The Blessing of Jebidiah Goodytake
That damned Bernie! One night, without invitation or provocation, he just burst into my room and began tapping my pillow—thump thump thumpity thump—as if he were jabbering off some sort of indecipherable Morse code message.
I pretended to be asleep, but Bernie persisted until I opened one eye.
“Bob, are you awake?” he whispered.
“Bernie, what the …? It’s almost 12 o’clock count.”
(As federal inmates, we’re subjected to over half a dozen counts per day: bed-book counts, census counts, lockdown census counts, stand-up counts, and the occasional fog count. Woe to the inmate who interferes with the count.)
“Get up, Bob.”
Even with his voice at half-whisper, I still worried that Bernie’s chattering might wake my roommates—“cellies” we called them, though we didn’t live in cells. At Butner LSCI (Low Security Correctional Institution) we lived in cubicles. Calling my cellies “cubies” seemed suspect, especially since their names—Bubba and Fireball—were suspect enough. So I called my cellies “roommates.”
“Go back to your room, Bernie.”
Bernie’s cubicle was a few doors down from mine. His roommates’ names were Cheeseburger and Bear. Most of the prisoners at Butner Low received cool prison names like Dirt, Oil Can, Toomer, Snot-Nose Mike, Birdbath Bill, Qball, Blunt, and the Happy Jacker. Bernie and I were never assigned prison names. Everyone called us Bob and Bernie, like Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie, except Bernie looked more like Bert than I looked like Ernie. In fact, Bernie looked like Bert and Ernie—and a little bit of Beaker—all rolled into one.
In the ashen glow of the housing unit, Bernie hovered next to my bunk like a ghost, a ghostly apparition of Muppets past. “Hurry, Bob. Not much time.”
“Time? Time for what? If you’re not in your bunk in time for the 12 o’clock count, the CO will put you in the SHU, and you can do your time there.”
CO stood for corrections officer, which is what we called the guards in the federal prison system—they hated being called guards. SHU (pronounced shu, long u) was short for Special Housing Unit, also known as “The Hole.” For some reason we prisoners spoke in initials and acronyms much of the time, like some sort of code, albeit not much of one. FYI.
“To hell with the CO,” Bernie said, which admittedly wasn’t strong language for prison but fairly strong language for Bernie. “We’re taking an express train to Amish Country, USA.”
Express train? I had my doubts. In the darkened background someone had his radio turned up too loud, and Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia” played distorted and strained through the headphones. This could mean only one thing: Bernie was dreaming of trains and sleepwalking. I’ve heard that it can be dangerous and psychologically damaging to wake a sleepwalker, so I did the only thing I could do. I slapped Bernie. Hard.
“What the hell did you do that for?”
My cubie/cellie/roommate Bubba stirred a little and murmured something incoherent. Fireball kept snoring.
“Are you awake now?”
Bernie rubbed the side of his face. “Of course I’m awake.”
“Good. Go back to your cube and go to sleep.”
Just then a light appeared at the end of the hallway—the CO’s flashlight approaching fast. The 12 o’clock count had begun, and Bernie was now “hit,” as we said in prison, which meant that Bernie would be caught in my room and be taken to the SHU to spend the rest of the night, maybe the rest of the month. But as the light approached I saw that it couldn’t possibly be the CO’s flashlight. The bulb was too large and came at us too fast.
Bernie looked at his watch. “Eleven fifty-nine and right on time—the Amish Express.”
The Amish Express glided to an awkward stop outside my cubical. I found it unimpressive as far as locomotives went. First off, it was small—a scaled-down version of an eighteenth-century steam engine done on the cheap. Secondly, it leaked; black oil dripped from its undercarriage even as steam wheezed from its rickety wheels and gray smoke panted from its stack. Lastly, it was sawdust brown. It seemed to me that steam engines should be blue steel or black enamel or even fire-engine red, not the unspectacular mottled umber of toasted oatmeal.
The conductor whispered, “All aboard”—obviously cognizant of the late hour and the fact that some people might be trying to sleep. Courtesy such as that was appreciated in prison.
I inspected the train more closely, actually knelt down and looked at its dripping underbelly. “I’m not getting on that thing.”
“Why not?” asked Bernie.
“For one thing,” I said, “it seems to be made out of plywood.”
“Like that matters. The thing is obviously flammable, and it’s already smoldering.”
Bernie gave me a slight push, then another—he actually pushed me, which was very unlike Bernie. “Where’s your sense of adventure, Bob?”
“Where’s your sense, period? What about the 12 o’clock count?”
“What about it?” he said, and with a great shove and a stumble, I found myself aboard the Amish Express.
The interior was markedly better than the exterior, surprisingly roomy and comfortable—”a utilitarian balance between Victorian sensibilities and plush ostentation,” according to the brochure that Bernie clutched and read from like some third-class tourist. Our car featured mahogany floors polished to an almost unseemly reflective gloss. (“You could just ice skate on that floor,” Bernie said.) Hurricane lanterns, suspended from the ceiling, swayed slightly as the train resumed movement and Bernie and I took our seats.
Our seats were made of cherry wood, Bernie read aloud, and upholstered with overstuffed velvet cushions “accented with Russian gold brocade”; the armrests were meticulously carved and “exquisitively” (Bernie’s word) ornate. The window blinds could be cranked up and down like tiny storefront awnings. Beneath the blinds and viewed through flawed antique glass, moonlit countryside passed in rippling waves: an endless unspooling of crinkled burnt burlap, upon which the Grand Surrealist had rendered primordial forests, darkened hillsides, haunted valleys, desolate dwellings … all as ill-defined as underwater shadows.
“It says here that the wallpaper is imported from France. And listen to this—the throw rugs are made of yak hair and were hand-loomed by Tibetan refugees living in Nepal.”
“Bernie, I don’t think we’re in Butner, anymore.”
“Of course we’re not in Butner. We’re nearly in Virginia.”
“We’re escaping, that’s what we’re doing, you idiot.”
“Well, try not to draw attention to yourself.”
“You realize that the U.S. Marshals will track us down like rabid animals—you realize that, don’t you?”
“I certainly hope that’s a misplaced modifier, because I most definitely do not have rabies.”
We rode in silence for a moment.
“What have you gotten me into?” I asked.
Another moment passed.
“I’ve been kidnapped,” I said. “Yes, that’s what’s happened.”
“Listen to this,” Bernie said—again the brochure. “The Amish Express is entirely the creation of Jebidiah Goodytake, who designed it inside and out, from top to bottom. He says the whole thing came to him in a dream.”
“Bernie, you’re frightening me. Where are we going? And who the heck is Jebidiah Goodytake?”
“He dreamed the whole thing up—can you imagine?”
“Bernie, are you even listening to me?”
“Of course I’m listening to you—you’d better be careful how you talk about Jebidiah Goodytake.”
“Who the heck is he?”
“Watch your mouth!”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just that right now we’re escaped felons, and I’m afraid I’m not handling it very well.”
“I should say not. You’d better pull yourself together. If Mr. Goodytake were to hear you use his name in vain like that, we’d be through, finished, kaput, and this whole trip would have been for naught.”
“Bernie, you really, really scare me when you start using phrases like for naught. You and that stupid brochure—”
Bernie pouted. “I really think it’s a good brochure,” he said. “Besides, you remember me telling you about Mr. Goodytake , don’t you?”
“If I did, I wouldn’t be asking you about him now.”
“I hadn’t looked at it that way,” Bernie said. “Perhaps you’re right. Let’s consult the brochure, shall we?”
Bernie cleared his throat. “Pennsylvania, also known as the Keystone state, is named for William Penn, an English Quaker, and was founded in 1682 and ratified as a state on December 12, 1787. The state bird is the ruffed grouse, which is not as pretty as it sounds. Good eatin’, though. Especially fried. Here’s a picture—see?”
I told Bernie that I had lived in Ohio, Georgia, and Florida—places that did not eat their state birds.
He continued: “The state flower is the mountain laurel. Now those are pretty. Those are the flowers in the crystal vases bracketed to the walls. The word ‘Pennsylvania’ means ‘Penn’s Woods.’” He pondered this. “Now that’s interesting. That must mean that ‘Transylvania’ means ‘Transvestite Woods.’”
“Bernie, I do not want to hear the entire history of Pennsylvania, and I’m in no mood to hear about transvestites.”
“You do realize that I am from the great state of Pennsylvania. And I had an aunt—an uncle, really—who was a …”
“Bernie! Just skip ahead to the part about Mr. Goodytake.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?”
“I just did.”
“OK, OK—you got that. Heck,” Bernie said, laying the brochure aside, “I don’t even need this to tell you about Mr. Goodytake. He’s the most famous man in all of Pennsylvania. In fact, he’s world famous in Lancaster County. That’s Amish country.”
“Oh, yes. He’s known as some sort of holy man—a miracle worker.”
At long last Bernie’s seemingly pointless ramblings had piqued my interest.
“Go on—” I said.
And Bernie proceeded to tell me what he knew about Mr. Goodytake. According to Bernie, Jebidiah Goodytake possessed the ability to grant anyone a blessed life: He healed the sick, made whole the handicapped, and granted riches to the poor—all with a single wave of his hand. Bernie explained that it worked like this:
The Goodytake house stood along Lancaster-Rural Highway, a neglected asphalt two-lane no longer used by anyone but the Amish and their horse-drawn carriages; on the other side of this road Mr. Goodytake planted his acres and acres of various crops. If a person were to make a pilgrimage to Goodytake Farm, that person should stand in the middle of Lancaster-Rural Highway, between Mr. Goodytake’s home and his fields and orchards, and wait until late afternoon, when Mr. Goodytake returned home from a day of tending his crops. If you greeted Mr. Goodytake in a manner that he perceived as respectful, he would wave to you—a simple, majestic wave of his hand—and all your wishes would be granted, all your sicknesses and infirmities would be healed, and you would live a long and blessed life.
“Can he grant pardons?” I asked.
“The highest in the land,” Bernie said.
“So this whole leaving-prison-without-permission thing—”
“Put it behind you,” Bernie said.
While we continued traveling, Bernie let me know that there were three unusual things about Mr. Goodytake—other than that he could perform miracles and grant wishes—important things that we pilgrims ought to keep in mind.
“Number one,” Bernie said, “Mr. Goodytake lives in the largest house in Lancaster County.”
This was unusual, Bernie explained, because the Amish doctrine requires personal simplicity as a way of life; the Amish tend to be a modest people who live in modest homes. However, the reason that Mr. Goodytake needed such a large dwelling was alluded to in his second unusual attribute.
“Number two,” Bernie said, “Mr. Goodytake has exactly one hundred wives.”
This was most unusual because, besides being modest, the Amish are quite monogamous. How can a man have so many wives? I thought to ask, but instead I said, “Why?”
Bernie sat quietly for a moment. Then he said, “You’ll see when we get there.”
Another moment of silence passed before I finally asked, “What is the third unusual thing about Jebidiah Goodytake?”
“Oh,” Bernie said. “it’s nothing really. It’s just that he’s extremely ugly—easily the ugliest man in all of Lancaster County.”
An ugly man with one hundred wives? This I had to see.
As thoughts of my future good life filled my head and my mind started to drift into revelry, the Amish Express slowed, stopped, lurched, and stopped again. Kerosene oil dripped from the overhead lanterns, and several more wearied travelers entered our car and took their seats. Although they sat behind us, behind Bernie and me, I could tell from their voices that there were at least four men in the group.
As if reading my mind but obviously continuing with a conversation that had begun on the last station’s platform, the first man said, “Defining the good life is not easy. Perhaps this is because the word ‘good’ is too subjective and defined differently by each of us.”
“True, true,” said the second man. “What is good for one man is not necessarily good for another.”
I agreed with both statements and thought each of us probably had a different idea of what the good life was; if one asked four different people, one was liable to get as many different answers.
Again, as if on cue and in synchronization with my thoughts, the first man said, “I think the good life is a life of acquiring and having riches.”
The second man disagreed. “The good life is a healthy life,” he said, his voice tinged with anger.
The third man defined the good life in terms of freedom: “The good life is the free life,” he said, “free to do what one wants to do.”
The fourth interjected, “The good life is a long life, spent with family and friends.”
A grumbling arose from the group. At once those four opinions seemed at odds with one another, and reconciling them would prove difficult.
“What good is a long life lived in poor health?” the second man asked.
“We all lose our health in the end,” said the fourth man, “especially if we live long enough.”
“Well,” scoffed the third, “there’s no freedom in having riches. The more possessions a man has, the more bogged down he becomes.”
“How free can a poor man be?” asked the first. “Without money, a man can’t do anything.”
“Which is another way of saying, without money nobody can do anything,” said the third man.
“My point exactly,” said the first.
“My point,” said the third man, “is that even a nobody can do anything, anything he wants, as long as he’s not bogged down by possessions.”
“Huh?” said the first.
“Exactly,” said the third.
Suddenly Bernie turned and joined the conversation. With great verbosity, he said, “These things can be argued indefinitely into infinity. These things have always been argued and will always be argued”—which was really just a bunch of hot air, but it sounded insightful because of the loud and affected way Bernie said it.
The four men sat immobile, as if awestruck and in deep contemplation of Bernie’s words. The first man took a series of labored breaths and then spoke: “Does anyone else smell something burning?”
“Smells like particle board flambé.”
“Flames are shooting past. Look—outside the window.”
“The train’s on fire. We’ve got to get out of here.”
“Somebody do something!”
Bernie leapt to his feet and yanked hard on the emergency cord, which broke off in his hand and swung like a hangman’s noose. The Amish Express increased speed and clamored loudly down the track, bouncing and weaving and leaning madly on the slightest curves.
One of the men panicked and thrust a hurricane lantern at the window. The lantern shattered into a shower of kerosene oil and orange-hot flames, which didn’t help the situation. Bernie gathered up all the mountain laurel from the vases along one wall and tossed the blossoms into the fire. The burning flowers smelled as pleasant as calming incense, but ultimately Bernie’s efforts didn’t help, either. At last someone thought to open the emergency exit.
“Abandon train!” Bernie yelled, and Bernie and I jumped out into the night.
We rolled down a concrete embankment, while the Amish Express streaked upward and across the night sky like a brilliant comet.
I checked myself for broken bones. Bernie stood and brushed himself off. We watched as the Amish Express shot higher and, at its apex, exploded into a shower of light.
“Excellent,” Bernie said. “Everything’s going according to plan.”
“According to plan?” I said. “Are you nuts? I’d hate to see it when things start going wrong.”
“They won’t,” Bernie said.
“Bernie,” I said, “I think those poor guys were still on the train.”
“Yeah,” Bernie said. “Isn’t that something?”
We walked along a narrow country road bordered by sharp gravel and mournful hemlocks. The hemlocks gave way to brambles, the road to a faint path choked with honeysuckle and ivy-wrapped saplings. Potholes deepened into craters, exposing stacks of shifting slate-gray stones, and eventually Bernie and I were ambling along a dusty-dry creek bed. Night folded up like a velvet blanket encased by the light of morning. The creek bed spread out into a wide weed-tangled valley. Heat-driven buzzings of sex-crazed insects whirred all around us: grasshoppers, cicadas, field crickets, katydids, and I didn’t know what else. Honey bees and bumble bees labored with industrious fervor among wild clover, their hind legs bright and thick with pollen. I could smell cow manure and fresh-cut grass, carrion and damp earth.
“There’s something else I have to tell you,” Bernie said. “Well, not so much tell you but warn you about. Three things.”
We had escaped the confines of a low-security federal prison and narrowly escaped an exploding train with our lives, and now he thought to give warnings. “Three things?”
“Yup. The first thing is, Mr. Goodytake is sensitive about his appearance. So you best not mention how ugly he is.”
“The second thing?”
“Mr. Goodytake is also sensitive about having so many wives. So it’s probably best not to talk about that either.”
“OK,” I said. “No problem. What’s the third thing?”
“I’ll tell you when we get there.”
Bernie—always with the “when we get there.”
We walked for miles, Bernie in his prison-issued, steel-toe boots, and me in my bare feet. We walked throughout the morning and afternoon; but time passed quickly, as time mercifully can. I contemplated the insane way that prison time passed, the way that prison minutes can seem like hours, and prison hours can seem like days, and prison days can seem like weeks, but then prison weeks can seem like minutes, with prison months sometimes passing without notice or thought. Time flies, as is said, but often it flies like a drunken dragonfly: ceaselessly looping back upon itself, zigging, zagging, rarely flying a straight course, and hovering for long and dreary stretches over stagnated terrain—only to dart off suddenly toward the sun, no apparent cause or warning, never to be seen again. A sad, Buddhist thought came to me: such is the span of a human life—one beat of that dragonfly’s wings. One beat, that’s it ….
“We’re here,” Bernie said.
I looked up and read the hand-crafted sign in front of us—“Goodytake Farm”—each letter carefully fashioned in a full spectrum of color, as if conceptualized in prismatic technicolor.
The Goodytake house was a sight to behold, as large as a factory and as artful as any palace. Constructed of glass and brick inlaid with colorful chunks of ceramic tile, his house—a beautiful monstrosity of twisted stonework and utter chaos—stood at least seven stories high in its center and stretched far off into the horizon in either direction for at least a mile, its granite foundation bowing with the heavy, lumbering curvature of the earth.
Between the various towers were affixed turbine-like motors. These powered an intricate system of conveyer belts that crisscrossed as they ran from tower roof to tower roof, gable to gable, and even stretched across the road, into the fields and beyond my vision. On the conveyer belts rode an assortment of woven baskets, each over-filled and overflowing with every type of produce desirable—bananas, strawberries, blueberries, honeydew melons, zucchini, eggplant, broccoli, cauliflower, peaches, cherries, okra, pears, and all the other fresh fruits and vegetables I had been denied throughout the course of my incarceration.
Down through the center of Mr. Goodytake’s house/factory/castle flowed a powerful waterfall, which cascaded over a giant water paddle as big as a state fair’s Ferris wheel. From there the water fell and flowed in frothing rapids beneath Lancaster-Rural Highway and fed into a great reservoir, Goodytake Lake, which, in turn irrigated Mr. Goodytake’s expansive fields.
“Now you can see why Mr. Goodytake has so many wives,” Bernie said. “Amish Ordnung—rules—ban the use of electric power. He needs his many wives to hand-pump the water that powers the house and farm. This whole place runs on hydrodynamics, baby!”
“It’s impressive,” I admitted. Then I felt a bit uneasy. “What was the third thing you wanted to warn me about?”
“What a worrier you are,” Bernie said. “It’s nothing. I just thought you should know that we’ll get only one chance at this—one chance in a lifetime.”
“What could go wrong?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Well, almost nothing. Mr. Goodytake might perceive that we’re not being respectful toward him. Or angry if he thinks his wives are being lazy. But like I said, nothing will go wrong, no need to worry.”
Indeed, there was no need to worry. Obviously Goodytake Farm was producing a bountiful crop, and it was also obvious that his many wives were working diligently and especially hard, hand-pumping the tons of water that made the farm run successfully. Even Mr. Goodytake’s children, ugly though they were, busily loaded baskets and baskets of market-ready produce into a fleet of cargo trucks. Life was good for Jebidiah Goodytake, ugly children aside, and soon life would be good for me too.
“What happens if Mr. Goodytake doesn’t wave to us?” I asked.
Bernie shrugged. “I guess you’ll have to be grateful for the life that you have, because we’ll get only that one chance. But don’t worry.”
Just then an Amish gentleman, bearded and wearing a widebrim hat, appeared at the far edge of the closest field—Mr. Goodytake himself—and, even at a distance, I could tell he was in a good mood. He walked with a lightness in his step and looked as if he were whistling. Then an amazing thing happened. Rather than walking around the lake, he stepped right onto the lake, walking on its mirroring surface, toward where Bernie and I stood in the middle of the road.
And I could see that Jebidiah Goodytake was not an ugly man. He was a man of above-average looks, handsome even, but I could understand how Mr. Goodytake might have developed a demeanor of low self-esteem, having fathered so many ugly children, thinking, as he probably did, that he saw himself reflected in their ugly little faces. With that thought, my heart was filled with compassion for Mr. Goodytake, and I realized confidently that I would have no problem greeting Mr. Goodytake in a respectful manner.
I was about to raise my hand to greet Mr. Goodytake, just as he began to cross the road, when, to my left, Bernie yelled out: “Hey Goodytake! If I was as ugly as you, I’d need a hundred wives, too, just so I could hope that one of them might sleep with me!”
Suddenly Mr. Goodytake lowered his head, hid his eyes beneath the wide brim of his hat, and hurried across the street, not otherwise acknowledging our presence. And he disappeared through the massive front door of his house, shutting it with an earth-booming slam. Windows rattled. The air itself shook.
I turned to Bernie. “What the hell was that?”
“That,” he said, “was for slapping me.” Bernie pivoted neatly on one heel and started off to where Goodytake’s ugly, absolutely hideous children were loading produce.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“See that old truck being loaded with bags of rotten potatoes? The old Dodge pickup? That one’s going back to Butner, and we need to hitch a ride.”
Following Bernie’s lead, I lay atop one haphazardly-stacked mound of lumpy sacks of potatoes, each sack labeled “Goodytake Farm BLUE POTOMAC (Solanum tuberosum) 50#” and stamped with a copyrighted caricature of a certain former vice president giving a thumbs-up and stating, with the aide of a dialogue balloon, “My Flavorite Potatoe!” Beneath the caricature—in a miniscule, nearly illegible script—were the words NOT for human consumption.
A fetid stench of fermenting potatoes and fertilized dirt rose up all around me like decaying ghosts. The potatoes felt like stones in my back, which, I reasoned, was more comfortable and actually softer than my prison mattress. The old Dodge started rough and ran even rougher, its driver forcefully grinding gears. The truck jumped into movement, and as we bumped down some washboard road, I was somehow able to close my eyes and drift into a deep, dreamless sleep.
I’ve decided over the years that the worst kind of lighting to wake up to is naked florescent lighting, that the worst sound to wake up to is the snap-crackle-pop of an overhead P.A. system, that the worst bed to wake up in is a prison bunk welded out of steel plates, that the worst way to wake up is to be ungrateful for the new day. I awoke that morning under all four conditions.
I surmised by the languid calm of my roommates Bubba and Fireball that I hadn’t been missed. Or maybe it was as if I had never been gone at all. How could that be? As Einstein so aptly noted, time is relative. The only thing I could figure was this: The span of time that Bernie and I were gone, nearly a full day, amounted to less than one minute of prison time—prison time versus outside-world time. Or maybe time itself, that drunken dragonfly, had looped back and deposited Bernie and me to within one minute of our original departure. Who knows? All I knew for sure was that it takes Einsteinian genius to figure these things out, and I wasn’t up to the task at six a.m.
In the chow hall, surrounded by the clatter and chatter of a thousand other inmates, Bernie coyly pretended not to remember a thing. So I played along and recounted the whole adventure as each of us ate his breakfast—a cold, stale cinnamon-blueberry danish and a carton of nearly-expired milk.
“Wild,” Bernie said. “Cool dream.” He smirked—actually smirked at me—that damned Bernie. “All you need to do is figure out what it means. You know, the moral of the story.”
“How about, ‘Never slap the face that leads you. ‘“
“That’s no moral, Bernie. Try again.”
“I dunno,” he said. “It’s your dream,” he said. “You’ll figure it out,” he said. “Wild,” he said.
About then I realized that the blue splotches in my cinnamon-blueberry danish weren’t blueberries. They were tiny pockets of mold.
“Cool,” Bernie said. “Too bad it was only a dream, though.”
Yes, too bad, I thought. I could tell Bernie was lying. The red outline of my palm print was still visible on the side of his face, from the night before.
* * *
Two weeks later my sister came to visit. As it happened, Bernie also had a visit.
Visitation’s a bland room, overwhelmingly bland, from the blank walls and sparse decoration to the depressing blue carpet and institutional furniture. It’s nearly as large as the waiting area of an inner-city bus terminal and half as charming. Walking into the visitation room, I saw Bernie talking to a woman whom I guessed (correctly) to be his mother. Next to Bernie’s mother sat a bearded man in a wide-brim hat, a man whom I recognized immediately: Jebidiah Goodytake. Then I saw the family resemblance—not between Bernie and his mother or even between Bernie and Jebidiah Goodytake. No; I recognized the resemblance between Bernie and those ugly Goodytake children, the ones back in Lancaster County. Whether this meant that Mr. Goodytake was Bernie’s blood relative or that Bernie might have illegitimately sired the entire Goodytake brood, I didn’t know; nor did I care. I had my mind on an entirely different matter as I went up to them and introduced myself.
“Oh, hi-i-i-i, Bob,” Bernie said. “Mom, this is Bob. Bob, this is my mother.”
I shook her hand.
“And this is my Uncle Jeb.”
“Pleased to meet you, sir,” I said. “Are you aware that a wasp’s landed on your beard?”
Mr. Goodytake gingerly batted his hands about his beard and about his head and hat, waving away at that imaginary wasp, and I positioned myself in the direct path of that waving. I knew instantly that my plan had worked: I could feel Jebidiah Goodytake’s blessed happiness welling up inside me; I was overflowing. The good life was mine, I could feel it, in abundance; the good life was mine.
Bernie gasped. “That’s cheating,” he said, shifting from one butt cheek to the other. “You cheated.”
Mr. Goodytake continued his waving, blessing everyone in the visitation room. He blessed the vending machines. He blessed the plastic chairs, the Formica tables, the fake plants, and the bewildered officers. Now it was my turn to pivot neatly on one heel, which I did, and I walked over to where my sister sat, and we enjoyed an excellent visit.
This all happened over three years ago. Bernie finished serving his sentence and went home, back to Wherever, PA. I get regular letters from him, telling me how he doesn’t have a job, how he doesn’t have a girlfriend, how he’s still sleeping on his mother’s couch in the basement. In his last letter he wrote that he had applied for a job as either a batter taster or a battery tester—or perhaps even a battery taster—I couldn’t tell which. Bernie’s tears often cause the ink to run and splotch, making it difficult to read his shaky handwriting and make out his pathetic words.
As for me, I’m still in prison. But I’m happy, I’m blessed, I’m living the good life. People often say to me, “You’re way too happy.” They say, “Why are you smiling?” They say, “Don’t you know you’re in prison?”
Just this morning someone said to me, “You look as if you know a secret.”
I had never thought of it that way, but perhaps I do know a secret, the secret of true happiness. So I share the secret, the story of Mr. Goodytake , the story I just told you.
They say, “Dude, you’re in denial.” They say, “Dude, you’re crazy.” They say, “Dude—”
I’m not crazy. I’m not in denial. I have a logical explanation. The fact that my life hasn’t changed means only one thing, the only thing that it could mean: I had always been living the good life. I just hadn’t known it, not until I received Mr. Goodytake’s blessing and my eyes were opened.
My life is good. I’m blessed. I’m happy.
Just try to tell me different.