A Christmas Story of Anterus Smith as told to Ched Rayson, Conclusion
When he first heard the news about Jess’s arrest and conviction, Mickey was scared, because the last thing in the world he dreamed of being was brave, but after he thought about it for several days, he realized that his biggest rival had just been eliminated, and all he needed to do was to change his message. So he went to live in the woods for several weeks, polishing up his new material.
Coming out of his seclusion, Mickey announced a monster meeting in a field outside of Chequamegon. He did not have time to build a stage, but there was a nice little stream flowing through the field. One side of the ground was flat with room for hundreds of people to stand or spread out picnic blankets, and on the other side, there was a steep bank, which Mickey mounted, to make his pitch, which is why his speech has gone down in history as the “Sermon of the Mountebank.”
As best as I recall, it went like this.
Happy are the proud in spirit, for they shall look at themselves all day in the mirror, thanking God they are not like other men. Happy are they that rejoice, for they shall buy and sell and spend until everyone in the whole wide world is rich. Happy are the proud, for they shall send out their armies to seize all the lands of the earth, no matter who they belong to, and put them to more profitable use than stupid peasants and factory workers could ever imagine doing. Happy are they who grab for what they can get, for they will grow even richer. Happy are the merciless, for the powerful have no need of mercy. Happy are the dirty in mind, for pornography is a lucrative business and will someday be this country’s greatest export. Happy are the warmakers, for they shall be called the liberators of oppressed peoples and the champions of democracy. Happy are they who persecute the self-righteous Christians who claim to know the truth, for theirs is the kingdom of this world. Happy are you when Christians, peace-lovers, and other traitors judge you by their unAmerican moral standards and for the sake of their imaginary God tell all manner of truth about you, for you will know that truth is whatever the majority can be tricked into saying it is. Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward on earth. Morgan and Barnum got rich laughing at the rubes and suckers, why shouldn’t you? Ye are the saltpeter of the earth, but if the saltpeter be not used to make gunpowder to destroy churches and kill the innocent, it is good for nothing…
There was more along the same lines, but you kids get the drift. It was all hokum, the kind you hear from Wobbly Warren Hardly. The first time he gave his sermon, some of the crowed walked away in disgust, and some of the Christians shouted at him, but, as time went by, the decent people who might be shocked no longer paid their fifty cents, but the crowds grew bigger and bigger, swelled by everyone who wanted to get rich and did not care very much how they did it. You kiddies, living on the island here, have been protected, but it’s time you learned that out there in the big world, there are more people like Mickey than there are like Jess or your mother here, people who do good and obey our Lord who told us,“But when thou dost alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doth." Mickey was the opposite. He never did any good to anyone but himself, but he bragged up and down the Peninsula about all he had done for “the less fortunate.” Later on, he was more honest and used to end his sermon with:
“Blessed are the hypocrites who call a press conference whenever they write a check to the charity of their choice, for they know that they are only helping other conmen who are no better than themselves. Blessed are those who vote for Prohibition and higher taxes, since they buy their booze from Canada and hire accountants to keep them rich….”
At this point my father’s mother gently laid her hand upon James’s arm, which was raised in a Jesus-like gesture to drive home the this last beatitude as if he were about to drive a chisel into the dark lake ice to chop a fishing hole.
Evangeline, without a word, sent the children scrambling back up the ladder to bed, and she was about to tell James what she thought of him and his wobbly Gospel, when she caught sight of her husband standing in the dark. He looked like a ghost and she like a woman who had seen a ghost. James seeing, even through the flickering light of the stove, that she looked desolate, turned around and saw his brother. He went sober in an instant,
“If you’re wanting me to apologize, John, you’ve got another thing coming. I told your kids the plain truth of it, and that’s a fact.”
John stared at his brother, as if he were looking at a total stranger.
“Let’s take this outside.”
The kids upstairs had heard the exchange, and from their window, etched with frost, they could just make out the two men grappling in the light of a full moon. Their father was the bigger man, but James, who was filled with righteous indignation about the Republicans and plutocrats, took the first swing that sent his brother flying backwards into the snow. John got up slowly and deliberately, and little Albert told his sisters, “Uncle Jim is going to get it now!”
Jim stood his ground and, as his brother came in close, was taking another swing, when John grabbed hold of his forearm in mid-swing and bent it down to Jim’s side.
“Jim, this nonsense has got to stop. You don’t know the pain you’re causing Evvie. I don’t give a single damn about the Rockefellers and Morgans or the whole godawful Republican Party, and for the life of me, I don’t know why you do. Can’t you tell them Gospel stories without bringing in Bill Haywood?”
Jim, completely sober now, looked down at the snow.
“John,” he said in a low voice, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I’m talking about. I know we disagreed about the war, but we’re all proud of you for what you did, fighting for your country, for what you believe in.”
“You don’t know what the Hell you’re talking about. I’m not angry with you or with anything you’ve said about that. You couldn’t know. You weren’t there.”
“You’re right, John. I have no right to talk about these things. You were the one who stood for what you believe.”
“You still don’t get it. It was terrible over there, not just what the Germans did, but what we did, what we all did. I came across a German, with his guts carved out by one of our bayonets. He was a kid, 16-17. All he knew was to obey orders and fight for his country. Right or wrong, what does that have to do with anything? I still don’t know what the war was all about, but I do know it had nothing to do with us. The Germans and the French, they had some stake in the damn thing, but us? What were we doing over there? I hope Woodrow Wilson rots in Hell for what he made us do. That's a Progressive Democrat for you. The Hell with all of them."
"What about Bob LaFollette? He's a Progressive."
"I don't care what he calls himself. He's a prickly SOB, but he's a man. So is Burt Wheeler. If this country had any future, Americans would get behind men like Wheeler and LaFollette, but they won't. What's the line from that song we heard at a Chautauquah? 'They'll vote just as their leaders tell 'em too.' You know that as well as I do. What's the point of your ridiculous story if not that most people would rather run after Simon Magus than listen to Jesus Christ. Nothing's changed except Americans today are even more like sheep than the Jews were."
"John, you know I agree with you about war, so do the Socialists."
"Wise up, kid. Socialists don't like wars to defend a nation and its property. Just give those Red b-st-rds a chance to fight for world government or a high minimum wage, and they'll be lined up around the street at the recruiting office, just itching to cover a field with phosgene if it kills anyone who owns a pot to pee in. It's not capitalism or communism that are the real problem, it's guys with their heads full of dreams. Guys like you. You wouldn't kill a Kraut who was stealing somebody's land, but you'd stick a bayonet in anyone who refused to vote for Gene Debbs."
"That's not fair."
“Of course, it's not fair. I'm tired of hearing about fair, about democracy, about self-determination, about the rights of small nations, about the rights of women. They're just words, but they're words that kill. If you had seen the towns and villages that I’ve seen, what an army can do, what happens to people who are caught in between.… Life will never be the same for them, and I wonder if it can ever be the same for me. I can’t talk about it. Talking is the problem, Jim. We talk ourselves into big ideas like peace and freedom and democracy, the struggle of the workingman… then we go and make things worse. You’re wrong we’re right you’re right we’re wrong, it makes no difference when we do these unspeakable things. If being right means Verdun, where a million men died in order to destroy one little town with everything in it including chickens, cows, and kids, I don’t care about which side is right. I’ve been wanting to tell you this, but I didn’t know how to speak of it."
“I’m sorry John, I didn’t know.”
“You didn’t know because you, spouting your IWW hate, you’re getting as bad as the rest of them. It’s not too late for you to apologize to the bishop, confess your faults."
"But John, I was right in what I said."
"You haven't been listening. I don't care if you're right about everything. You think it matters if you're right? Who the Hell are you to be right about anything? You're not even a priest and you want to act like the infallible Pope. I bet they’d take you back in the seminary. Think how happy that would make Evvie, how proud she would be to have a priest for a brother-in-law. Hell, you’re closer to her than most brothers are! She loves you, Jim. The kids love you. I love you, not because you're right but because you're my brother."
The sons of Zebedee dusted off the snow and went back in the cabin. The room was silent. Neither Evangeline nor James knew what to say. Young Albert, my father, rubbed the frost off the little round piece of wind-scoured glass that was the only source of light for the loft and stared out into the blizzard blowing up from the East, driving the ice-hard molecules of snow against the fragile cabin. The wind-scarred trees, twisting and creaking, seemed to be speaking sentences more terrible than Uncle James’s mock-beatitudes.
* * *
The table was quiet, and the cafe had nearly emptied in anticipation of the early evening rush. The street crowd was swelled with people returning from work, some carrying a bag with water or wine, others with packages of Christmas presents. At our table, the Italians were too polite to say anything except thanks. The Inglese, with an ironic grin, did have something to say.
“A lovely story, really, Smith. I didn’t think this sort of thing was in your line. Did Uncle Jim go back to seminary and become a pious defender of American capitalism?”
“He did return to the seminary, and he did give up his Wobbly ways, though not his drinking, but later on he became a great admirer of Dorothy Day.”
“Is that better than being a Wobbly—whatever that is?”
“A great deal better. The worker-priests may have got a bit carried away with politics, but basically they were trying to live the Gospel. Uncle Jim was a beloved priest with a parish down in Bayport.
“Yes, your Uncle Jim. I’m curious about one thing. Your description of life on that dreadful island is awfully graphic, almost as if you had lived on it in those days. Was that all from what your father told you or were you, so to speak, re-imagining the whole thing?”
“I suppose that is what memory is for, not just to recall but to reshape. She is, after all, the mother of the Muses.”
“But there are times, when I thought I heard your father speaking—and the way you interlinked his bits of narrative into your own story. Sometimes speaking in your own person, you referred to ‘Uncle Jim.’ Well, it was either a bit of postmodern trickery, or, and this is what I rather think, you somehow followed a train of hallucinations into the world before you were born. Or else—“
“Or else, what?”
“Or else you are some kind of time-traveler. On that note of fantasy, let’s have a Negroni and give a toast to Christmas.”