Updated: Apr 25, 2018
One sub-zero January, when I was twelve years old, the plumbing froze up in our church after Sunday potluck.
And then the pipes burst.
Everyone knew the Devil was behind this breach in congregational sanitation. He was busy causing his usual mischief for the pure of heart and hygiene. Of course, the righteous would rally to win the war in the end – rest assured – but in the meantime it seemed Ol’ Lucifer had scored a minor victory for evil. There was nothing to be done until the plumbers could get to it on Monday morning and right the sewery wrong that had flooded the church. The pastor’s wife called each member of the flock, apologizing that the sanctuary was “just too stinky” for evening services. She asked that we stay at home and have fellowship instead with our families. I remember my mom hanging up the phone and breaking the solemn news to me and my little brother Brad.
We tried to be sad.
We really did.
But I suspected within my sinful heart of hearts that the Devil had created this entire fiasco for our benefit alone. He had obviously been listening to my more shameful prayers, and was now doing his best to oblige a potential disciple for his unholy horde.
Now in our house, watching TV on Sunday evening was the pre-adolescent equivalent of getting whiskey drunk and visiting a whorehouse. Not that we ever got the chance. Generally we were strapped to a church pew, swaying with the heady scent of the perfumed and polyester-clad devout (this was in the 1970s – polyester ruled), while enjoying the threat of hellfire being poured down upon us from the pulpit. But now circumstances seemed to be falling in our favor. Perhaps – just maybe – if Brad and I exercised a little devotion of our own accord, Mom would allow us to deviate from our usual practice of televisual abstinence. It was worth a try. Tonight of all nights, because the Sunday Night Movie this week was one we really really wanted to see.
I went and fetched my Bible, blew the dust from its cover, and sat down to read in plain sight of my mother. I could tell she was pleased. All those years of Sunday school, it seemed, had paid off. Maybe I wasn’t such a hell-bound degenerate after all. Following my cue, my little brother opened a Book of Revelations coloring book and sprawled on the rug with a box of crayons. He was pleasingly savvy to my plan.
I furtively glanced at the clock ticking toward our moment of crisis.
And then, at twenty minutes ‘til seven, I shut my Bible, placed it on the side table, and closed my eyes, bowing my head just slightly, in an attitude of quiet prayer. When at last I opened my eyes, I found my mother watching me from across the room, beaming.
Heh-heh! I thought. She’s playing perfectly into my scheme.
I yawned and stretched. I haphazardly thumbed through the T.V. Guide, and then, with an exactly tuned understatement, I said, “Oh, look. What an ironical surprise. That western we wanted to see is on the television tonight…” I paused, knowing full well that I wasn’t there yet, and then I dropped my well-calculated bomb. “…the one starring Omar Sharif.”
Omar Sharif was my mother’s weakness. He was that dark and dashing star who had played in Doctor Zhivago, one of my mom’s all-time favorite movies. And while I well knew that Sharif’s role in tonight’s movie was nothing like the romantic lead he played in Zhivago, I made it sound as if the entire drama would revolve around him.
“Two whole hours of Omar Sharif,” I said, forlornly. “Too bad we can’t watch.”
That’s when Brad, my little henchman, spoke up. “Couldn’t we watch, Mom?” He hugged his coloring book to his chest, a faint halo floating above his beatific head. “Just this once?”
Our mother was conflicted, to say the least. An angel was hissing “No!” in one ear, while the Devil was suavely whispering “Omar Sharif” in her other.
“Oh, fiddlesticks!” she said at last. “I’ll make popcorn. You start the T.V.”
The movie was McKenna’s Gold. It had done pretty well in the theaters a few years earlier, and now it was playing for the first time on television. It was said to have lots of Indians and gunplay and galloping horse adventure. We settled in to watch, my brother and I hardly believing our good fortune.
Television on a Sunday evening – Oh, Man!
It didn’t take long for our mom to sour on Omar Sharif. His character was a despicable bandito with nasty habits. Gone were all the handsome traits of Zhivago. They were replaced instead with the lascivious gestures of a cigar-chewing rogue. Mom couldn’t bear to watch. We knew she was regretting her decision to allow this wickedness into her house. We could feel her repentant stress in the air all around us. Brad and I knew better than to meet her gaze. When Omar Sharif shot an unarmed man in cold blood, establishing his character’s loathsome persona, Mom decided she’d had enough.
“Well, I suppose you can watch this dumb show if you like, but I want you to know, you don’t have to.”
She waited for us to respond.
Brad and I chomped popcorn, and kept our eyes on the screen.
“Well!” she huffed. And then she left the room.
It was the ultimate in boyhood decadence. Cowboys (and not church) and Indians. And now, without our mother hanging around to ruin it for us, we were like two… two… Well, I suppose we were sort of like two drunks in a whorehouse.
We were enjoying ourselves immensely when something happened that would, I can honestly say, change my life forever.
The banditos had captured Gregory Peck – McKenna – along with a pretty blonde girl, and were forcing him to lead them to a hidden treasure. They had been traveling through a wide desert for days, no water in sight, vultures circling in anticipation of the feast about to present itself when the wayfarers expired under the cruel desert sun. But then – Lo! The band of thirsty travelers came to an oasis.
Traveling with the banditos, as a sort of dark contrast to the pale blonde, was a sultry Indian maiden. She had the hots for McKenna, and wanted him as her lover. But one could surmise from the get-go that our hero was destined to ride off into the sunset with the virtuous blonde. Still, this didn’t dissuade the Indian maiden from using all of her exotic charms to lure McKenna into her lovely brown arms.
Normally, Brad and I would take such lulls in the cinematic action to go pee. But perhaps that night, because it had been so god-awful cold, we found ourselves intrigued by the idea of swimming in a warm place. That oasis water was so Hollywood blue! Everyone – the banditos and captured alike – were preparing to enjoy a cool swim. We watched, imagining ourselves to be a part of their group.
And that’s when, in the blink of an eye, it happened.
The camera shot was wide, including much of the pool and scenery. But in the distance, perched high on a rock – wearing nothing but a sly smile – stood the Indian maiden. She quickly dove into the water, thin as a lithe brown sliver, and disappeared beneath the surface.
Brad and I stared at the screen, our mouths hanging open in utter wonder, and then we looked at each other.
His expression begged, “What did we just see there, big brother?”
My own expression stammered, “I… I couldn’t say.”
But in my burgeoning adolescent heart, I knew I had just been granted a glimpse of an earthly, sensual paradise. The little hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I grew warm and flushed and tingly all over.
That subliminal flash of flesh had been on the screen for less than a single second. The T.V. censors couldn’t allow any more than that. But like a finely exposed photograph, it had burned itself indelibly onto my mind’s eye. I had never seen a naked woman before (unless you count the bare-chested lady tattooed on my Uncle Clyde’s biceps), but now I recalled, from some deep dream held over from a past life, exactly what one looked like.
The rest of the movie was filled with all of the afore-promised action. I’m told it was pretty exciting. I couldn’t say for sure. My vision had blurred, as if I were watching the whole thing from under water.
Writers are always plumbing their depths in search of material. One never knows what one is going to bring up to the surface. Sometimes it’s something quaint that can be expressed in a funny essay, or a clever poem. Sometimes it’s some flotsam that can be tossed away as useless. But at other times, more persnickety and persistent little visions embrace the writer’s mind and won’t let him go. I suppose my Indian maiden had been swimming around in my depths for years when she started to arise, somewhat evolved and more refined, in my writing. I pushed her back down for a while, struggling to be free of her charms, but it was no use. She demanded her place in my personal mythology. She’s in there now, in all of her various forms. I notice her all the time when I re-read one of my books. I really don’t think the Devil could possibly have anything to do with a being so ethereal and obviously divine. But I’m sure there are those who would argue otherwise.
The next morning at school, I stood with my buddies on the frosty playground waiting for the school to open up. We hopped around and slapped our arms to stay warm. Glittering plumes of breath passed from our shivering lips as we talked about our weekend.
My friend Ty asked, “Hey, did any of you guys see McKenna’s Gold last night?”
“Yeah,” said Billy.
“Yeah,” said Jack.
We all stopped hopping, holding ourselves still in the cold air, remembering our favorite sun-drenched scene. We tuned our ears to the water sound replaying in our heads, listening – a long moment – for the splash.
“That was a pretty good show,” I murmured at last. “I really liked it a lot.”