Tuesday, April 7, 2020

A Connecticut Yankee in King Jesus' Court - Part 1


This is a short story I wrote a while back, called "A Connecticut Yankee in King Jesus' Court." (And yes, it's a total ripoff of Mark Twain's classic time-travel novel.)
I thought this might be appropriate for Holy Week, especially during this bizarre moment in history when we can't celebrate the Easter Triduum with our friends and loved ones in church. (No, really, Triduum is an actual word. Look it up.)
 Take care, and God bless.

     Jerry Francis gazed at the stars, twinkling brightly against the pitch black sky. How pretty, he thought. Then his attention shifted as he realized thorns were poking him in the back. A moment later his thoughts changed once again, and Jerry now wondered why he was lying in a briar patch staring at the sky, why his mind seemed to be operating in slow motion, and what in the world was that odd hissing sound?
     Lifting his head slowly, Jerry looked toward the curious noise. He saw the silhouette of a car about 20 feet away, with the driver’s door flung open. Steam spewed from the spot where the crumpled front end pressed against a large maple tree. Fragments of information began to drift into Jerry’s foggy brain: he had been watching a baseball game on TV at his friend Vinny’s house. He never called home to tell his wife Brenda where he was. It was after midnight when he finally left. He was driving fast along the deserted state highway and rehearsing out loud what he hoped would be a believable excuse. And that’s all he could remember.
     Jerry raised his hand and gently touched the lump on the top of his forehead. No wonder everything’s foggy, he thought. The next thought to pop into his mind was, I’ve got to get back to the road and flag down another car. He lurched into the sitting position and immediately saw more stars as the blood drained from his head. “Oh no,” he mumbled, “Don’t faint now…” But it was too late. The last sensation he felt before losing consciousness was the tingle of thorns poking him again as he flopped onto his back.
*  *  *
     Jerry felt the bright sunshine before he actually saw it. As he emerged from his long and deep slumber, the warmth of the sun baked against his face. A few moments later, as his eyes started flickering behind closed lids, he saw vivid red colors. When he opened his eyelids ever-so-slightly, blinding white light streamed in, causing Jerry to cup his hand over his face. As he lay there, trying desperately to remember exactly where he was and exactly how he had gotten there, another curious sound filled his ears: the growing crescendo of a large group of people shouting, which reminded him of the crowd at Yankee Stadium when the bases were loaded and the cleanup hitter was striding toward the plate.
     As Jerry wondered why a crowd of people would be gathered along a rural state highway in the suburbs of New Haven, a clear voice pierced the air from no more than a few feet away. “Jeremiah! Jeremiah!” the voice said. Then Jerry felt a hand grab his shoulder. “Jeremiah! Why are you sleeping?! Come on, get up. He’s almost here!”
     With help from the mysterious hand, Jerry slowly sat up and carefully peeked through the fingers still covering his face. He saw the blurry form of a man kneeling beside him.
     “Are you…are you the ambulance driver?” Jerry asked slowly.
     “Were you drinking wine all night?” came the terse reply. As Jerry thought to himself, No, I only had a few beers at Vinny’s, the voice continued, “It’s me, Mordecai, and the man I told you about last night, Jesus of Nazareth, is here! He’s entering into Jerusalem! Can’t you hear the crowds?!”
     Jerry eyes were finally adjusting to the bright sunshine, and he took a long look around at his surroundings. What he saw almost caused the blood to drain from his head again.
     Yes, there was a crowd of people there, hundreds of folks lining each side of the road. But Jerry no longer wondered why a crowd was gathered on a rural state highway—despite their curious clothing—because he was too busy wondering why the road was no longer paved and how all the maple and pine trees had turned into palm trees.
     The man called Mordecai helped Jerry to his feet. As he stood, Jerry looked down and noticed he was wearing a long tan robe and had sandals on his feet. “What the— Where’re my jeans? My Nikes?” he said. Jerry paused and looked at the excited crowd waving palm branches. “Toto,” he whispered to himself, “We’re not in Connecticut anymore.”
     “Oh, here he comes!” Mordecai yelled.
     The shouting grew louder and some people stepped forward and spread palm branches and articles of clothing in the center of the dusty road. A small procession came into view. Above the roar, Jerry heard people, including Mordecai, proclaim in unison, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”
     The procession came near Jerry’s spot along the road. Not exactly the Rose Bowl parade, he thought. About ten bearded men were in the lead, holding palm branches and waving to the crowd. Next was the obvious center of attention, a man riding sidesaddle on a donkey. Another eight or ten men brought up the rear, with some women and children following in their wake, and that was the entire show.
     When the donkey was directly in front of Jerry, the rider looked straight at him and smiled. A cold chill ran down Jerry’s spine as the man’s gentle gaze seemed to penetrate his soul. “Whoa, wait a minute,” he said, as the last bit of fogginess vanished from his brain. “This looks just like…” his voice trailed off as he tried to recall the details of his childhood Catechism classes. “But, but it can’t be,” he said. “That was 2,000 years ago.”
     For a moment, Jerry wished he had accompanied his wife and kids to church once in a while. But then he quickly remembered why he never went to church: he simply didn’t believe any of it. “Oh, I’m sure there was a guy named Jesus,” he would tell Brenda whenever she brought up the subject, “but all that stuff about miracles is a bunch of fairy tales.”
     “Isn’t he wonderful?!” Mordecai shouted, interrupting Jerry’s thoughts. “Jesus will be the new king of Israel! He’s going to lead us in a violent revolt against the Romans, just like I told you last night!”
      “What do you mean, ‘last night’?” Jerry asked. “Last night I was watching a Yankees game on Vinny’s big-screen TV.”
     “Last night you were with me,” Mordecai replied, “at the secret meeting of the Zealots. You pledged your life to help us overthrow the Romans.” As Mordecai spoke, he carefully opened the front of his cloak and revealed two sharp daggers hanging from his belt. “And here’s the weapon I promised to give you.”
     Mordecai carefully passed one of the 12-inch blades to Jerry, who held it by the handle between thumb and forefinger as if it were a dead mouse. “Ohh-kaaay,” Jerry said slowly. “Someday you’ll have to fill me in on the details of what I did last night.”
     “Hide it in your cloak,” Mordecai ordered urgently. “You know we’re not allowed to have weapons. We’ll be arrested if they catch us!”
     Jerry nervously fumbled with the dagger and concealed it in his robes, relieved that no blood was drawn in the process.
     “Now, come on,” Mordecai said. “Let’s follow Jesus and meet up with our brother revolutionaries. Maybe the battle against the Romans will begin today!”
     “Wait a minute, Morty,” Jerry stammered as he grabbed Mordecai’s arm, “I, uh, I’m not sure exactly what’s going on here, but I think I have an idea who this Jesus is, and you gotta trust me, it’s not gonna happen that way.”
     “What do you mean?” Mordecai asked.
     “I, I don’t think Jesus is going to lead an army and drive out the Romans,” Jerry replied. “At least—if I understand what Sister Mary Margaret taught me twenty-five years ago—not in this world. In fact, Morty, by Friday this whole crowd is going to demand that Jesus be put to death!”
     “You were drinking all night!” Mordecai laughed. “How are you going to kill Romans with your head filled with wine?”
     Jerry couldn’t think of an answer—he couldn’t even comprehend the question—but the idea of a stiff drink sounded pretty good. Mordecai put his arm around Jerry’s shoulders and the two men began walking up the dusty road toward the center of Jerusalem. As they walked, Jerry shook his head in amazement. “Man,” he said softly, “Brenda is never gonna believe this excuse.”

     A smile spread across Jerry Francis’ face as he slept. He was having a vivid dream. In the dream, Jerry and his family were laughing and playing in the backyard of their suburban Connecticut home. Jerry was pitching Whiffle balls to his son Michael, age seven, who took mighty swings with a yellow plastic bat. Jerry’s wife Brenda and their daughter Jennifer, age nine, retrieved the balls and offered encouragement and the occasional playful taunt whenever Michael swung and missed.
     Then Jerry’s dream became murky. He seemed to hear low, rumbling sounds that enveloped the entire backyard. Then Brenda, Michael, and Jennifer began to fade from his sight. Jerry wanted to yell, “Wait, come back! Don’t go!” but he was immobile and unable to speak. His family completely disappeared from view. Now the low rumbling sounds became more distinct, and were transformed into actual words.
     “Wake. Up. Jeremiah.”
     Jerry grunted in confusion. “Wake up,” he heard more clearly now. The dream was over, and consciousness took control of his brain. Jerry opened is eyes and saw Mordecai towering above him.
     “Wake up, Jeremiah,” Mordecai said again.
     “I’m up, I’m up,” Jerry grunted, not really sure whether he was still dreaming or indeed awake. He propped himself up on an elbow and looked around. He saw Mordecai standing next to him, and there were two other men on the far side of the small room. The full effect of the dank and smelly air now hit Jerry’s nostrils. He winced. Then he looked down and realized he was lying on a pile of straw on top of the dirt floor. “What the—” he muttered. “This isn’t a dream, it’s a nightmare.”
     Jerry sat up and yawned. He looked around the room again, now with more focused eyes. All the images of the previous day flooded back to him. Vinny’s house. Yankees game. Car accident. Dirt road. Palm trees. Mordecai. Daggers. Jerusalem. Jesus. Jesus? Did I really see Jesus yesterday? Jerry thought. What is going on here?! Suddenly he longed for his family. He closed his eyes tightly and tried to force his brain to return to the dream, to Brenda and Mikey and Jenny and the Whiffle ball and the backyard. Tears seeped between his eyelids and trickled down his cheeks.
     “Jeremiah, I have great news!” Mordecai said loudly, startling Jerry into opening his eyes. “I just found out that Jesus is going to the Temple courtyards today. Come on, we must hurry.” He reached down and grabbed Jerry’s arm and helped him to his feet. “Maybe today will be the day we get to kill some Romans, eh?” Mordecai added in a cheery voice.
     “Kill Romans? I don’t wanna kill Romans,” Jerry said softly. “I wanna hug Brenda. I wanna play Whiffle ball with my kids. I wanna go home.”
     Just then a loud rapping sound came from the door. “He’s here!” Mordecai said excitedly.
One of the other men in the room went to the door and cautiously said, “Who is it?”
     “It’s me, Simon,” came the reply. “Hurry, open up!” Upon hearing this, the man inside the room slid back the bolt and pulled the door open. A small, wiry man hurried through the doorway and shut the door tightly behind him.
     The men in the room greeted the man with handshakes and hugs. Then the man noticed Jerry standing against the wall and said suspiciously, “Who’s he?”
     Mordecai said, “His name is Jeremiah. Don’t worry, Simon, he’s one of us.” Then Mordecai grabbed Jerry’s arm and pulled him forward. “Simon,” he said, “I want you to meet Jeremiah. Jeremiah from, uh, where’d you say you’re from again?”
     “Hamden,” Jerry answered.
     “Jeremiah of Hamden,” Mordecai said. “And Jeremiah, this is Simon, but some people call him ‘The Zealot.’”
     Simon reached out and shook Jerry’s hand. He smiled at Jerry and said, “Hamden, where’s that, near Joppa by the Sea?”
     “Um yeah, Joppa, New Haven, Bridgeport, whatever,” Jerry mumbled.
     “So you’re one of us, huh?” Simon said. “And you want to kill Romans as much as we do?”
     Jerry hesitated and said, “Well, I, uh, the thing is—”
     “Of course he wants to kill Romans!” Mordecai bellowed confidently. “He is a fine addition to our group.” Then turning to Jerry, Mordecai explained, “Simon is the one who told us all about the Nazarene, Jesus. Simon told us that Jesus plans to usher in a new kingdom in Israel. And you know what that means, don’t you, Jeremiah? It means the Romans will be gone, and we’ll have our nation to ourselves once again! And the best part is,” Mordecai continued, “Simon is one of Jesus’ disciples. Not just part of the big crowd that follows him, but part of his inner circle, his hand-picked twelve disciples.”
     “That’s right,” Simon said with a nod. “It’s just too bad the other disciples are so dense. They don’t understand Jesus’ full potential. They’re more focused on prayers and sermons, so they don’t realize Jesus has the charisma to inspire our nation to take up arms and drive the hated Romans from our land forever!”
     At this, all the men in the room offered up a hearty cheer. Jerry looked around the room nervously and forced a smile when he made eye contact with one of the other men.
     “Come on,” said Mordecai. “We must go.”
*  *  *
     Jerry walked past the massive columns of the Temple, gazing upward with the same astonished expression he had displayed as an eight-year-old when his father took him to Yankee Stadium for the first time. The Temple courts were buzzing with activity. The five men had to navigate through thick crowds. Then Simon called out, “There he is. Follow me!”
     The men changed direction and pushed their way across a wide courtyard. The crowd became so thick they could hardly move. Jerry looked up and saw a man standing above the throng. He must be on a platform or some steps, Jerry thought. They pushed a little closer, then Jerry heard the man shout, “It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer.’ But you have made it a den of thieves!”
     The crowd shouted with approval. Then Jerry saw the man step to his side, and with a quick, fluid motion, he clutched the edge of a table and flipped it over. Coins went flying in all directions. The crowd responded with a roar twice as loud as before. The man kept moving, slapping items off other tables as men in ornate robes jumped out of the way in shock. Frantic cries of distress could be heard amid the steady roar of the crowd.
     The man came to a stack of what appeared to be wooden crates. He yanked the flimsy sides off the crates and dozens of birds fluttered out and begin to fly in circles overhead. The crowd roared again. Jerry stood nearby, his mouth agape, and said to himself, That must be Jesus. Wow.
     The people whose merchandise had been scattered finally overcame their shock and begin moving toward Jesus. But before they reached him, Jesus grabbed a piece of rope and swung it like a whip. He started thrashing the rope back and forth, and the other men instantly changed direction and retreated.
     The crowd became frenzied. In addition to the loud roar, people began to move toward Jesus. Mordecai hugged Jerry and yelled, “This is it! The revolution begins now!” He opened the front of his robe to reveal the dagger hanging from his belt. He took hold of the weapon and shouted with ecstatic glee, “Let us liberate Israel! Let us spill the blood of the Romans!!” He ran forward leaving Jerry behind.
     Jerry pressed his arm along the side of his body and felt his dagger. He left the weapon safely hidden underneath his robe.
     Just then squadrons of soldiers entered the courtyard area from two different directions. The soldiers pushed their way toward the overturned tables and the empty crates. The crowd hissed and booed. Jerry looked at the soldiers, who were dressed in strange black hats and tunics. He thought to himself, They don’t look like Roman soldiers—at least not the Roman soldiers I’ve seen in history books and Hollywood movies.
     Jerry saw a soldier strike someone with the butt end of a long spear. Another person was pushed to the ground. The crowd’s sound changed from a high-pitched roar of excitement to a lower pitched rumble of fear. A wave of humanity began to pulsate toward Jerry. “Uh oh,” he muttered. “Panic time. This is starting to look like a European soccer riot.” Jerry turned and moved as quickly as he could back in the direction he came from.
     After a few minutes of frantically scrambling to stay ahead of the wave, Jerry ducked around a corner and climbed up onto a short wall. The sea of terrified people rushed by. Within ten minutes, the frenzy was over. The vast courtyard was quiet again, with a handful of people milling about. Some assisted those who had stumbled. Others laid motionless. I bet they’re dead, Jerry thought. The soldiers regrouped against a far wall, and then exited.
     Jerry hopped down from the low wall and made his way out of the Temple courtyards. When he came to an intersection, he stopped and looked around the strange and ancient city. “Now what do I do?” he said out loud. Tears began to well up in his eyes.
     He walked down a long, straight street, which he remembered as the road they traveled to come to the Temple. I guess I should try to find Mordecai, he thought. I guess I should go back to that small room—if I can even find it.
To be continued.....

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