Meet Me In Paradise


A wicked All-American satire from Michael Hopping, now available from WastelandRunes . . .

Visionary Cal Pennypacker and bare-knuckles businessman Possum Staehle have built a chain of five and dime stores into Paradise Superstores Inc. The world’s second largest retailer is the low price purveyor of everything except salvation.

That may soon change. Some years ago, God instructed Cal to prepare a place for the Second Coming in Houston. Now, as Apostle Caleb of the Tabernacle of the Seventh Seal, Cal has an influential television ministry. As CEO of Paradise, he pressures the board to Christianize the Superstores. Possum thinks too much religion is bad for business. It’s time for Crazy Cal to go.

Meet Me In ParadiseRollicking entertainment for the Left Behind.– Lord Mara of Samsara

What manner of household oracle is Computer, that it may be ‘booted’ and ‘upgraded’ by priests of IT? – Homer, author of The Iliad and The Odyssey

I cannot guess which dolorous valley of the eighth circle of Hell awaits the author of this tempting satire.– Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy

A laudable adventure of the American spirit. – Benjamin Franklin, self-published author and Founding Father

Meet Me In Paradise is broad political farce, a style to which I might profitably have resorted after the indifferent success of Moby Dick.– Herman Melville, New York City Customs Office

My late husband loves this book. – Mary Magdalene-Christ

Chapter 1

Apostle Caleb Pennypacker, a small princely man resplendent in a white linen suit, paused at center stage and humbly bowed his head.  On the JumboTron behind the Tabernacle of the Seventh Seal’s 144-voice choir and flanked on both sides by majestic organ pipes, the apostle’s hair shimmered like an ancient silver helm. He sucked in a deep sobbing breath and raised his face to address the standing room only crowd. For thirty minutes he had patrolled the breadth of the stage, an alert shepherd moving amongst the potted ferns and flowering hibiscus bushes, warning his flock against the threat to faith posed by godless know-it-all speculations on the virgin birth and Mary Magdalene. But now he had hit his mark for the Sunday morning punch line.

Spotlights transfixed him. The house lights faded to black. On camera the choir disappeared, revealing the apostle as a lone figure in a dark night of sin. His outstretched arms arced upward from an attitude of crucifixion to one of trembling supplication. He brought it home with his signature bellow, “Jeeeesussssss.” The camera zoomed smoothly to his face and continued to tighten until his eyes filled the frame and rolled upward. They became as pearls, lustrous gates of heaven. Suddenly they glowed fiery red.

The choir and congregation gaped at this unprecedented turn of events as if teetering on the verge of a collective sneeze. Cal too was struck motionless, no less amazed than they at the unaccustomed light swamping his mind. Finally he whispered in what might have been prayer, “The blood of the Lamb.”  The words had scarcely arrived in the more remote recesses of the sanctuary before they returned to their sender, chanted on 7,600 now liberated tongues. "Blood of the Lamb. Blood of the Lamb. Blood of the Lamb.” Cal dropped off-camera to his knees.

Viewers at home and worshippers still attuned to the JumboTron watched the scene jump to the Tabernacle’s expansive central plaza and the monumental splendor of Seven Angels Fountain. A fanfare seemed to issue from the gilded trumpets of the circled marble angels. From their midst, a thick column of ruby red boiled and gushed toward heaven. The closing caption at the bottom of the frame, “An End Days Ministry Production,” had been altered to read, “Sick 66 Production.”

*    *    *

A thousand miles to the east, in the office of his vacation estate on Lake James, Plas "Possum" Staehle leaned back in his chair and hooted when the spotlights turned his brother-in-law and business partner from savior to red devil before a national audience. On Possum’s big-screen plasma TV, Cal’s eyes were the size of footballs. In their befuddlement, Possum saw the promised land, an end to Pennypacker’s reign as CEO of Paradise Superstores. “What do you think of this, old son?” he gloated. “I believe it’ll fix you. See if it don’t.”

He bit the tip off a Cuban cigar he’d been saving for this occasion and spat it in the direction of a trophy New Mexican bull elk head mounted beside the fireplace. Just yesterday he’d draped the antlers with a string of hot pepper Christmas lights. It was a childish thing for a man of his station, no doubt, but if a man of his station couldn’t amuse himself, what good was a personal net worth in the range of twenty billion? He pushed a button on the wireless control pad. The chili peppers twinkled. Another button lit the gas fire logs. Possum felt a lot like Christmas.

The chanting in the Tabernacle distracted him from the first fragrant tendrils of cigar smoke. They floated unsavored in a flat gray cloud below the knotty pine ceiling. He cocked a suspicious eye at the TV. But his moment of uncertainty blew away with the trumpet and fountain gag. He could almost hear the octogenarian blood vessels bursting from coast to coast. He slapped his knee so hard imagining it that a live ember skittered down the front of his shirt, took a flying leap off his protuberant gut, and burnt a hole in the crotch of his pants. In the resulting flurry of activity another coal ruined the rug he’d received as a token of gratitude from a Turkish manufacturer of consumer brassware.

Disgusted, Possum stubbed the stogie out in an onyx ashtray patterned on the sculpture of a reclining god he’d seen at Chichén Itzá. The tour guide had claimed that the beating hearts of sacrificed prisoners were displayed in the tray on its stomach. Across the ages, Possum sensed a kinship with the Mayans or Toltecs or whoever the hell carved the original. They played hard and didn’t apologize to anybody.

Rod Lederette, Seventh Seal’s Chief of Broadcast Productions, should be out of the church by now, headed for George Bush Intercontinental Airport and an extended cruise in the Greek Isles with his lovely wife and stepdaughters. He’d been well paid to sabotage the apostle and vanish into the sunset. He was not aware that his contract with Possum’s emissary contained a third provision. No need to cause unnecessary upset. Lederette would make a dandy corpse to pin on Cal.    

Bad blood might be expected to attend a falling out between men once united through marriage to the Rice sisters, Maggie and Cora, and viewed as an ideal match of entrepreneurial vision—Cal—and practical expertise—Possum. Over the course of their thirty-eight year relationship the two had grown a hayseed chain of five and dimes into Paradise Superstores, Inc., the second largest retail enterprise on the planet. Their synergy had survived the car wreck that killed Possum’s twin boys and foundered his marriage to Cora. He’d taken his losses and moved on. But Cal and Maggie were made of weaker stuff. After her heart gave out, Cal had one vision too many.

In a widely covered press conference, the loon proclaimed that the Lord had called him to prepare a place for the Second Coming, just north of Houston, Texas. He envisioned the Tabernacle of the Seventh Seal as an earthly prototype of New Jerusalem, the heavenly city described in the Book of Revelation. The result was a five-story hollow square measuring 1,440 feet on a side with parapets and the biblical twelve gates and foundation stones inscribed with the names of the apostles. These were distributed three to a side on the otherwise monolithic outfacing aspects of the place. The Wall Street Journal couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. In its feature story, Cal, long known on the Street as the Iron Dreamer, was sneeringly rechristened the Iron Apostle.

Unbelievers disrespectfully referred to the Tabernacle on Moonshine Hill as a monstrosity, harsh criticism from Houstonians long inured to cheesy architecture. It seemed a cross between a biblical temple and a Paradise Superstore on steroids, no place they’d like to be caught dead in for eternity. From the air Cal’s fantasyland bore a resemblance to the Pentagon, only square and surrounded by asphalt parking lots. Sometimes in winter the soupy atmosphere cleared, revealing a golden flash of angel trumpets in the Tabernacle plaza. The pretension of it revolted Possum. Whenever he flew commercial carrier into George Bush he lowered the window shade at the announcement of preparations for landing.

The snickering on Wall Street was an embarrassment, but Cal’s Bible thumping also interfered with business. The Paradise board of directors had to pray over everything from long-range building strategy to decisions about which books and music to stock. Cal opposed automation when it meant fewer employees to proselytize. He insisted on prominent displays of evangelical and church paraphernalia in all Paradise stores. Most crucially, everyone on the board, including Cal Pennypacker, understood the importance of the emerging Chinese and Muslim markets. Paradise had no chance to penetrate such virgin territories so long as it was saddled with the baggage of Crazy Cal’s crusade.

But until profits suffered, the financial institutions and a majority of board members were willing to overlook the CEO’s eccentricity. By then, however, it might be too late. Global business had embarked on a new colonial phase. Momentum was the name of the retail game. Possum wasn’t about to wait for the inevitable downturn in profits. The time had come for the can-do man to act.

A rousing fight stimulated Possum even more than the aroma of rare Cuban tobaccos, but his reputation for invincibility conspired to deny him that supreme pleasure. Now he walked into negotiations, exchanged pleasantries, and walked out with whatever he wanted, unchallenged. Victory’s thrill had soured to tedium. The opportunity to mount a clandestine attack on an opponent of equal strength thrilled him. In his youth, he’d been a master at toppling kings of the hill. The key, he knew, lay in disrupting the status quo, the hidden ally of entrenched power. He’d overturn Cal’s Tabernacle card table and destroy the apostle while he was still grabbing at chips.

*    *     *

Events back in Texas began to unfold according to plan. A handsome large-boned alto with platinum blonde hair and the self-assurance of second-generation oil money left her place in the choir and rushed to the stricken apostle’s side. Bea Beamon shooed the converging men away. She had assessed the injuries of many a fallen rider during her barrel-racing days and didn’t need any assistance with this one. Cal was dazed but conscious enough to follow directions. He had the use of both legs.  Although Bea had been stuck on thirty-nine for longer than it was necessary to recall, she hoisted the small man to his feet and, as decorously as possible, half-carried him from the stage. The choral director then stepped forward to conclude the service with an impromptu benediction. While the bewildered congregation filed toward the exits Tabernacle officials boiled and buzzed. Some ran upstairs to the control booth, but Rod Lederette wasn’t there.

 On Bea’s arm, Cal staggered along the wide gold-carpeted hallway toward his private dressing suite muttering and sweeping the air like a blind man. He gave no evidence of recognizing her or anything else for that matter. She opened the door to his sitting room, maneuvered him inside to a worn floral pattern couch, and deposited him on it.
“Don’t try to get up,” she said. “I’ll lock the door.”

Before she’d finished setting the deadbolt he slid off the sofa to his knees, hunched over, face in the carpet, hair mussed.  The mumbling continued. It sounded like, “Thank you, Lord. Praised be Your miracle. Thank you.”

She lifted him onto the couch again and took his head to her bosom. He’d split his lip. When he broke down entirely and began to bawl she nuzzled the unruly tufts of his hair. Its roughness scratched her cheek like the mane of her old quarter horse stud. She rocked and hummed a soothing, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” until the diminutive apostle started again with the whimpering about miracles and thank you Lords.

At this she cradled his face in her hands. “What is it, honey? It’s Bea. Get a hold on yourself now. We’re alone. In your room. Whatever it is, just tell me.” His eyes wandered unfocused like those of a newborn. She wiped the tears and bloody mess off him with the sleeve of her robe. Then she held a fold of it to his nose and told him to blow.

The first knocks on the door, discreet though they were, startled him. Bea, momentarily forgetting she’d taken the precaution of setting the bolt, spun around. “Not now,” she ordered through clenched teeth.

A muffled male voice complained. “It’s locked. Is he in there with you? Bea Beamon, isn’t it?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, Bea, this is Elder Palance. We’re not sure what went wrong yet, but I need to see him.”

“Give us a few minutes. He’s okay but kind of shook up, you know?”

“I’m not asking, Mrs. Beamon. Open the door.”

The gruff command roused Cal like a dose of smelling salts. “Jimmie, she told you. Leave us for a little while. I’ll let you know.”


“Jimmie, I said go.” His tone left no room for dispute. “And tell the others. No calls, no visitors until further notice. Got that? I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”

*    *     *

Cal fumed. Jimmie didn’t understand the delicacy of revelation. A man might as well be struck by lightning and expect to immediately comprehend the physics of electricity. It didn’t work that way. The blast of images had to sort itself out, to unfold at a pace the mortal mind could absorb. Distractions during this critical phase might prove ruinous.

At first there had been only the flooding red intensity. Then he became aware of a flotsam of drowning shapes. These became clearer as Bea helped him from the sanctuary. Rams were dragged under by the weight of their horns. Lambs flailed and bleated in terror. In his mouth and nose, the tang of blood. 

He was in a dark place, as if cast up on a heaving rock. The air vibrated with hymns and the fragrance of orange blossoms wonderful beyond imagining. Before him the bloody tide congealed into a likeness of the mighty Lamb of the Apocalypse. “Fear not the blood of the Lamb,” it said. “The enemies of heaven shall not stand before you.” The words steadied Cal’s soul. His arms ceased their trembling and became as iron.

Then Jimmie Palance had started his god almighty pecking on the door. What was a prophet supposed to do? Say excuse me, Lord; hold that thought?

Cal fought to refocus, but the connection was broken, leaving him marooned in his dressing room with Bea Beamon and a painful charge of residual spiritual energy. She sensed it too. The concern he read in her eyes transformed unmistakably to desire when she enfolded him in the blood and mucus smeared Advent robe.

Since Maggie’s death he’d never given Bea or any other woman cause to make advances. But as he inhaled the heavenly perfume from the pillows of Bea’s breasts he felt another awakening. From the moment the Lord revealed Himself she’d recognized the glory of his possession by the Spirit. She’d known it was more than any man could hope to contain or dissipate on his own. Scrambled fragments of the interrupted vision coursed powerfully within him. His body couldn’t take that kind of pressure for long. It demanded release. He drew Bea to him with the strength of the sinner he’d been before his anointing. She felt angelic and weightless in his arms.

Jimmie, God bless him, was going to have to wait.

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 2007 all rights reserved



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