The Good Book
A Short Story
BY JOHN GUTHRIE
This pretty much true story tells why Preacher Richter took little Jimmy Shuler's Bible away, and why his mom, an otherwise devout and virtuous woman, encouraged him in the study of sorcery.
It started on a day when leaves of scarlet and gold fluttered down, carpeting the sidewalk along which Jimmy marched, his bookbag hanging low on his back. The scent of the leaves was woodsy in the cool air. Acorns crunched underfoot as Jimmy took the shortcut across the corner of his yard and entered the kitchen door.
"Hey, Jimmy," said Mom, smiling at him, trying to plant a kiss on his cheek. He dodged so that it landed somewhere behind his ear. "Hungry?" she beamed. "I could fix you a sandwich."
"Yes, please," said Jimmy, "Peanut butter. With mayonnaise."
He sat down at the table, scattered his fifth-grade schoolwork and books across the Formica top, selected an illustrated library book and began to read.
The rich fragrance of roasted peanuts filled the air as Mom spread the crunchy goop on the bread, added a modest slather of mayonnaise, then concealed it all with a second slice of bread. She presented this creation to Jimmy on a paper napkin along with a glass of milk.
"What are you reading?" she asked, smiling as she placed the sandwich on the table.
"It's about this boy, he could do all this cool stuff," he said, his eyes still fixed on the page, picking up the sandwich and chomping off a piece without looking at it.
"Cool stuff?" Mom said, smiling even more. She leaned over Jimmy's shoulder and saw the illustration of the boy there who had a tiny lightning flash emblazoned on his forehead. "Who's that?" she asked, her brow wrinkling a little.
"Harry Potter. He's a wizard. He went to sorcery school."
Mom frowned, drew herself up straight and said, "Jimmy, Preacher Richter told us about these books. They're all about witchcraft and Satanism." She saw the look on Jimmy's face, so brought in the heavy artillery. "Jimmy, I only ask this because I love you: couldn't you please, for my sake, read something different?"
Preacher Richter resolved the dilemma making it a point to get by soon after Jimmy's mother explained it all to him on the phone.
He was portly, red of face, the victim of too many green bean and mushroom soup casseroles and too much fried chicken and too many heaped platters of ham at the Belladonna Baptist Church's frequent covered dish suppers. "Remember, you don't need to put all that stuff in your mind," he told Jimmy as he sat with him at the kitchen table. "After all, that's how Satan gets in, too. Here, the best thing to read is the best book of all, the Good Book. It has all kinds of good stories in it. This one has the Living Bible and three other translations side by side. If one doesn't make sense to you yet, the next one does. And this is God's word."
Rolling his eyes back in his head for his mom's benefit, Jimmy accepted anyway the heavy volume that had emblazoned in gold across the spine, Layman's Parallel Bible. His mother looked on, smiling, as Jimmy flipped it open.
The clock on the kitchen wall showed the passage of a full half-hour before Jimmy looked up as his mom spoke again.
"Jimmy, it's interesting isn't it? And Preacher Richter will be so proud of you, letting that other stuff go and reading the Good Book."
Before prayer meeting the next Wednesday, Mom told the preacher about Jimmy's continued serious reading of the Bible.
"Praise the Lord," said the preacher, who then excused himself to mount the dais for the beginning of the service.
The first hymn came to a conclusive "amen" that reverberated off the off-white walls and stained glass windows of the sanctuary. Preacher Richter's face turned up toward the rafters as he voiced the opening prayer.
"None," Preacher Richter began, smiling down at Jimmy and his parents, "are too young to be ensnared by the tempter." He raised his voice. "And none are too young to set their feet in the ways of righteousness, forgoing the things of this world for the things of God. We all need, like Jimmy, to read our Bible, where family values are outlined for everyone. Jimmy, would you like to open up your Bible and read a passage for us?"
Mom and Dad beamed as he stood, a handsome boy, slender, resolute. He brushed at the lock of chestnut hair that tumbled down over his forehead, then opened the voluminous book, balanced it on the back of the pew in front of him, wet the tip of his index finger, searched back and forth a bit, then found the sought-after passage.
He followed his text with his index finger as he read from the 22nd chapter of the book of Genesis. "'Abraham!' God called...'take with you your only son -- yes, Isaac whom you love so much...sacrifice him as a burnt offering.' Abraham placed the wood for the burnt offering upon Isaac's back, while he himself carried the knife and the flint for striking a fire...and then... tied Isaac and laid him on the altar over the wood...and took the knife and lifted it up...to slay him."
Preacher Richter beamed with pleasure. So did Mom and Dad. "And what did you get out of that reading of the Good Book, Jimmy?" said Preacher Richter.
"Well, I'm glad my daddy just works at the tire store and doesn't do sacrifices," Jimmy said.
The preacher harrumphed a little, reddening more than usual, and said, as a sort of default comment, "Family values, right from the Bible. That's what this country needs."
Before the covered dish supper a week later, Jimmy was asked to find a passage to read that would be appropriate to the occasion. So after the opening prayer, Jimmy stood and opened his well-thumbed Bible. He found the passage about food in the 11th chapter of Leviticus which he had marked by bending the corner down on the page.
"Flying insects with four legs must not be eaten," he began, his voice clear. "With the exception of those that jump; locusts of all varieties -- ordinary locusts, bald locusts, crickets and grasshoppers may be eaten." The congregation was very still.
Preacher Richter, scowling a little in spite of himself, interrupted. "Thank you Jimmy. Now let us pray."
Preacher Richter was smiling again as he began with a generous serving of the oven-barbecued pork ribs that Jimmy's mom always made so well. Jimmy had at them too, little suspecting that once and only once more would he be selected as the official scripture reader in a service at Belladonna Baptist.
"This visiting minister, he's Doctor Godfrey," explained Preacher Richter to his congregation. "He's coming all the way from Louisville to start the revival. He was my professor in theology school. He's a great and Godly man."
The first night of the revival, Jimmy was seated in the very front pew. The choir sang. The visiting preacher prayed. Preacher Richter asked Jimmy to read from the Good Book again, this time a pre-selected and approved passage about a shepherd tending his flock.
As instructed, Jimmy flipped about, looking for the appropriate passage, the page he had dog-eared for efficiency. But more than one page was dog-eared, for Jimmy liked to mark all of the most interesting passages. Knowing the congregation was waiting, feeling the pressure from all the eyes upon him, Jimmy took a stab at it (God, please make it the right one...) and began to read, as luck would have it, from the 19th chapter of the book of Genesis.
"One day the older girl said to her sister, 'There isn't a man anywhere in this entire land that our father would let us marry...let's fill him with wine and sleep with him'...and the older girl went in and had sexual intercourse with her father...and the younger girl went in and lay with him...and so it was that both girls became pregnant from their father...." Jimmy smiled up at the two ministers on the dais.
Preacher Richter and the visiting Doctor of Theology both were staring straight ahead, working hard at maintaining the thin smiles on their faces as Jimmy looked first at them, then at the congregation, surprised that he didn't see the approval he sought. Preacher Richter cleared his throat, and glancing out of the corner of his eyes at his honored guest, finally jumped to his feet and said, once more, "Let us pray."
Mom saw Jimmy reading the Good Book every chance he had. She smiled at the thought. Yet somehow, her little boy was not her little boy any more. She watched as he sat at the kitchen table, his Layman's Parallel Bible before him. He reached into his pocket, took something and popped it into his mouth, and crunched it, never looking up from his reading. He reached into his pocket for more.
"Jimmy, what are you eating?" she said, placing her hand on her hip, still smiling. "Not gummy bears again. You know that kind of food is the dentist's best friend..."
"No, Mom. It's holy food. Like in the Good Book."
She wrinkled her brow a bit and leaned closer, then jerked back as not one but three large grasshoppers escaped Jimmy's grasp, and leaped away.
A short while later Dad arrived, summoned from the tire store, followed by Preacher Richter. The cool air of autumn accompanied them through the door. The preacher mopped his brow with a large white handkerchief. He began to speak to Jimmy as Mom and Dad looked on.
"I think we'd better, Jimmy, maybe..." he hesitated, then taking a breath he continued, "I need that Bible back. For awhile...." He reached over and took the Bible in one soft and pudgy hand. "This is the only way," he said to Mom and Dad as he spun on his heel, exited the kitchen door, the Good Book tucked under his arm.
Jimmy was in tears. Mom was too, and Dad had a mournful look on his face.
"Don't cry," Mom said, but Jimmy cried all the more.
"I want my Bible back," he said between snuffles. "He gave it to me."
"Honey," said Mom, "Look. Here's a book for you." She opened the high cupboard, and stretching up on her tiptoes, took down a book and handed it to Jimmy. Jimmy opened it. He smiled at the picture of the boy with the lightning flash on his forehead; the boy who went to sorcery school.
"It worked out okay," she later told an inquiring preacher Richter, "though I have caught him dumping his Frosted Flakes down the commode and sneaking around to eat grasshoppers a time or two."
John Guthrie is a retired family physician who has published professional articles, fiction, and poetry in the United States and elsewhere. His book-length memoir, Within the Dragon Lair, is scheduled for publication in 2000. He resides with his wife and 5-year-old son in Charleston County.