The cult of convenience

Lydia Cosgrove rolled through Organ Pipe National Monument and stopped at Why for gas, as nearly every passing car did. The town consisted mostly of a pair of gas stations with a thriving trade in ice cold Dr Pepper.

She spent the hours rolling to Tucson reviewing the case of Brad Keller, a typical scoundrel inhabiting the underbelly of southeast Tucson, trying to hustle poker or pool, hanging out in alleyways to pop a pill or smoke a joint. In going through his possessions in the Keller bedroom, Cosgrove had come on a deep corner of his closet, behind the suits, where she extracted a ball of clothing—if you could call it that. Everything was old, stained in a variety of flavors, and tattered, more befitting a man who had just hopped off a Southern Pacific freight than a mildly successful real estate broker. Keller liked slumming. Mrs. Keller said he probably patronized hookers when he couldn’t score a freebie.

Cosgrove preferred driving with the windows wide open through this stretch of Tohono O’odham reservation. The gentle fragrance of the desert through car windows was as close as she got to nature, but she liked it when she was there. By ten o’clock, there was no avoiding sealing off the car from the atmosphere into air-conditioned isolation. By eleven, she was approaching Tucson from the southwest on Ajo Way. She took it across the south side of town to the base, curled around the air force base on Golf Links Road and hung a left at Craycroft.


She thought she might spot Keller in the Voojoo temple for the noon assemblage. The amateurs always went there hoping to buy drugs. They were always disappointed.


She was half an hour early. She pulled into the Driftwood Lounge next door with Iggy’s tail pointed at the Lamp Post Motel. She grabbed a beer, a burger and an inning of the Phillies and Diamondbacks. At ten till noon, she was in place in a back row of the temple, a discreet distance from the door, but close enough to see faces clearly. Keller’s rounded face was etched in her mind, those eyes that seemed to squint in virtually every photograph, the pug nose and double chin. She waited.


The ceiling rose behind her into an arch all the way across the building, standard form for a 1950s-era bowling alley. Cosgrove remembered the Copa Bowl here years ago, how that arched ceiling drew the eye to the pins at the end of the lanes. The Voojoo who bought the building had wanted a dome, but thought the big hump-roof was a good compromise. Voojoo scholars (such as they were) postulated endlessly on the metaphor of the arched sky. The ceiling was painted black, dotted with thousands of points set aglow with blacklight. The room was dimmed to electric dusk. At precisely noon, it would go almost black for three minutes. The only lights then would be the flicker of a match or a lighter every few seconds, people starting early. If Keller came in early, that’s when she would likely miss him. But if he did, she could spot him once the pulpit lights faded up.


The congregants trickled in slowly. In the foyer, each donned a thin black veil with flickers from iridescent threads, the Voojoo variant on the Hebrew prayer shawl. Cosgrove cursed herself for not anticipating the detail that would obscure a side view of the face. She thought she knew these Voojoos, but hadn’t considered the necessary privacy factor within the sect in which membership was mildly scandalous.

All she really needed to see was that stocky form with the slumped shoulders. Two such men passed by. It took only a moment to see neither was Brad Keller. They, at least, had not yet put the prayer shawls up over their heads.

When the noon darkness came, Cosgrove was ready. She stared into the darkest corner of the sanctuary to get her eyes fully accustomed to the light. She darted her eyes back at the entrance, but no one seemed to be coming in. Why was she so sure he would be here? If Keller spent so much of his time slumming, he might know better than to show up here. The sudden flames popping up around the room made it hard to make out the shadows drifting through the doorway. But there was no fat man.

She gnawed on her lower lip. Wasn’t it three minutes yet? Two more shadows, these wearing the shawls over their heads, came through the doorway. Women. One of them, the smaller one, was walking uncomfortably, leaning on her companion. They came slowly up the center isle and took seats four rows in front of Cosgrove.

Still no fat man.


Still no lights. But the constant little flames popping up all over the room were making it hard to see the darkness.

A big man entered. Much too tall.

Then she saw three lanky cowboys, their boots dragging across the floor. A mother and son were stopped at the door. No children allowed; it would generate too much public relations heat. A few couples arrived, none of them shaped like Keller, and a lawyer she knew who looked around furtively as he entered.

The light was faint at first, a simulated dawn on the pulpit where the pins used to fall. Faintly, the sounds of insects, birds and little gusts of wind blew through. Then a voice, a chant, possibly in Arabic, wafted through the chamber.

The congregation responded, “Ah-ooohm.”

To the same tune, the voice chanted a line of Hebrew. The congregation gave the same response. Same voice, in an attempt at an Oriental tone sounded more like a meowling cat. Chinese? Again the rejoinder, “Ah-ooohm.” It was repeated in Greek, Latin, and finally English: “May the power of the universe be laid upon your head.”

To which the congregation responded an especially emphatic, “AAAH-OOOOOHM.”

Cosgrove was keeping an eye on that door. The temple fell silent, save the continuing chirping. The artificial dawn faded, and just as the darkness became complete, a spotlight pierced the room and illuminated a glittering gold marijuana leaf. On the leaf tips a Star of David, a Moslem moon, a crucifix, a dollar sign and an atom lit up in succession.

An electric bass laid down a reggae rhythm. In a puff of smoke on stage, a black man with Rastafarian dreadlocks appeared with a guitar.

May the power of the universe be laid upon your head.
May the force of life continue past the time when we are dead.
May we live in peace and harmony, may we make a decent buck.
When the world around comes crumbling down
May we just not give a fuck.

Again the audience chanted, then sang a second chorus with the cantor. Even with the stage lights, Cosgrove couldn’t see any faces from the back of the congregation. She eyed a seat at the end of the front row, a much better vantage point. Still, she watched the entrance for the steady stream of latecomers. After the song, the cantor backed to a corner of the stage, but kept the beat going.


A sudden pop accompanied a puff of smoke on stage, but this time no one emerged from the smoke. The wisps dissipated and there was another burst of smoke, and seconds later, another. It was in the fourth burst of smoke and noise that Rev Tobias finally appeared, clad in a satin white bodysuit, trailing a black velvet, star-studded, high collared cape, a tribute to the last days of Elvis.


Cosgrove smirked. The rev looked to be all of twenty-five.

She glanced back at the door and caught the back of a man, a fat man, maybe just the right size, walking up the center aisle and stopping about halfway to the pulpit. Was that the slope to Keller’s shoulders? Maybe. Now she coveted that front-row seat, but she waited for First Fire when everyone stood to light up. She watched the fat man, glanced back at the door every few seconds, and scanned the congregation as best she could.


The ten minutes to First Fire felt like an hour, but she was ready when the crowd stood. She eased down the row to the far aisle, walked quickly through the smoke and took a deft sidestep to claim the prized seat. She took a deep breath and allowed herself a nod of satisfaction.


She didn’t want to turn around too soon or too obviously. The congregation was preoccupied watching Rev Tobias toke on a joint and dance to the beat, and doing much of the same themselves. She turned slightly to her left, then a little more until she could see the front half of the congregation before turning her head. Her eyeballs straining left, she turned her head slowly and drew the fat man in her sights.

 

 

Author's note: The highly irreverent term "Voojews" is from an inspired smartass remark uttered by Dr. Dr. Daniel B. Rosen (yes, two Ph.D.s) who lives on the small island of Manhattan.

 

The Lamp Post Motel

Slightly irregular science fiction by

Health advisory

To date, evidence is inconclusive on whether buying a copy of The Lamp Post Motel cures restless leg syndrome. But stay tuned: science marches on.

If you are already afflicted with those dreaded restless legs, tale a brisk walk to an independent bookstore, step up to the science fiction section, and demand one or more copies of The Lamp Post Motel, ISBN #09773676-8-9. Enlightened proprietors will, of course, have several copies in stock, or can order you a copy—and even a plentiful supply from Baker and Taylor.

Order online from Small Press Distribution (individual or bulk copies).

 

A more explicit version in the podcast audio book read by the author
Podiobooks.com

 

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