About the Evolution of Faith
Epistles to the State Pen: A Novel (Working Title)
Chapter One: The Single-Cell Organism
The singular note of prison bars locking into place rang out as Dr. Deke Connolly hopped to the creaky top bunk. He tried to ignore the smell of his cellmate’s body odor, but it was no use. He tried to block out the fact that his head was all of two feet from a stained, leaky roof. Maybe he’d try meditation. Maybe pushing the cold hard facts away was all wrong; perhaps acceptance and leaning in would provide a salve against the perpetual presence of cheap metal toilets and dirty men and ubiquitously noisome smells.
“They’re just sitting there. Can’t I just read one?”
“It’s all nonsense. You need to give it up, Claude. Obsession doesn’t work out well, whatever the intentions.”
“See that. That right there. Running away from who you are, you’re still giving out great advice.”
“You realize you’re not taking the advice. As we speak.”
As the exchange went on and went nowhere, a procession of guards walked by their cell. Though generally brutal, each man in uniform touched a bar gently with two fingers and moved on with faces so reverential, Michelangelo might’ve used them for ceilings. Claude sat watching with a skinny leg crossed tightly over his knee, writing down the names of each guard that performed the “ritual.” Deke could hear the pencil scribbling furiously and he snuck a look down; immediately he was spilling over with regret—it was like he won a lottery and the prize: Least Sexy Secretary In The World.
Dr. Deke sometimes wished a good old-fashioned psychopathic murderer was his bunkmate. A time-honored throat-slashing and the silence of death at times seemed preferable to the very vocal genuflections of Claude Windle. The kid was relentless in all the wrong ways; probably why Connolly hated and secretly liked him. It was like looking in the mirror, only the image had stringy black hair and a long beak that reminded you of gravity every time you glimpsed it. The thing literally overlapped his top lip. Connolly didn’t even know that was a thing.
“Are they almost done?” Deke asked. He was laying down facing the back of the cell, doing his best to ignore the lemmings as they passed.
“Unless there’s been new acolytes, should be five more.”
Holy balls, Connolly thought. Acolytes. He’s coming up with more of that crappy, adopted nomenclature.
Five more taps and five more scribbles and it was finally over.
A sliver of silence and then, “It looks like we’re done for the evening. That’s really surprising. Our membership hasn’t stayed static since your first day inside.”
Connolly rubbed his eyes, annoyed by the tedious strain coming up through Claude’s windpipe as he conveyed his trepidations with superconductor speed. “Perhaps we’ve finally hit our carrying capacity. Maybe it’s finally burned itself out.”
Windle sprang up like there was fire at his feet. Too short to see over the lip of Deke’s bunk, he hopped up to the bottom bed and dug his sweaty fingers into the top “mattress.” Connolly moved only slightly; the whole exercise smacked of a startled junior camper or scared little brother. Then again, that’s essentially what Claude was—only here, at Klampton State Prison, there was no calling home or running down the hall to the arms of loving parents. Dr. Deke realized he represented home. He represented those loving arms.
In that moment, Dr. Deke came very close to vomiting.
“It’s just one night,” Claude said, “and more and more of the inmates are converting each day.”
“Fine,” Connolly grunted, turning toward the filth of the concrete wall. He could feel his cellmate’s hot breath on the back of his neck. “You want to get down? I get that we’re incarcerated, but I’d like the entirety of the six inches of personal space they allow.”
“Please let me read one. Just one.”
Deke turned around with abrupt frustration, scaring Claude and causing him to fall awkwardly against the opposite wall. A few seconds passed before Windle starting moving, using his skeletal arms and weak ankles to get himself sorted. Connolly heard a whimper that seemed to issue forth from every molecule of the little man’s body. It was quite extraordinary, Deke thought, and singularly pathetic.
“Shut your shit up, assholes.” Ah. Mason Drexel, from the next cell over. One of the uninitiated. The putrid sound of hatred was music to Dr. Deke’s ears but did little to attenuate Windle’s state of hurt and discomposure.
Connolly rotated his flexible frame and landed softly on the concrete floor of the cell, moving to help Claude up. “You okay, kid? Nothing bleeding or broken?”
“I’m okay,” Windle whispered, grateful for his cellmate’s help and terrified of Drexel the storied armed robber on the other side of the wall.
“Here you go.” Deke held out a dusty red envelope, unopened and dated six months back. Claude’s countenance transformed to calm in a microsecond; it was like he was just handed the keys to the kingdom. More than that; he had a look of forward determination, as if he’d been handed the baton with a three lap lead in the relay.
Dr. Deke Connolly was only trying to soothe a yowling creature. It seemed like a good idea until he heard, “Can I read it out loud?” Claude was standing straight and wearing springtime on his face.
“Go ahead,” Connolly said, patting his little secretary/cellmate on top of the head with condescension that he knew would be misunderstood as a blessing.
Windle was like a forensic scientist as he opened up the letter. To him it was a museum piece. A cornerstone in the pyramid of history. Waves of gratitude filled his soul as he tried his best to steady his pink, bony little fingers. The idea that the fates had thrown him into the same cell with one of the most famous people on the planet; one of the truly great men—of course it was too much, but that wouldn’t stop him from reading the letter.
Claude Windle was not violent or crazy; just a chronically scared, misguided young man, doing five to ten for computer and mail fraud. His parents ignored him through childhood and abandoned him in adolescence; he did what he had to do to survive.
But that was all over. Deliverance from the cruel world had come. He gently placed a homemade pair of reading glasses atop his beak and crossed his legs high and tight, coughing a few times to clear his throat. A few reverential breaths. The buildup was ceremonial in its length and superfluousness. Windle felt the cosmos opening up and all the stars and supernovas casting their shine on him like a great intergalactic spotlight. Never mind that he was reading a random letter from a place that most rodents would’ve found inhospitable. Never mind the fact that shit on my face was written on the wall, mere inches away.
Before he could even start reading, Dr. Deke was back in the top bunk, sound asleep.
Chapter Two: Multicellular Life
“‘Dear Dr. Deke,’” Claude started, trying not to completely float away.
“‘I can’t imagine what you’re going through. So many of us are confused right now, but we understand that when you plead guilty—when you did what you did—it was to teach us some sort of lesson. Now we need your guidance to understand. There is a rift in the Hamlet that only you can make right.’”
“Who’s this from again?” Deke asked, interrupting Windle’s delicate reading.
“It’s from Margery Lightfoot.”
“Ah, poor Margery. She was the first member. Dubious distinction if there ever was one.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s an understatement,” Connolly said. He had one hand over his eyes and another on his forehead. “Go ahead with the letter.” Deke wouldn’t admit to it, but he was slightly interested. Margery was a good person when he met her. Ripped apart but honest, only looking for a path that wouldn’t shred her weary feet. He hoped his incarceration would wake her up to the truth of the gilded reality they’d been living over the last few years. He could still remember the day…
“‘It’s like a memory of yesterday, the first time we met. I wonder if you see it as clearly. We were both crying. I showed up early because I lost my watch and my cell phone—you were standing in front of seven separate chalkboards, back turned to me as I walked in the gym. Neither of us were wailing—think we were both too exhausted for anything that loud. I came up behind you and asked if you were there for the depression group. “Maybe I should be,” you said, “but no. I’m Deke. Kind of the guy in charge.” It was enough to stop my crying. That chalk all over your hands. How long and wild your hair was, as if you hadn’t slept in a week. Like body and spirit were engaged elsewhere, fighting a battle above and yet still about this world. In an instant it was love.’”
“Mrs. Margery Lightfoot was in love with you?” Claude asked, reluctantly tearing himself from the letter.
“She doesn’t mean it like that, kid. We were friends. Very close. People that meet on the way down or at the bottom often have high valences. There’s comfort in another’s pain—or not. Don’t listen to my bullshit.”
“Can I continue?”
“It’s a free country,” Connolly said, knowing Claude wouldn’t catch the irony.
“‘You flipped over all the chalkboards and told me not to say anything. It didn’t matter. Nobody else came in. That was the first time I ever told anyone about the abuse. My own private session with one of the greatest thinkers in the country—what were the odds? I don’t know if you ever think about odds, but I do.’”
“Is she talking about the very beginning?” Windle asked. “That’s not how the story goes.”
“The story is nonsense,” Deke said. He wiped moisture from his eyes but did it slowly enough so Windle wouldn’t notice. “Most stories are. Especially ones about origins…..”
Claude seemed churned up, but to what degree or purpose Deke didn’t know. He let the little man continue the missive. ‘“When I think back on the people we were just five years ago, it’s astounding. From battered alcoholic housewife to international celebrity and best-selling author. A member of the inner circle of the Hamlet. My life has gone from disaster to triumph. Can you not see? It’s because of you.’”
A laugh tinged with sadness escaped Connolly’s lips. Windle looked over the top of his crooked glasses and waited for more. “Is something wrong, Dr. Deke?”
More laughter followed. It was loud enough to trigger a particularly vivid death threat from Mason Drexel next door. Drexel was a humorless soul, even for a violent criminal. Connolly put a hand over his mouth and stayed himself from any more outbursts. He wasn’t afraid of their neighbor in the next cell—he had all the protection he could need, desired or not. Windle, on the other hand, was more vulnerable. Being a “second” put a man in a precarious sort of esteem—especially in the highly combustible prison hierarchy of Klampton.
Deke turned on his side and hushed Claude. Looking down he could see the little man was ready to implode. “Okay,” he whispered, “finish the damn letter. But keep it down. Drexel sounds about ready to get in touch with his inner self.”
Windle cleared his throat as quietly as he could before recommencing. “‘I owed you everything. I owe you everything. Which is why it’s so confusing.’”
“Wow,” Claude said, “she really does love you.”
“‘I think the pressure got to you. Going from one follower (me) to millions brought with it a heavy burden. Greg was trying to help when—it happened. I hope you know that. Whatever transpired, however bad it was, you have my forgiveness. Please be safe in there and know that you are high in our soul tree. I love you, Dr. Connolly. Forever yours in The Hamlet, Margery Lightfoot.’”
Claude was preparing a fresh fusillade of questions when Deke hopped down and put a stern hand up. He moved Windle out of the way like he was on rollers and dropped to the floor for three sets of rapid-fire pushups. A great deal of steam had built up during the reading of the letter; he required a little physical exertion to balance out his spirits.
Windle watched on as his celebrity roommate went up and down, breathing in a controlled, methodical fashion. Connolly was a physical specimen before prison—now he was positively shredded. The scant menu and ample time in the exercise yard had pushed him into the realm of some of the strongest men in Klampton.
“Are you okay, D.C.?” Claude asked. He could sense a new tension in the cell. A more potent claustrophobia; suddenly the little fraudster felt palpably afraid of his bunkmate.
Deke popped up and knelt over the rusty sink, looking between the cracks of the little mirror. He barely recognized himself, and that was okay. The long golden-brown locks were gone—his hair was shaved tightly down to a two-guard. A few new age lines were starting to pop up here and there and around his narrow, searching eyes, but he still looked five years younger (and meaner) than his forty years. Besides a little natural weathering and a short haircut, though, he didn’t have the look of a man doing hard time for felony assault.
“I was fine. Before you read that letter.” As he answered, Connolly turned to Windle. His ridiculous nose was almost touching the floor in deference. Deke realized he’d been blustering about with more menace than he meant. Claude was skittish, with good reason. “Hey, it’s not your fault. Memory is precious, but sometimes memories suck.”
The succinct, smoky wisdom seemed to perk Windle right up. Those were the words of Dr. Deke Connolly, PhD. That was the kind of comfort offered by the founder and former head of The Hamlet, the world’s leading self-attainment organization.
“Margery—what she said in the letter—was all that true?” Claude asked.
Deke held out a hand and twiddled his fingers until his roommate shook it. “Sorry for getting riled.”
Windle turned red as a stop sign and said, “No problem, Doc.”
Connolly knelt down in front of the little man like a catcher readying for more pitches. “Yes and no. Memory is precious, but it’s funny too. Everybody’s is slightly different.”
“So it started in a gym?”
“No doubt about that part. I was between support groups. Leading six a day and had a grand total of four people coming—combined. Thought I’d put my degrees to use and do some good in the community. Funny.”
“Nobody wants your help, even for free. Then everyone does. Then it just gets weird.”
Claude put a hand on Deke’s shoulder and gently squeezed. It was off-putting, but Connolly did his best to stomach the gesture without reaction. “I feel honored to hear this.”
“The Hamlet changed my life.”
Dr. Deke reached across his body and patted Claude’s hand, still resting on his shoulder. “You know you’re a criminal, right?”
“But when I get out, things are going to be different. I’m going to follow the Ten Edicts and govern my agency with absolute focus.”
Deke needed to roll his eyes, but he let Windle have the moment. In dark places and lonely times, sometimes people just needed to believe some bullshit. This, Connolly knew all too well. He’d built a frigging empire around that very principle. Built it from a few faithful attendees into something that had so much reach he couldn’t even do the calculus. For shit’s sake, he had acolytes. In a prison.
For six months, he’d been on the fence about what he had to do. Strange as it was, Claude’s incessant nettling had brought him back to mission—to what landed him in Klampton in the first place: He had to destroy The Hamlet and topple every brick of that bullshit edifice he’d spent a decade erecting.
As for how, he was a little short on plans, though a few things came to mind. He worked himself back up into his bunk and told Windle no, no more letters tonight. “Claude, did the guards bring in that fresh cell phone earlier?”
“Sure did, D.C.”
“Let’s have it.”
“No contacts are stored in it.”
“That’s okay, kid. I grew up in a time when people still remembered a few numbers. Especially their wife’s.”