Chapter One of my new novel GOD & CALIFORNIA...


First, a note of caution to the young and sensitive:

There's A LOT of grown up language in this novel. In all my writing, really. So, individuals under 18 years old should not read this post without the permission of their parent, guardian or, probably, their parole officer.

And everyone else should proceed with that in mind, too…


1
It was on a cold, gray, slushy Sunday morning in Ticonderoga, New York when Norbert Sherbert Jr. first got the notion to break all Ten Commandments in a week. The notion formed in his brainpan while he was seated on a hard metal folding chair inside the long defunct Orange Julius, inside the Route 9N strip mall, now known as the Church of Abundant Waters and the Splendiferous Blood of Christ. It was Norbert’s first time inside that house of worship.
Once seated, Norbert studied the church’s modest d├ęcor as he listened to the electric guitar interlude. He could not help but think that in the beginning it was probably man that created God in his own image and not the other way around. God: with His long white beard, flowing robes and beefy pectorals—think Sistine Chapel. God: the literary character. God: that overbearing fellow those TV preachers jump up and down, bark, whoop, howl and sob about, whipping their megaflocks into frothy frenzies. The jealous, vengeful, anthropomorphic Bible God who micromanages the daily affairs of each soul on the planet.
As I understand that God, thought Norbert, He is easily perturbed. In many ways, He’s just a grander version of myself. Even Caucasian, just like me. No, thought Norbert, no. That God probably doesn’t exist. More likely, that God is the preeminent example of the poverty of the human imagination.
But just because you don’t believe in a thing, thought Norbert, that doesn’t necessarily mean that thing don’t exist. Conversely, just because you do believe in a thing, that doesn’t mean it does exist. Like unicorns, traditional nuclear families, pots o’ gold hidden deep in forests at the terminus of rainbows, and the Apollo moon landing. Such was the relationship between Norbert and the Christian version of God that Sunday morning.
Norbert’s existential reverie sent him sliding into day- dream. In his dream, a football tumbles end-over-end at Norbert’s head. He watches it through the tubular grid of his helmet’s facemask, head arched upwards. Norbert’s arms form a basket that absorbs the impact of the somersaulting oblong spheroid. He takes off running, nothing but green turf unrolling beneath his feet. The whole length of the field is before him and he is running. Pumping his fists into the air, the ball buried deep in his armpit. In his knees, Norbert feels each collision with the turf. He huffs and stretches and dashes toward the opposite end line. He is happy, so happy and, without effort, he watches himself from outside his body, running in pure joy as his coaches and teammates leap and holler and cheer along the side- line. Norbert recognizes where he is: the State High School Football Championship game inside the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. Norbert has received the game’s final punt on his own end line and he is racing the length of the field. Time is expired. He is almost there. A touchdown wins the game. He thrusts his right foot forward in a final, victorious stride—but is stopped. Grabbed from behind. Someone has caught up to him, seizing his left leg. Norbert lunges forward, extending each tendon from his toes up through his fingertips to the limits of their elasticity. He crashes to the turf—brought down inside the final yard, of the final play, of his final game. Norbert has fallen short. He has lost: the touchdown, the game, that seductive sensation of power, of certainty, of joy. The opposing team pours onto the field in a churning wave of bliss. Norbert sits up, removes his helmet. Elbows on kneecaps, he cradles his head in his hands.
Norbert emerged from his reverie with a spasm, seesawing his numb buttocks atop the hard metal seat inside the Church of Abundant Waters and the Splendiferous Blood of Christ. He looked at Arlene. She knew he was looking at her, but she didn’t look back. How much she’s changed, thought Norbert. What am I doing here?
Church, he thought. An Orange Julius, he thought. What a guy does for love.


Norbert and Arlene had been an item since high school. They had remained exclusive while Arlene went away to a private college and Norbert attended a two-year commuter school near home. Then they stuck it out while Norbert was stationed overseas. Back in high school, Arlene had never been one for churchgoing. She was not a religious person. Sometimes, if it was a sunny day, she would call it a “blessing.” If someone sneezed, and she knew him, she would invoke the deity. Things of that nature. But Norbert never regarded such remarks as veiled testimonials of some deeper faith that lurked below.
Arlene was Catholic, though she had scarcely attended Mass outside of friends’ weddings since wearing curls and ribbons. She was baptized and took her first Communion in a church named for St. Paul the Hermit who, according to Catholic myth, had fled to the desert to live in a cave until he was 113. In Afghanistan and Iraq, Norbert had met plenty of people who lived in caves: not as romantically monastic as St. Paul must have wished for it to appear.
Arlene’s parents considered themselves pragmatic Catholics. Her mother had introduced Norbert to that term over rump roast. During high school, her parents vehemently disapproved of Arlene’s positions on contraception (she enthusiastically ingested it), and abortion (which, to their displeasure, Arlene called “choice”). They told her there was no place for her at the right hand of the Father unless she changed her style of thinking. They even pooh-poohed her fashionable low-rider, hip-hugger jeans and tight tank tops, which Norbert had no objection to. Indeed, Arlene’s fashion sense had remained little changed over the span of their years together, a testament to its timelessness. If statistical data were available for such things as Most Oft-Made Comment My Girlfriend Makes Regarding Her Parents, Norbert was certain Arlene’s would be, “Those people drive me f’n crazy!”
To be fair, Norbert was also discontented with the DNA dough from which he had risen. But imbedded somewhere in that colorfully mysterious twisted ladder his parents had at least passed to him the gene for keen observation. Norbert had observed, keenly, how Arlene desperately, frantically craved her parents’ approval. The more Arlene protested her parents’ values, the more transparent was her need to validate her life choices—particularly her choice to stick it out so long with Norbert. The silent voice of her parents influenced dozens of Arlene’s daily decisions, though she would drink hot motor oil before she’d admit it. That’s even why she and Norbert now lived together in Ticonderoga, so far from good restaurants and robust cell phone signals. Her folks had moved there from Syracuse to escape “The Big City.”
Norbert stole another hard look at Arlene. He pictured her in those jeans. Delicious.
But Arlene’s attitude toward her faith did a 180 after Norbert’s injury. She started thumping the Good Book pretty steady then. It became her rock of certainty. Her latest faith-based obsession, after devouring several books her mom had given her for Christmas, was the Rapture—an approaching event in which the faithful will be carried away to a blessed afterlife, while sinners (such as Norbert, Arlene explained) would remain to face the music, or whatever. To Norbert’s taste, this God talk around the apartment had become oppressive. Everything was, “Pastor Zack said this,” and “Pastor Zack thinks that.” This one-sided discourse was the source of much recent disharmony. Norbert decided it was about time for him to wake up early on a Sunday and get a firsthand look at this Pastor Zack character.
Norbert grabbed the tattered paperback hymnal from beneath the forward folding chair and absently leafed through it. He was a compulsive reader, reading most of the daily minutiae people pay no mind to—the backs of toothpaste tubes and shampoo bottles, remote control operator’s manuals, movie credits. Norbert always pictured the author behind these blocks of text, selecting his words with great care, crippled with the same fear of rejection, as were the great novelists. The demon on the shoulder! Some writer, somewhere, thought Norbert, struggled over the wording of: “For optimum results, wet hair, lather, rinse and repeat.” Or, felt a sense of duty to his fellow man when he penned: “Apply toothpaste onto a soft bristle toothbrush. Brush thoroughly after meals or at least twice a day or as directed by a dentist or phy- sician.” So much information out there, thought Norbert. Is it possible to know it all? Is it even worth trying? And besides, it’s always the people who never read anything that ascend to positions of authority (perhaps because they waste no time in reflective thought). At least that was his experience in the military.
As an extension of his love for the printed word, Norbert had kept a notebook since he was sixteen. He called it his notebook even though other folks—mostly females and men involved in community theater—might call it their journal, or worse, diary. While he was deployed in the desert, his ass-crack filled with hot sand, Norbert scribbled in his notebook more than ever before. He never intended for the things inside it to be seen by other people—not even Arlene. It was personal, private stuff. A periodic purge of his gray matter. After his third tour, in the in-be- tween, he continued to write in it, or draw, or just lie there staring at blank pages, wondering what might fill them. The notebook had a soft brown leather cover, scuffed and dark and fragrant as a catcher’s mitt, with a couple of long strings that could be tied into a bow—which Norbert always double-knotted. It was thick (about 300 pages), and still, after all these years, only about two-thirds filled with Norbert’s musings. The notebook was nothing the teenaged Norbert would have ever purchased for himself. It was a gift from his father’s father, Grandpa Sherbert. It had not been Norbert’s birthday or Christmas or any other gift-giving holiday scenario. Norbert’s grandfather had simply tossed it onto Norbert’s stomach one summer afternoon without explanation as Norbert lounged on the musty sofa inside his grandparents’ camp on Lake George. As Norbert asked his grandfather what it was for, the screen door slammed. Grandpa Sherbert was already down the steps headed toward the lake, pipe in mouth, fishing rod on shoulder. This was not an unusual style for conferring gifts in Norbert’s family. Indeed, it was the Sherbert way. Norbert opened the book to reveal an inscription on the inside cover written in his grand- father’s hand. It read: A man’s life, if he’s living it right, has many beginnings.
Having received very little from his grandfather, out- side the occasional sarcasm about his clothing or haircut, Norbert resolved in that moment to treasure the notebook, making it his constant companion.
Pastor Zack, head holy man and musical director of the Church of Abundant Waters and the Splendiferous Blood of Christ, wrapped up his electric guitar solo—a sleepy, deliberate version of “Stairway to Heaven” he had been fingering on his Fender knock-off for the better part of ten minutes. He was seated on an identical metal folding chair, beside a lone amplifier, facing his congregation inside the former hot dog joint and purveyor of 16 distinctive juice blend recipes.
Pastor Zack set aside his guitar and stood to address his flock. There was no pulpit. Only the anticipatory air of discovery separated them.
“Who’s digging on a prayer?” asked Pastor Zack.

A murmur of approval swept through the congregation like an August breeze.

“Well then, ‘Get on up! Get on up! Get on up!’” chanted Pastor Zack, in mimicry of the Godfather of Soul. 
In response, all souls and their worldly containers rose to their feet.
“Let’s start with the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” said Pastor Zack.

Everybody drew a cross in the air in front of themselves and said, “Amen.”

“The Lord be with you,” said Pastor Zack.

“And also with you,” answered his flock. Norbert started to sit down, but there was much more.

“Dear friends,” said Pastor Zack, producing a name-brand athletic plastic squeeze bottle, “this water will be used to remind us of our baptism. Let us ask God to bless it, and to keep us faithful to the spirit He has given us. God our Father, your gift of water totally brings life and freshness to the Earth; it washes away our sins and brings us eternal life. We ask you now to bless this water, and to give us your protection on this day, which you have made your own. Renew the splendiferous living spring of your life within us and protect us in spirit and body, that we may be free from sin and come into your presence to receive your gift of salvation. We ask this through Christ our Lord.”
The flock responded with an Amen. Norbert fidgeted with the hymnal, turning it over in his hands. Arlene’s irritation was palpable.
Pastor Zack squeezed the bottle. Clear tracers of thrice-purified water arced above the parishioners’ heads, cascading down upon their heaven-bent faces and upturned palms. The bottle empty, Pastor Zack again snatched up his guitar and played the introductory riff to the refrain of “Take Me to the River.” On the proper note, to Norbert’s dissatisfaction, everyone struck up in song. Even Arlene. Norbert read the hymnal’s cover: Jesus Rocks! Contemporary Songs for Modern Worship.
“Washing me down,” sang Arlene with a wriggle. “Washing me down.”
Pastor Zack let the electric guitar dangle around his neck from a strap embroidered in some vaguely Native American motif. He said, “May almighty God cleanse us of our sins and through the Eucharist we celebrate make us worthy to sit at His table in His heavenly kingdom.”
“Amen,” responded the motley congregants of the Church of Abundant Waters and the Splendiferous Blood of Christ.
“You may be seated,” said Pastor Zack.
Norbert thought of his mother. She still attended regular church services with the Episcopalians. Once Norbert had outgrown Sunday school (physically much later than mentally, for the record), he was no longer forced to accompany her. “Let the kid play outside,” said Norbert’s father. “Why the hell should he be cooped up in a church? He should be hitting a ball, not holding a candle.”
It was for the best.
From his earliest days, Norbert was quizzical. But his relentless, probing questions had mushroomed into a great source of irritation for Mrs. Greenleaf, the Sunday school instructor. “Why do we blindly believe all these crazy Bible stories then laugh at the stories the Greeks and Romans believed?” Norbert would ask. “Aren’t they all equally ridiculous?” Or, “Why did Cain need a mark on his head when he was banished from Eden to wander in the Land of Nod? After he murdered Abel, weren’t his parents, Adam and Eve, the only other two people alive on Earth?”
Mrs. Greenleaf was eventually compelled to pull Norbert’s mother aside during coffee hour to inform her that Norbert was becoming a disruption and that he was wasting class time.
So religiously, Norbert was indifferent. But that did not mean he was unaffiliated. As far as the United States government was concerned, Norbert was a Baptist. That’s because, on the first day of boot camp at Fort Benning, Georgia, Norbert’s large, black drill sergeant not so much asked as demanded that Norbert scream his religion at the top of his voice. This was so some P.F.C. in some hidden office could stamp it, along with Norbert’s blood type and other particulars, into his dog tags just in case he got shot or blown up or run over or otherwise dispatched in the desert by the enemy—or one of his comrades. Friendly fire, the army called it. Fratricide.
“I DON’T GO TO CHURCH, DRILL SERGEANT!” hollered Norbert.

Norbert’s reply only exacerbated his drill sergeant’s already profoundly dyspeptic disposition.

He said to recruit Norbert A. Sherbert Jr., “CHOOSE A RELIGION NOW, SHIT STAIN!”

As an incentive to choose quickly, the drill sergeant offered to snatch up Norbert by his tiny pecker and swing him in tight circles above his head until Norbert made his selection. Norbert asked the drill sergeant which Lord he worshipped, and he answered the Baptist one. Norbert had no immediate objection, quickly resolving that crisis of faith. And so, Norbert officially became Baptist. In sorting out that episode, Norbert experienced what some imperiled souls later recount as a Moment of Grace. It was an important lesson in young Norbert’s education to the advantages and expediency of dispassionately regarding the religious beliefs of another.
Pastor Zack’s sermon, or “fellowship” as he called it, focused on the Bible stories of God’s conversations with Moses and Noah. Actual conversations! These chats of His invariably centered on something we humans did to piss God off. According to Pastor Zack, God always wants to be clear that there are severe consequences for not obeying His laws: the Ten Commandments. God instructed these men to convince each mortal in earshot that if they did not follow His laws, He would flood the earth, or smite them individually (according to His caprice), or command boils to form on their private regions, or encourage their fellow congregants to stone them to death, et cetera.
Norbert was surprised to find himself intrigued by Pastor Zack’s sermon. Hmm, he thought, let’s say this Bible God really does exist—after all, a lot more people believe He does than believe He doesn’t. I’d sure like to speak with Him, thought Norbert. I’ll wager He’d like to speak with me, too. I would hope He thinks I’ve earned that much, given the sacrifices I’ve made. What makes me so different from those guys in the Bible? They were nobody special before God chose to speak to them. Moses? Noah? Just the regular schmoes of their time.
The first thing Norbert would be sure to ask God is why He allowed a Saudi grad student to blow apart his best friend, P.F.C. Timothy Sullivan, with a body bomb, turning Sully’s fit, young, radiant body into a mound of red hamburger on an unpaved road in Tikrit. When Sully was killed, he was standing exactly where Norbert should have been. Should have been, but was not.
But God’s conversations with the earthbound have tapered off quite a bit in recent memory. Hmm, thought Norbert, hmm. What would a regular guy like me have to do in today’s world to warrant God’s undivided attention? What could I do that’s so outrageous it would perturb Him enough to earn me a face-to-face with the man Himself? What if I didn’t just break one commandment, thought Norbert, or a few commandments, but all Ten Commandments? And what if I broke them all in a single week?
No, thought Norbert, no. That would be wrong. Or would it? How about this? What if I broke each commandment in such a fashion that it was undeniably the morally correct thing to do in each instance? Breaking His top ten laws as a result of always choosing to do the right thing. That might piss a guy off. That, thought Norbert, has potential.
“Brothers and sisters,” said Pastor Zack, “Please rise so we may prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries. Let us call to mind our sins.”
Plenty of them, thought Norbert. A long silence fell upon the parishioners inside the defunct Orange Julius. Norbert presumed this was an opportunity in the program for private prayer and/or personal reflection. Suddenly, the room began to speak in one voice, “I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned through my own fault, in my own thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do; and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin, all the angels and the saints, and you my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord, our God.”
“May almighty God have mercy on us,” said Pastor Zack, “forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.”
“Amen,” everyone agreed.

“A-frickin’-men,” said Pastor Zack. “Let us pray.”

“What did everyone just finish doing?” whispered Norbert to Arlene. She ignored him.
 Silence again, then, the flock erupted in a final “Amen.” After that, everybody was allowed to sit back down.
What are the Ten Commandments anyway, thought Norbert? He searched the floor for a Bible. It occurred to him that he would not even know on what page to look for them. Does the Bible have an index? Thou shalt not kill, steal, commit adultery. Coveting was one. Thou shalt not covet. You weren’t supposed to work on Sundays. The list got foggy after that. Norbert’s mind wandered. He did not consider himself to be one of the world’s great thinkers but he did enjoy losing himself in thick books that didn’t get made into movies—unlike the Bible.
Norbert loved a good argument. Controversy! Differences of opinion! Sometimes out of a clear blue sky, just to get a rise out of Arlene, Norbert would express his thoughts on some hot-button issue. He loved watching that half- inch between Arlene’s eyebrows disappear as she knit a crooked unibrow of consternation. Arlene would sit up straight, scoot to the edge of their denim couch, and load both barrels. That’s when Norbert knew he had her.
Arlene was not a listener. She was someone who thought of what to say next while others were speaking. This, in Norbert’s view, is what made her a below-average debater. He believed her great weakness was her tendency to generalize, especially when conversation turned to the nation’s social ills—Republicans, social media, pundits and so forth. Arlene was feisty, but Norbert felt she ignored the finer points. He would always tell her, “If you want to win an argument, focus on the details.” When she got rolling, she loved taking Norbert to task. She was a taskmaster. And lucky for Norbert, she was just as progressive in the sack as she was with her social agenda. That was, of course, back when they used to have sex.
“J.C.,” said Pastor Zack, “you said to your apostles: I leave you peace, my peace I give you. Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your church, and grant us the peace and unity of your kingdom where you live for ever and ever.”
“Amen.”

“The peace of the Lord be with you always.”

“And also with you.”

“Splendiferous,” said Pastor Zack. “Let us offer each other a sign of peace.”
Everybody started shaking hands and hugging. Pastor Zack strummed a medley that began with The Beatles’ “Hello, Goodbye,” and transitioned seamlessly into John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” 

Norbert turned to Arlene, but she was engaged in a hug, disappearing within the pillowy parts of a fleshy young woman wearing ill-fitted corduroy kulats and rubber clogs. A young man in a pilled green knit sweater, standing directly behind Norbert, extended his hand. The young man’s facial hair was arranged in either a goatee or a Vandyke, Norbert never bothered to learn the difference. He also sported a tiny barbell pierced in the nook below his lower lip, just above his chin. Norbert knew from his reading that this adornment was called a labret. He also knew that it was once reserved for the male members of the higher castes of the ancient Aztecs and Mayans, but was now solely the irksome aesthetic practice of hipsters.
“Hey, brother,” said the young man. “I don’t think we’ve met.”
“That’s correct,” answered Norbert, shaking his hand.
Norbert moved on to the next hand and gave that a shake. He received a few puzzled smiles, but everyone seemed friendly. They offered Norbert peace and Norbert said, “Back atcha.”

Norbert ate the Communion wafer: home-baked, organic with a hint of olive oil. It was his first time having the pleasure. He had only read about the procedure and seen it in the movies and on television. Arlene did not speak while they waited in line, her face as inanimate as a bus schedule. When they reached the front, Norbert watched what Arlene did, then copied her when it was his turn. She drank the wine, but Norbert chose not to. It was flu season and, throughout the Mass, dozens of hacking coughs ricocheted off the four bare walls of the former Orange Julius. The coughs were particularly endemic of the very old and very young in attendance.
I suppose I should be impressed by the commitment of sick old people electing to attend church services, thought Norbert, but I would just as soon prefer they stay home. I’m not about to share the same cup with any of them– let alone all of them. When it comes to airborne illness, thought Norbert, the elderly and children are like pigeons.


The drive home from the strip mall was a chilly one. Arlene was upset about what Norbert had placed in the collection plate. 
“The only cash on me was a single and a five,” said Norbert. “And the Ford needs gas.”

“You should have put the five in the plate. If you need gas so badly, you can borrow money from me.”

“I don’t need gas, Arlene, the pickup does. I can go for days without gasoline. I’m like a camel.”

Norbert asked her how much cash she had on her. She replied that she had none. He knew that would be her answer. Arlene never had any cash on her. She had credit cards, but those were only for things like fair trade coffee, organic produce, and shoes. Important things. Norbert did not belabor the point. He’d fought this battle many times and always arrived nowhere. He also elected not to mention that he could not borrow money she did not have. And he did not mention that it was she, not he, who had left the Ford’s tank empty.
Norbert concentrated for a moment on rubbing something out of his right eye. It turned out to be a dead lash. He held it out to Arlene. “Make a wish.”
She crossed her arms. She didn’t want to play.
“C’mon,” said Norbert. “You can wish for me to put a fiver in the collection plate next time.”

“Next time?” said Arlene, in a voice equal parts shock and annoyance.

“Sure,” said Norbert. “Why not?”
Norbert held his finger aloft until Arlene blew the lash off his fingertip with a reluctant puff from the corner of her mouth.
“What’d you wish for?” asked Norbert.
“You don’t want to know.”
They pulled into the service station. Norbert pumped. He enjoyed the smell of gasoline. He kept his window rolled down so he could talk with Arlene.
“It’s cold,” she said. “I’m rolling up your window.”
“Leave it down,” said Norbert. “I want to look at you.”
“The gas smell is giving me an f’n headache.”
Norbert inhaled deeply through his nostrils. “Ahhhhhhhhhh.” He squeezed the last few pennies so the number was on the nose and slid the handle back into the pump.
Arlene shook her head, “Five dollars of gas. Unbelievable. You’re a child.”
“I’ve been saving my nickels for something special,” said Norbert. He paid inside, climbed back into the Ford and pulled away from the station. “Let me ask you a question pertaining to your new fascination with all things holy.”
“Norbert, please. My head is pounding now from the gas.”
“What’s your take on those stories your pal Pastor Zack was talking about in his sermon? Do you really think there have been times when your God has had actual face-to-face conversations with regular people, or do you think it’s all more allegory and such?”
“My God?” said Arlene. “That’s clever, Norbert. Very deep. What do you care, anyway? In case you haven’t noticed, which I’m sure you haven’t, I’ve already given up on your taking an interest in anything to do with my renewed commitment to my faith.”
“I’m just making God-versation.”
“You’re so vulgar. And just so you know, you were not supposed to take Communion. You’re not Catholic. You’re not anything.”
“I’m Baptist.”
“I’m not talking about your stupid army story,” said Arlene.
“National Guard.”

“Whatever. I’m talking about you being baptized. Taking First Communion.”

“I don’t want to alarm you Arlene, but that was not a Catholic church back there. It was an Orange Julius.”

“It may have been non-traditional, but it was modeled after the high Mass. I found Pastor Zack’s service uplifting.”
“I could still smell remnants of Mango Passion.”

“It was a place of worship. Period.”

“Who elected you pope?” laughed Norbert. “Pope Arlene the First.”

“Anyway. It doesn’t matter. I’m just telling you how it works. There are rules.”

“Well, this is enlightening,” said Norbert. “Tell me about the rules. Tell me about the Lamb of God. What did the melodious Pastor Zack mean by that? He said I’ve sinned through my own fault and then asked God and the angels to have mercy on me, forgive me my sins and bring me everlasting life. Like with the water bottle. When he splashed me in the eye with that water he said it was to forgive my sins and save me from being sick and to protect me from evil.”
“That’s right. Absolution. To forgive you your sins for the past week.”
“So according to the Church of the Abundant Water and Splendid such and such, which you contend is based in Catholic doctrine, I’m currently sin-free?”
“In the eyes of the church,” said Arlene.

Norbert stood on the brake. The Ford skidded to a complete stop in the middle of Route 9N. Arlene locked her arms as she and Norbert were thrown toward the dash, then backward into their seats.
“What are you doing!” screeched Arlene.

“Did you see that?”

“See what, Norbert! See what! Are you insane!”

“I damn near just hit a snowshoe bunny rabbit. It’s that bugger’s lucky day.”

He started the truck forward again, at a crawl, then back up to speed. Without missing a beat he said, “But what if I, say, broke one of the Ten Commandments last week?”
“What?” said Arlene, trying to reclaim her composure. She retrieved her purse that had slid onto the floor in front of her, spilling its contents. “What are you saying? Which commandment?”

“It’s a hypothetical. Why? Does it make a difference?”
“I guess not,” said Arlene, distracted. “Technically, if you are truly sorry for the sins you committed, you’re forgiven.”
“No shit?” Norbert was silent for a long moment. He started to speak, then thought better of it. Finally, he figured What the hell? “What if I broke all ten?”
“You are infuriating.”

“Seriously.”

“That’s just stupid, Norbert. Why would anybody break all Ten Commandments in a week? You would have to commit murder, adultery . . . I can’t do this now. My head is pounding. Please don’t speak to me.”
They drove along in silence, past snow-covered rolls of feeding hay wrapped in white plastic. Past a caved-in pole barn, a billboard advertising an upstate Indian casino, browning Christmas trees dragged to the road. Past a dead, frozen possum.
“You know what your problem is, Norbert?”

Arlene had woken Norbert from another daydream, having fallen under the seductive trance of the dancing mud flaps on the truck ahead. Norbert didn’t bother to answer. Arlene always answered her questions for him.
“You’re incapable of fun,” said Arlene.

“Fun?”

“That’s right. You’re in a funk, and you’ve been in it for too long now. You’re depressed. You only talk and think about one thing and I’m sick of it. I’m sorry, it’s not Christian and it’s not sensitive to your situation, but there it is. I’ve been with you through all of it, Norbert. Right at your side. Believe me, it hurts me to say it but I’m tired of hearing about it. Get over it. Move on.”
A surge of adrenaline howled through Norbert’s corpuscles. Get over it? I should slap her mouth, he thought. Move on? Instead he smiled, leaned deeper into the seat cushion, and propped one hand atop the steering wheel.
“Arlene, have you ever fired at screaming ragheads with a .50-caliber machine gun from inside a Blackhawk helicopter?”
“What?”

“Have you?”

“Norbert, please.”

“Have you?”

“Of course not.” Arlene folded her arms and turned toward the window.

“I’m just sayin’, until you’ve done that, you don’t know what fun is.”

“You’re so vulgar. I see that now. I guess I didn’t want to see it before.”

“Vulgar? Is that your new word? That must be you taking your liberal arts degree out for a spin. Excuse me, Arlene. I didn’t go away to a big college, so I talk how regular people talk. Let me clue you in on something: not everybody gets shit handed to them. Some people are born, even though they don’t ask to be. They go to community college, or work, even though they don’t want to. Thoughts of such things tend to make them bitter. As a result, they fall into the practice of sprinkling their conversations with vulgarities because their lives are fucking miserable. And that’s if you’re lucky. Sometimes . . . Sometimes . . . ”

Here comes the shit storm, she thought.
“Sometimes people get blown up at nineteen because some raghead in a white Nissan truck hides a body bomb under his raghead jacket. If the raghead is close enough, they get turned into instant hamburger in a flash of fire. If they aren’t, they die screaming, crying for momma. Full of sin.” Norbert cranked up the heat full blast just to occupy his trembling hand. “Or they don’t die,” he said. “And sometimes, that’s worse.”
“All you can do is live by the Golden Rule,” said Arlene quietly.
“Do unto others? Bullshit.”

“Obey the commandments,” she said. “And have faith.”
“You’ve changed, Arlene. A lot.”

“I have changed, Norbert. I have worked hard to change. Every day, I change my thinking more and more about all sorts of things. Important things. Those books my mom gave me . . . ”
“About the Rapture?”
“I’m not going to apologize because the spirit of Christ is alive inside me. You need to prepare your own soul, Norbert. You have a lot of work to do. I could help you. But you shut me out at every turn.”
Norbert knocked gently on Arlene’s skull. “Hello? Hello? Has anyone seen Arlene? Is she in there? She’s about 5’8”, dark hair, used to give me blowjobs in the back seat of my Turismo during study halls.”
Arlene pulled away. Norbert sighed. No words were exchanged for two miles. They passed a floral roadside memorial fixed to a speed limit sign. Above the arrangement was a white card wrapped in clear cellophane with black, hand-drawn letters that read: “You are with the angels now.” Norbert grimaced. They passed several orange signs warning: Slow! Road Work. Fines Dou- bled. But it was Sunday, and the road crew was observing the fourth commandment.
Arlene broke the silence: “Norbert. Listen, Norbert . . . I’ve met someone.”
Norbert slammed the brakes, pulled the Ford onto the shoulder. “You’re banging another guy?”
“No.”

“You just said—”

“I said I met someone, Norbert. Someone gentle, who honors me. He’s God-fearing and devout. He knows humility.”
“But you’re not fucking him.”

“Just let’s go home.”

“I don’t understand,” said Norbert.

“I don’t expect you to understand. Right now, you’re incapable of understanding anything about my life. Just . . . just accept it as God’s will. Just let’s go home.”
Norbert threw the Ford back into gear and spun the tires. They lurched back onto Route 9N and sped along in silence for about a mile. Inside, Norbert was devastated but remained cool-cucumber.
“You must have known this was coming,” said Arlene. “I’ve been pulling away for months. Just listen to us this morning. We can’t even be civil.”

“I thought this tension was on account of all your new God stuff. I thought that as I got better, you’d eventually snap out of it.”
“Snap out of it? Snap out of God? That doesn’t even make sense. That’s your problem, Norbert. You only see what you want to see.”
Norbert reached up under the dash and pulled down his cigarettes from their hiding place. This got a mild rise from Arlene, but only mild. He didn’t make a show of it, and she responded by pretending she didn’t care. Norbert cracked the window and lit up. The only sounds were the Ford’s tires dipping into gouges in the asphalt and the ricochet of road salt inside the wheel wells.
“Who is he?” asked Norbert without moving his eyes from the road. “Where’d you meet him? How long?”
“I’m exhausted, Norbert. My head is pounding. Just let’s go home.”
Norbert blew a white rope of smoke into the whistling gap in his window. He looked at Arlene. This time he waited until her wet green eyes met his. “This is all because of—”
“No,” she said coldly. “It has nothing to do with that. Christ almighty, Norbert, how do you expect me to live with you when you can’t even live with yourself?” 

PURCHASE GOD & CALIFORNIA HERE