complicating the entire supposed anti-feminist framework of critiquing Mormon polygamy in really interesting ways, he had said.  And folks who brought up Mountain Meadows always seemed to conspicuously ignore the Missouri Extermination Order.  No one actually knows what the Book of Breathings are--calling it a funerary text makes no sense.  He had no defense of BYU, but then, he was a Utah fan anyways.  As for the cries of religious hypocrisy within the church, well, what church didn’t have those?   So he kept telling himself.
            Though he had lived here for years, Scott Eccles quickly became disoriented.  Oddly it did not occur to him to pull out his phone.  He now found he knew this area only by the blur of landmarks as he drove them by, or pauses at traffic-lights, or how hard he hugged each curve of the road.  But on foot, the streams of faceless strip-malls suddenly had faces; they became unfamiliar, strange, new.  Frightened, he broke into an unpracticed jog.
But lately, he had to confess—the uncomfortable history was getting to him.  And the mental gymnastics he had to play to defend the faith of his fathers was getting to him.  And the viciousness of the recent changes to Handbook 1 was really getting to him—in fact, the draconian nature of the thing had sent bubbling to the surface all those age-old doubts he thought he had long quieted for good--only this time, there was none to deliver him.   And frankly, if the church said David was wrong, he was no longer sure he wanted to be right.
And of course the good old fashioned religious hypocrisy, ubiquitous though it may be, was still getting to him most of all.  He remembered getting picked up by Scott Eccles outside the Del Taco to go home-teaching, and as they passed a panhandler on a corner, this Scott guy went off on a long rant about the laziness, unthriftiness, and sinful entitlement of the homeless, how they had none but themselves to blame, how they expected money for nothing—all within the same breath as he tried to recruit David into whatever this week’s hottest pyramid scheme was.  “Do this right, and you’ll never have to work again!” Eccles had said with a galling lack of self-awareness.  David’s Dad had later instructed him to just laugh it off, to bear with him as the Lord God bears with us (though rumor had it that his Dad had then angrily shouted at Brother Eccles over the phone to leave his son, his impressionable, teenage, only son, alone or else).  And for years, David had done precisely that, and though he often cringed for him, he had never taken Scott Eccles seriously again.
And if Scott Eccles had been a singularity, mayhaps he could have dealt with that.  But Scott was a type, not an outlier; the mere fact of him being on the Bishopric was sign enough of that, of a tacit sort of institutional approval for whatever it was that Scott represented.  Did the Lord really inspire the Bishop by his Holy Spirit to pick him as a counselor?  And did the Stake President really feel inspired to call and anoint the Bishop?  And who called that Stake President to serve?  And up and up the ladder he went, and he wondered, and he feared.
 The sun was particularly hot today, which was unusual this late into the Fall.  Yet Scott Eccles did not think to remove his suit jacket, nor loosen his collar, nor remove his Sunday shoes, no matter how they blistered as he staggered down the broken pavement.  He was profoundly uncomfortable, but he was experiencing a primal, unthinking need to feel every part of his aching body, lest he never felt any of this again.
Also, saying there are hypocrites in other religions no longer hand-waved away his doubts either; for the unstated, unsettling implication of that assumption was that this Church, the one that claimed to be “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth,” really was no different than any other church.  Moreover, his doubts were rooted in far more epistemological problems: spiritual experiences were by definition “subjective,” argued his atheist friends.  He in turn responded that all experience is subjective, that’s just Descartes 101, Plato's Allegory of the Cave covered the first week of class.  But we still trust in our faulty experience, because we literally have nothing else to go off of.  We all dive out of the way when a car careens at us; we all walk by faith it turns out, and see through a glass darkly.  But also, once again, saying that all experience is subjective does not dismiss the fact that his religious experiences were still just that—subjective.  Merely diagnosing the problem did not make it go away.  Just because we all walk by faith did not make faith valid.  In fact, what was even harder than his relentless atheist friends were the religious ones, yes, the surprisingly high number of faithful ones he met in grad school!  Catholic, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Jews, Muslims, Orthodox—they never even attack his own Mormon faith or try to convert him like some angry, defensive Baptist, no, they were just happy to have fellow believers in such a secular world.  Yes, they all really did go to Church on Sunday, for they as well had had spiritual experiences of their own that kept them coming to Church, in spite of all the Nietzsche and Foucault they had read.  These were good people, doing the best they could; which again revived the long evaded question of, well, why are their religious experiences less valid than mine?  What of any of us?  Could he really say in all arrogant assumption that he really had “more truth,” a “greater fullness of the gospel” than they?  A Church with Scott Eccles in it?  Even if he could, how could he prove it by other means than this same vaguely defined, “subjective” religious experience?  Could they not all be right together?  Could they not all be wrong together?  Was any of this true?  Did any of this matter, ever? 
Mechanically, habitually, David Warner partook of the bread of the sacrament, and he feared he felt nothing—moreover, he feared this would be the last time he would ever touch it.  Leaning forward on the bench, rubbing his face and clenching his chest, he made a final silent prayer: God, if there is a God, if there was ever a God, I need a sign and a wonder. 
So many thoughts, sales pitches, and memories had already drained from his pores, that it was with a most curious and vague sense of recognition that he paused before the Stake Center.  That had been why he had worn his suit that morning, was it not?  So as to not need to change between the doctor's office and church?  Why had it not struck him as unusual that the doctor would ask him to come in on a weekend?  These were not lucid thoughts mind you, but only a rushing stream of impressions.  Without either wanting or not wanting to, his feet stumbled towards the entrance; he gripped the door-handle hard, trying desperately to feel it as familiar.
 Then the Fast and Testimony meeting began, and the first up to the stand was Scott Eccles.  David’s heart groaned within him.  He might not even wait until the end of the meeting—for if this were the best sign the Almighty could deliver him, then, he told himself, then this indeed was the Last Day, Great and Terrible, of his association with the LDS Church.
 But nothing felt familiar.  Not the carpeting, not the white-brick walls, not the correlated art that hangs in literally every North American chapel.  Not even the faces of the congregation, no matter how much they stared back at him in apparent recognition as he paced down the aisle, no--with a shock and catastrophic regret he had never felt before, he realized he didn't know any of them.
 Yet even as he muttered these thoughts to himself, David could not help but absently note how ruffled Scott Eccles appeared—his comb-over more obvious than usual, his face more haggard.  Standing awkwardly before the podium, the words did not come to him, as they usually did, as they always, monotonously did.  In fact, an increasingly uncomfortable silence fell upon the congregation. 
Then he erupted, in convulsing sobs that filled the chapel.  Hot tears streamed down his face, his cries reverberating through the feedback in the microphone.  He crumpled forward onto the podium and continued to cry out loudly, showing no signs of ceasing.  His shoulders, his whole being, shook terribly.  The Bishop jumped to his feet and attempted to help Scott back up to his, but Scott only slid off the podium and continued wailing wildly and recklessly on the floor.  Even the crying babies fell silent as all the congregation sat transfixed, an awful knot twisting in their collective stomachs.  All they could make out from his distant sobs, was, “We’re all gonna die, we’re all gonna die, we're all gonna die..” over and over and over and over.
The responses varied across the ward.  Some left Sacrament early, in a disturbed and distraught haze, and wondered if they would be back next week.  Others felt a profound pity for Scott, wondering what meal they could possibly bring him and his family, even fully aware of how little such a gesture might mean—both to him and themselves.  Still others couldn’t help but feel a dash of resentment toward Scott, who had so ruined their one desperately needed hour of peace a week. And some were just grateful that something new happened at Church for a change.
Each person responded individually, and in their own way, to the scene in Sacrament that Sunday, according to their gifts and experience.  As for David Warner, he sat in absolute silence the rest of the meeting.  After the Closing Prayer, he stood up slowly, deliberately, and ignored all greetings as he paced out to the Parking Lot.  His eyes watered as he walked to his car, like they hadn’t in years.  He gazed up at the sun peeking through the trees, as the branches swayed in the breeze, and his soul swooned within him, and he brought his fist up to his teeth, and with a swelling in his breast he whispered, The Church is true, the Church is true, thank God Almighty, the Church is true…