Lost in the Myth of the Sleepy Eye Lights

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The Sleepy Eye Lights scare the bejabbers out of all those in town who know of them. Will Reverend Almanso Badcher solve the mystery? - - A Halloween story of intrigue, written with help from Mr. Irving and Mr. Knickerbocker.

Lost in the Myth of the Sleepy Eye Lights
By Angela Rasch

 


 
 
The not-quite-as-young-as-he-might-want-you-to-think-he-is driver glanced over at the passenger seat of his 1966 sea blue VW bug. A map of Minnesota he’d spread out affirmed that he was less than four miles from Sleepy Eye. He’d left Highway 169 at Mankato, going west in the Minnesota River Valley, before turning slightly to the south onto the western Minnesota plain. The putrid smell of his last drive-thru McMeal permeated what was left of the fabric on his seats — reminding him of his inability to buy a decent meal.

If I never eat another hunk of sub-prime beef out of a paper sack, I’ll die a happy man.

He smiled to himself with the knowledge that he would probably make it to his new job before his tired old VW gave up the ghost. On the back seat were a brown and black, cardboard suitcase containing his entire wardrobe and a box of paperbacks by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Ray Bradbury, and Orson Card. He cared very little for worldly possessions or earthbound ideas. Also in the box were dog-eared books and downloaded essays on the subject of extraterrestrials who came to Earth years ago to walk amongst the Mayans, Incas, and Egyptians.

Mercy! he thought, taking another quick glance at the map. The Minnesota River is like a belt around the waist of the State of Minnesota, but just like a wanton slut, Minnesota has hung her river loosely on her hips so that it sags to the bottom of a Vee at Mankato, drawing Satanic attention to her sexual parts.

He closed his eyes briefly in devote prayer. Because his quadragenarian car could barely make a sustained forty-five mph, his nano-second conversation with God created only a minor traffic hazard.

“Sleepy Eye,” he said licking his lips. The town’s quaint name had popped into his search for a new job off the list of small Minnesota towns looking for pastoral guidance. He had been a fan of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books as a child and had watched the Michael Landon-directed TV series in syndication, so he knew without looking at the map that Sleepy Eye was located between Walnut Grove -- where Laura grew up -- and Mankato -- where she later lived with Almanso.

In fact, my mother named me after the character in the series, who was added to the show the year I was born. Almanso Wilder ended up marrying Laura Ingalls. “And now I’m going to live here. Praise the Lord; he works in strange and wonderful ways.”

He grinned with contentment and thought of the U.S. Census data that had prompted him to finalize his decision about where to live.

Sleepy Eye has a population of 3,515. Big enough so I won’t be bored, yet small enough so I can keep a firm hand on my flock’s activities. The mean income for a household is $37,124. The $30,000 annual stipend the congregation will pay me won’t be too far below the average, and I do have the pastor’s residence to live in . . . rent-free. I’ll make a few extra dollars from weddings and funerals.

He ran a hand through his full head of hair and wondered about his chances for premature baldness. I can’t ask Dad, because he disappeared shortly after I was born. His mother had skipped out when he was five, leaving him to be raised in foster homes.

Two other sets of numbers had done much more to seal the deal on moving to Sleepy Eye. For every 100 females, age 18 and over, there were only 47.4 males. He looked in the mirror and saw an unwed man who had recently seen his thirtieth birthday, but who looked and dressed like he was twenty.

For once I’m going to have the odds going for me. All I’ve needed in the past has been a fair break to find a wife to fill the role of submissive homemaker mandated by the Bible. The women of Sleepy Eye are going to love me.

The other positive number was the racial make up of the town. 94.03% White, 0.23% African American, 0.06% Native American, 0.34% Asian, 3.90% from other races, and 1.45% from two or more races.

Hispanic or Latino of any race account for 7.80% of the population, but I can live with that. I’m not a huge fan of illegal aliens of any nationality, but the brownskins’ ability to spot and properly handle the Sodomites amongst them is beyond reproach.

He couldn’t abide black men. Even though they were probably homophobic, as right-minded people should be, they often would use the threat of homo-sex rape as a method of intimidation. For Almanso there was no greater threat, nor bigger social transgression. He lived not only in deathly fear of AIDS - - but even the idea of such a heinous act made him physically ill.

Almanso had taken a job in the inner city right out of Divinity School and had found in very short order that his beliefs were incompatible with most of the uppity Muslims and other trash who pushed his buttons. He’d bounced around the suburbs of the Twin Cities as an assistant clergy and was finally getting a shot at his own congregation.

The road signs proclaiming the upcoming junctions of Highways 4, 68, and 14 reminded him to keep his eyes open for his new church. That several roads led into the town indicated that Sleepy Eye was indeed a shopping center for all of Brown County.

This place has real possibilities. At last, a chance to put down roots and build a mega-church. With modern technology all I need is a satellite feed and an invigorated following to help me create a high-profile reputation. He chuckled. I don’t even have enough money for a cell phone, and I’m dreaming of being a television star.

He remembered with fondness how Sleepy Eye had gained national fame in the 90’s when they tried to ban MTV in their town. It was a place waiting to be led toward righteous redemption. In the right hands, with the help of the Lord -- and a friend he knew, who knew someone at the top at FOX News -- big things could happen.

Almanso did a quick tour of the city noting a variety of small sales and service organizations, some with fanciful names like Beyond the Rainbow Massage. He made a note to be sure all was right in how they approached their business.

His first impression of St. Olaf’s, with its brick parsonage, church, and two-story school was that he’d passed on to his eternal reward much earlier than expected. Everything appeared, at least from the exterior, to be trim and up-to-snuff. The school looked more than adequate for the seventy-three students the original letter from the church board had said were enrolled in grades 1 — 8. He would be putting his elementary degree, which he’d earned before and in conjunction with his divinity degree, to good use instructing the seventh and eighth grade classes. The church had the gravitas to house serious worship with its leaded windows and inspirational steeple.

Only the parsonage left him perplexed. It was obvious the previous cleric had been married and that the woman had usurped his God-given role as master. Not only were the grounds festooned with too many bushes and flowers, but worse yet -- festive curtains, in silly and provocative colors, ringed the windows.

I have to get rid of all that frou-frou, or people will get the wrong idea about me.

Hmmm, it’s 11:00 and the meeting with the lay clergy is set for 11:30 in the church basement. I don’t want to arrive early and seem too eager. I’ll time it to walk in five minutes late. He decided to stop at Petersen’s Café for a cup of coffee -- black, no cream or sugar.

***

“How are you today,” a charming waitress asked. Her nametag announced “Lawrie Petersen: Waitress - Cook — Owner — Bouncer.” The word “Bouncer” had been underlined in red.

Almanso searched her fingers for telltale rings and was relieved to find no evidence of matrimonial encumbrance. “I’m . . . fine.”

She laughed. “Not quite sure, are you? Have a cup of this and you’ll feel many times better.” She poured from a pot that seemed to live on the end of her right hand.

His heart skipped a beat. Everything about her seemed to suggest that she was a perfect candidate for the title of Mrs. Reverend Almanso Badcher.

She handed him a one-page menu, her perfectly manicured nails glistening in the sun that streamed through a carefully cleaned front window. “You’re the strong silent type, huh? I’m Lawrie Petersen. That’s with a “w”. Are you here on business, or just passing through?”

He looked around the restaurant before answering. The place was empty except for four other gentlemen who occupied a booth no more than ten feet away playing a dice game called “Horse”. He had selected a table rather than sitting on a stool at the counter; given the sparse crowd he didn’t think he was wasting the establishment’s resources. “I’m moving here. The name’s Almanso Badcher.”

Her smile doubled. “Almanso. That’s a significant name in this area. You should feel right at home.”

He was taken with her physical beauty and hugely attracted by the preposterous rock she wore on the pinkie of her left hand — obviously not an engagement or wedding ring.

That ring is worth more money than I’ve seen in one place in my entire life.

One of the men in the booth spoke up. Of the four of them he seemed to be the cleanest and possibly the youngest, although he had to be at least sixty. “Did you say your name is ‘Badger’, like that animal that eats snakes and skunks?”

Almanso could feel the back of his neck turn red. As a child he had lived with a constant barrage of teasing over his name. The fact that he had an albino streak of white hair about a half inch wide that started at his forehead and went straight back to the rear of his scalp, didn’t help. Neither did his small, beady eyes and shorter than usual arms, nor his long, protruding nose with its upturned end which contrasted with his tiny ears. It was as if certain parts of his body were competing to look the most like a badger.

“It’s Badcher. B — A — D — C — H — E — R.”

“Mister,” the man asked, “are you unhappy about something? I saw the car you pulled up in. If’n things haven’t been going so good for ya, we can understand and are here to help. Tell ya what. Why doesn’t the boys and I buy you a sandwich for lunch?”

Almanso was dumbstruck. Not only was he in the company of a woman as pretty as he had imagined Sarah to be, in Genesis, but he had also met men of uncommon generosity.

“Leave him be, Abe,” Lawrie ordered. She turned toward Almanso. “Mr. ‘Badcher’ — welcome to Sleepy Eye. In case you’re wondering, the name of the town comes from the Indian chief Sleepy Eye — Chief Ishtakhabe, who was supposedly known for his compassion. He also supposedly had at least one droopy eye. Seems like -- to celebrate our heritage half the people in town think it’s okay to run around almost comatose, while the others,” she nodded her head toward Abe and his friends, “stick their eagle eyes into other people’s business where they shouldn’t.”

“That’s okay,” the minister offered. “The quicker I meet the members of my congregation, the better.”

“A minister. . .that explains the car,” Abe said, and then the other three men displayed their approval by laughing loudly.

“Don’t mind them, Reverend,” Lawrie said, with affection, as if they were misguided uncles, “they’re all Catholics. If you had worn a collar today they would have gotten all ‘genuflecty’ and shown proper respect. Those four are the biggest tricksters in Brown County. They’ve pulled practical jokes on everyone . . . some stunts not so ‘practical’.”

Papists! I’ll have to ask the Lord to help me with tolerance.

Abe came over and stuck out his hand. “Glad to meet you Reverend Badcher. The names Abraham Boones, but everyone knows me by ‘Abe’. The offer still stands to buy you lunch. And, if your car needs service, the first time it’s up on the rack is on me. My son and I operate Abe's Towing and Repair. He and Lawrie here have been spinning wrenches together for as long as they could walk.”

Lawrie laughed. “We might have been taking things apart even before we could walk, but we started putting those parts back together and racing them when we were about eight. Say — I started the grill and deep-fat fryer about ten minutes ago. I can have a cheeseburger and fries ready in a jiffy.”

“No thanks,” Almanso said pulling himself up to his full height . . . at the same time trying not to let his contempt for hamburgers show. “I’ve got to meet with my board at St. Olaf’s.”

“That would be my mother,” Lawrie said. “Your board is made up of five people: Mom and Mrs. Hamilton, Alton Sloan and Wilma Spaeth and Mr. Torgeson, of course, from Daddy’s bank.”

Almanso had just been taught his first lesson about small town living where people have to split their time every Fourth of July between playing the tuba in the parade and being a spectator for the other participants. Everyone knows everyone and everything about everyone.

“You're lucky to be moving into town today,” Abe said. He reached behind the counter and hooked a doughnut. “Friday is the first day of Corn Days. This town will be so busy this weekend you’ll get lost in the crowd.”

His three friends broke up again in fits of laughter. Either Abe was pulling his leg or Corn Days were inherently humorous.

Almanso decided to quickly down his coffee and show up for his meeting at the church on time. He left a fifty-cent tip, hoping that such a display of generosity would be noticed by the lovely waitress -- whose father owned a bank.

***

The next several weeks went by in a flash with Almanso meeting and greeting the entire town. It seemed like every person he met either had to tell him how “Almanso” was the same name as the character in Little House on the Prairie, or had something tactless to say about how the Reverend’s last name seemed to fit him. The townsfolk of Sleepy Eye were outspoken to a fault, but at the same time horribly passive-aggressive.

The young minister allowed them to continue to assume their church was his second assignment, and as such had adjusted his age to be closer to twenty-five than thirty. Five less years made him feel more eligible for the young ladies.

Unfortunately for Almanso it seemed like those Sleepy Eye females who possessed the beauty to make it in the big leagues had quickly opted for the bright lights of Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. Abe told him over coffee that the road to Minneapolis was paved with good intentions, which drew the customary guffaws from his Norwegian chorus of three. As it turned out, Lawrie was by far the best-looking girl in Sleepy Eye and as far as Almanso was able to ascertain. . .truly unclaimed. It’s as if the Lord reserved her for me.

To make her all the more appealing, it seemed her father knew no boundaries when it came to owning things. He had majority interest in Southpoint Funeral Home, Auto Parts Distributing, Inc., Sleepy Eye Self-Storage, Town and Country Banks -- of Sleepy Eye, Springfield, and Comfrey -- and the auto salvage yard.

Although Almanso hadn’t directly approached Lawrie about a relationship - - not knowing what to say - - he had taken at least three meals a week in the restaurant. Although he never stooped to eating a burger and fries, he always tipped about 22%. That gratuity was far above the 15% he thought reasonable in all other such establishments.

Not that Almanso ever had to eat in a restaurant at all, if he didn’t want to. The good people of Sleepy Eye opened their homes to him. It seemed like everyone, including the Catholics, wanted to make his acquaintance.

He was called upon to eat luscious meals and hold court on a variety of secular topics, since it seemed people weren’t entirely comfortable mixing their Sunday morning liturgy with their Wednesday evening pot roast. He was so popular it seemed he was never asked to the same place twice, which he figured was a rural Minnesota way of sharing.

Often at those meals the topic came around to the supernatural and paranormal, because his intense interest in science fiction had become common knowledge.

Local legend had it that aliens came to the Sleepy Eye area each Halloween and travelled the countryside using powerful lanterns to mesmerize their prey. The stories were rightfully told in hush tones so that the children wouldn’t hear. It was said that once you were caught in their Lights the only way out was to allow yourself to be taken up into their space vehicle where they would have their way with your body. Nearly everyone knew someone, who knew someone, who had direct knowledge about such an abduction. Almanso laughed, at first, about the myth, but with each subsequent telling his disbelief seemed to become less and less staunch.

He couldn’t help but engage in discussion of the extraterrestrials he believed had come to Earth years ago. Some of the historians who had proved beyond a doubt that space travelers helped with the building of the pyramids had gone too far by suggesting Christ was one of the ETs . . . although Almanso did allow that Christ’s ascension into heaven may have been assisted by a spacecraft. Despite not buying into every story, Almanso was enthralled by the idea of space men who watched over mankind and loved to spread his knowledge about them.

Almanso learned quickly that not every topic was okay. He was taught to keep his aspirations of becoming a TV evangelist to himself. After only telling three or four households of his dreams of fame, Abe and the boys at the restaurant teased him unmercifully about it. It was as if they specialized in crushing dreams.

The Reverend Badcher also kept his powder dry on spiritual guidance, offering opinion on the sanctity of marriage only when asked and keeping his dogma under wraps until such future time when he’d fully assessed the lay of the land. Although he didn’t intend to be a populist who flopped in the wind, he knew better than to throw his newfound affluence to the wolves. “Circumspect” would best describe how he approached disclosing his intense feelings toward sinful lifestyles.

He had slipped and opened up to Wilma Spaeth over supper when he said, “Same-sex marriage, by any other name, is the ultimate smashed mouth in-your-face insult to God.” But she had evidently been too busy making sure his plate was heaped with hot dish and lime Jello to take much notice of what he was rambling on about.

If only he had been as circumspect in matters of the heart. Even though he hadn’t come right out and actively pitched woo in the direction of one Lawrie Petersen, he wasn’t shy about expressing an unrestricted interest, if asked.

He found that Lawrie was universally loved by the townspeople. Everyone filled him full of talk of her good deeds. She served on almost every non-profit board in the county and gave freely of her time and resources. According to them she was a modern-day Mary Tyler Moore — high praise from a group of Minnesotans who had immortalized Moore in bronze on the streets of downtown Minneapolis.

“Nothing good happens in Sleepy Eye,” Mrs. Hamilton said while she ladled overly aromatic lutefisk onto his plate, “unless Lawrie has her thumb in it.”

Much to his amazement and pleasure, many townspeople seemed pleased by his selection of Lawrie as a person of romantic interest.

“Maybe the time has come,” Mrs. Hillstrom said over coffeecake after Tuesday night’s choir practice. “There was a time I didn’t think Lawrie would ever have a life with a family, but. . . .”

“You are the open-minded one,” Carl Goetch had said when Almanso took a moment out from visiting the less fortunate at the Brown County Hospital. “Good for you — I think she’s one fine person. I really do.”

Contrarily, Miss Anne Colson had squinted at him as if he were a specimen in a zoo, and then slowly shook her head. “What you do is your business, but I’d think about it some more, if I were you.”

Almanso had chalked up her negativism to sour grapes for the lack of attention he’d paid to her. Pity Anne. Twice damned. Plain and poor.

Several townsfolk had simply cut him off when they saw the conversation headed toward discussion of the Petersen girl, and strangely made it known to him that they weren’t comfortable talking about Lawrie or anyone else in her family.

He suspected they were afraid to get on the wrong side of such a pillar of the community — an attitude he despised.

His flock seemed to admire his old VW and the fact that he never was texting or sticking a phone in his ear. He embraced that uniqueness and refused to trade-in his car or buy a cell phone.

The Reverend restricted his sermons to simple homilies that never ran longer than fifteen minutes. His services were over in under an hour — from the opening processional to the final “amen”. Word of his efficiency got around Brown County, and soon his church was filled every Sunday morning.

Almanso found that teaching thirteen and fourteen year old boys and girls was like herding cats. He did his best to keep them from killing each other, although at times he would have loved to aid and abet their crimes. It was a rare day that he didn’t find a cartoon of himself stuck somewhere in the classroom in which he was portrayed as a cornered badger — fierce, but somewhat pathetic.

His lust for greatness was never far from the surface. He knew if he could just find the right cause to sink his fervor into he could make a name for himself and lead the multitudes toward everlasting spirituality.

Feeling prosperous for once in his life, he drove to Mankato, a “chance-y” trip in his VW, since he still hadn’t taken it to Abe for service. Stopping in the mall he bought a new set of clothes. That night, looking spiffy in the first shirt and tie he’d bought at a shop other than Target, he stopped by the restaurant for a hot beef sandwich. His entranced had been strategically set for twenty-five minutes before its eight o’clock closing.

Abe grinned at him and immediately called him over to their table for a discussion about space travelers. He and the other three were worried sick about the Sleepy Eye Lights.

“It’s only been a few years since they were last seen,” Abe said and the other three nodded feverishly.

Almanso’s eyes widened. “I wonder of the Lights are on Annunaki landing craft?”

“Annunaki?” Abe asked with unbound curiosity.

Almanso thought he had seen Abe’s elbow had dig into the ribs of the man sitting next to him, but decided it must have been an accident. “The Annunaki first came to Earth about 485,000 years ago. They’re like us, only a lot bigger and smarter. They’re from the planet Nibiru, which is between Mars and Jupiter. They live for a half million years, which accounts for them being so much more intelligent than us.”

“I suppose if I’d gone to more than nine years of school I’d be a lot smarter,” Abe said.

“If you didn’t blow your nose so much you’d be a lot smarter,” one of the men quipped. “I estimates you’ve got one more winter, or so, before we have to commit you to the state mental hospital.”

They all laughed.

Almanso went on to describe the history of the Annunaki. Abe and his friends were almost 100% certain that the Sleepy Eye Lights had Annunaki pilots.

“If you see them,” Abe warned, peeking out from under the beak of his John Deere cap, “make sure to run. Those critters are all male, according to the last person they abducted. They’re here looking for new breeding stock, and they ain't looking for women…if ya get my drift. When they’re in heat — I hear tell -- they smell like a vanilla malt.”

That was followed by a lot of head nodding and teeth clucking.

Almanso felt a kinship with the four as they expressed their abhorrence for sodomy.

The four paid their bill and left, leaving Almanso to his supper and to stew in his worry over ET homosexuals.

He had just finished wiping the brown gravy from his plate with a remnant of Wonder Bread when Lawrie came by his table. They were the only two people left in the restaurant.

“You’re in late,” she noted. She looked and smelled wonderful.

If he wasn’t mistaken, she was wearing Eternity by Calvin Klein. Maybe there’s a message in her choice of perfumes, he thought.

“I thought you would be over at the public school for the board meeting,” she said. “I understand there’s some discussion about changing the curriculum and maybe including some sex education.”

“I was informed of the meeting, but it’s a delicate subject and thought I’d better discuss the matter with my board before proceeding.” Although Lawrie never misses services we’ve never discussed her theological views. I probably should find out if we have any major differences before we marry. “Uhmmm. Lawrie — I think it’s time I. . . . Could I have more coffee?”

“Just a half a cup,” she said. “I have to close up shop. I’m helping with a major overhaul of a dirt bike, and there are three teenagers who don’t know a cam from a spark plug waiting for my guidance.” She laughed merrily.

After she poured his coffee she became serious. “Reverend Badcher. . . .”

“Call me ‘Almanso’.”

“Of course, Almanso. I’ve been hearing from all kinds of people that you have an interest in me that goes beyond that of minister and a member of his congregation.” Her words were to the point, but not at all unfriendly.

I wonder if it’s too early in our relationship to tell her to call me ‘Manly’?

She smiled. “I appreciate your interest, but I’m sorry, Almanso. . .I’m not really in the market for a boyfriend.”

His eyes snapped wide-open. He’d experienced all manners of feminine rejection in the past. Determined to attend his senior prom he had asked no less than seven girls, only to have each of them laugh in his face. But given his status in the Sleepy Eye community he could hardly believe that the woes of his teenage years had returned. “But. . .but. . .why?” he stammered.

“You know!” she said. “People aren’t as understanding as you think they might be. There’s already talk about some of your congregation asking the bishop to reassign you -- should you actually start dating me.”

“There is????”

“Of course there is. You seem to be a bit of a mixed-bag yourself. From what I’ve heard in church and from what’s all over town, you think we should have a state constitutional amendment regarding same-sex marriage.”

“I’m only reflecting the Bible. . . .”

“The Bible has become the province of those who twist it to make Christianity into a four-letter word.”

“Lawrie! Please. . . . Perhaps I should go and leave you to give critical thought to a life with me. Do you find the idea totally repugnant?”

She studied him for a moment. “You don’t know about me — do you?”

Know what? He shook his head. His eyes fell on her perfect breasts and he fought off impious thoughts.

“Reverend, haven’t any of the good God-fearing people of Sleepy Eye told you about their most notorious citizens? I was sure someone would have told you by now. . . . When I was a teenager my name was Larry. . .Lawrence. I was named after my grandfather to carry on the Petersen family name. I changed my name and my. . . .”

He stood suddenly and knocked over his coffee cup, staining his new trousers. “Abomination. . .!” He stumbled into the street -- shocked and totally dismayed. Emotions flew at him like barn swallows.

Of course he was irked that she. . .er. . .he had foisted such a horrible fraud upon him. Then he felt dismayed that no one had seen the need to tell him. Then he was shocked to realize that most of them must have thought he knew and was willingly expressing his lust for a sexual relationship with. . . . THEN he experience humiliation of the worst kind followed by unbridled ANGER.

His path to redemption became extraordinarily clear. He would call upon the power of the avenging Lord to purify his soul and return him to a state of grace.

***

The next day he started a one-man crusade to rid the world of its most base evil.

His attack that morning wasn’t subtle or remotely kind. He simply showed up on the sidewalk outside Petersen’s Café. He didn’t say a word, walking back and forth with a crudely-lettered picket sign that stated, “God Hates Homosexuals.”

People walking on the sidewalk gave him wide berth, or pretended he didn’t exist.

He’d been picketing for fifteen minutes when Lawrie’s mother pulled up in her white Jeep Cherokee with a Gustavus Adolphus College sticker on the back window. “Reverend Badcher, just what do you think you’re doing? Oh my Lord!” She gawked at his sign. “That’s despicable.”

He stared straight ahead and continued his picketing. Twelve steps up and back. From the corner of Maple and Second across the entire glass front of the café to the edge of the brick building that housed the Curve franchise.

“If you don’t stop your foolishness right now, I’m going to take this matter to the church board.” Her face had gone passed mildly upset to the color of a Folger’s coffee can.

His sighed softly, as if he might be involved in a certain amount of personal rapture. If you followed his gaze off into the horizon you would see what some might call “the Heavens”.

“Okay . . . then.” Mrs. Petersen got in her Jeep and left in the direction of the bank.

Almanso found no joy in his work, only the relentless call of duty.

Clouds had been threatening all morning and took that moment to open up a torrential downpour. Within seconds it was no longer “God” who hated homosexuals. The ink had run and it now read “Lut” — followed seemingly by “Bated Ham Soles”. His message garbled . . . Almanso stopped for the day.

***

That afternoon the five members of the church board convened for an emergency meeting. They sat at a school lunch table and faced toward where Almanso perched on a steel folding chair with his short arms dangling limply at his side.

“Reverend,” Mrs. Petersen started quietly. “Lawrie told me what happened and I feel terrible.”

“It’s a tough one,” Mr. Torgeson said. “Yep.”

He could imagine how “tough” things were with Mr. Torgeson, seeing as how the man worked for the father of the freak he had been picketing. Almanso sneered. There had been a time when he had hated badgers, but then he’d learned that they often ate rattlesnakes. He felt he was destined to be courageous.

“This is a small town,” Anton Sloan said. “You can’t go around just saying things. Ministers in small towns have to be a lot like Mr. Rogers. Do you remember Mr. Rogers from TV?”

The young minister stood, and then just as quickly sat down. “Mr. Rogers gave aid and comfort to homosexuals. He was a man who preached tolerance of all sorts of peoples in ways that directly contradict the Bible. His syrupy teachings led millions astray. He was a wuss and an enabler of wusses.”

“Mr. — who?” Wilma Spaeth asked.

“Mr. Rogers,” Mr. Sloan answered. “Didn’t your kids ever watch Mr. Rogers?”

“We don’t watch much on our television set,” Wilma said proudly. “Sunday mornings we might turn on the prayer services until its time to go down to church and set out the flowers on the altar. That’s about it.” She folded her arms and looked about ready to spit out something sour.

“Do you think maybe there might have been another way for you to preach your message this morning?” Mrs. Hamilton asked. “Your sign seemed like something that would cause a lot of pain.”

“I have no tears for queers,” Almanso said quickly, but without any apparent rancor.

“Ohhhhh!” Mrs. Petersen drew in a sharp breath.

Mr. Torgeson went to the church kitchen to fetch her a glass of water.

“Abe was about ready to come out and take that sign from you and smack you over the head,” Mrs. Petersen said after a sip of water. “Wouldn’t have that been a great how-de-do . . . our minister in a common brawl?”

“Abe’s a Catholic. The Catholic church is full of pervert priests who rape boys,” Almanso said. He looked calmly into the eyes of each of the five board members. “The Pope will rot in hell. There are 1.07 billion members of that monstrous machine called the Roman Catholic Church. Every last one of them is going to hell.”

Three of the five nodded in agreement.

Acknowledging that scant support Almanso went on. “ ‘And Lot...pitched his tent toward Sodom. But the men of Sodom were wicked and sinners before the Lord exceedingly.’ Genesis 13:12,13. Conceiving the militant homosexual movement to pose the greatest threat to the survival of this nation, and that the government in all its branches, including the courts, is caving in to this anti-majoritarian law-trained pervert elite with their specious arguments couched in the inapposite language of civil rights law, and that the churches entoto are likewise crumbling to their junk theology and snake oil pitchman rhetoric which is nothing but heretical sophistry — I have determined to act. The Destroyer of Sodom is not dead. If the same conditions prevail, God's wrath will destroy America just as it did Sodom and Gomorrah in 1898 B.C. ‘Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind; it is abomination,’ Leviticus 18:22, is still God's immutable law.”

“This is ridiculous,” Mrs. Petersen stated. “Almanso — your views aren’t those of the congregation.”

“I’m not sure they have to be a perfect match,” Wilma argued. “Shouldn’t we respect his First Amendment rights?”

“Uh huh,” Alton added. “We can’t deny that some of what he has quoted is Scripture. Can’t argue with the Bible!”

Mrs. Hamilton asked that they be absolutely fair so that they couldn’t be accused of playing favorites.

Much to the surprise of Mrs. Petersen the board voted three to two to take the matter under advisement without action. The three with the majority opinion did ask that the Reverend Badcher give prayerful thought to any signs he might carry in the future.

The next day he once again arranged for a substitute teacher for his classes and was back to his picketing with a sign that stated, “AIDS is God’s Gift”.

He had been marching back and forth for an hour when the Brown County sheriff came to a stop a few feet from him with his lights flashing.

“Reverend Badcher?” he asked, taking out a small notepad.

Almanso nodded. He didn’t openly dislike law enforcement people, but hated the homosexual climate they allowed in their jails.

“We’ve had a general complaint about your preaching on the sidewalk.”

“Well that’s too bad, isn’t it? They think I can’t preach at times like this?” He snorted. “I think I can preach at times like this.”

“I don’t suppose you’d quit, if I asked you to?”

Almanso curled his lip. “You took an oath to protect the laws of our land. Gays pose the greatest threat possible to the survival of our nation.”

“I guess that’s your opinion, then. I just think what you’ve gone and done here isn’t going to end up being a good thing.” He then entered in his log that the minister was engaged in a peaceful demonstration and had violated no one’s rights. “Just don’t let things get too boisterous.” He got in his car, turned off his lights, checked with dispatch, and then pulled away.

The next day two other people joined in the picketing. One sign said “Prepare to Meet Thy God”. The other challenged the people of Sleepy Eye to “Thank God for 9/11”.

That stung because several of Sleepy eye’s finest were fighting in the Middle East with Minnesota’s Red Bull Infantry Division. When asked what the 9/11 reference meant, Almanso stated that God had ordered the horrible deaths in the World Trade Center to punish the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality. “The scriptures are crystal clear that when God sets out to punish a nation he does it with a sword — 9/11 was his sword.”

Once people saw that such vile picketing could be carried out without fear of legal action and not much in the way of social backlash, pent up homophobia and general hatred broke loose.

Soon the sidewalk in front of the cafeteria was no longer large enough to hold everyone who wanted to carry a “Faggots Rot in Hell” sign. The picketing branched out so that every business in Sleepy Eye owned by the Petersen family had at least one picketeer in front of it.

A curious bystander asked Almanso why he used the word “faggots”.

“For nearly 4,000 years, since the ancient inhabitants of Sodom fueled the fires of God's wrath, Sodomites have been called faggots. It is an elegant metaphor. Faggots in nature are sticks of wood that burn quick, hot and long, and are hence used to fuel the fires of nature. Etymology, history, and Scripture -- all endorse and sanctify the usage of faggot or fag to refer to Sodomites, because the Sodomites ignite the fires of divine wrath, promised by God Himself to destroy any society that elevates homosexuality to a position of wide acceptance and respect.”

They started at 10:00 each morning except Sunday and walked their beat until 2:00, after which they met in Sleepy Eye’s Ingraham Park, drank Kool-Aid, and talked over what should be done to purify the world. These meetings became social affairs because you can only sustain your moral hatred of the world so long before talk gives way to things like preparation for Halloween, which was coming up that Saturday. Invariably those discussion involved speculation if anyone would be abducted by the Sleepy Eye Lights. Almanso noticed that many displayed more than a little fear.

The first Sunday after his first day of marching the attendance in Badcher’s service fell off drastically, but by the second Sunday word had gotten out about his steadfast approach to scripture and dozens were turned away at the door because the church had exceeded the maximum capacity set by the fire marshal. A TV crew from KARE 11 in Minneapolis came to Sleepy Eye and did a piece on the protests. Almanso provided them a sound bite when he warned about how much trouble the United States had placed itself in by tolerating homosexuals. “Nobody that’s intelligent and that fears God will fly the American flag any way but upside down — which is the international symbol for distress.”

The following Monday Mrs. Petersen walked up to him on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant.

“Mr. Badcher,” she said. “I just came from another emergency meeting of the church board. You will receive official word from our lawyer, but as of this moment you’re connection with St. Olaf’s Church and School is hereby terminated. It was a unanimous decision.”

He smirked so hard his tiny ears flinched. “I suppose you and your banker husband put economic pressure on the other board members.”

She sighed. “There was a time I thought you had a decent, Christian heart. No, Mr. Badcher. The board realized that only about 10% of the congregation who attended services yesterday are members of our church. Just think about those who are picketing. We’re not about to allow our church to be high-jacked by the weak-minded people who have come to Sleepy Eye to be part of your circus.”

“What do you mean?”

She pointed toward the eleven picketers who were helping Almanso demonstrate in front of the restaurant. “You’re the only one here who is from Sleepy Eye. These people mostly came out from the Cities. They’re the hateful, the curious, and those who are hoping to gain a little attention from the media.”

He laughed. “There are at least two people from Sleepy Eye walking with signs in front of your husband’s bank.”

“That bank was in my family long before I got married to Arnold. And, you can’t run a dozen businesses in a small town without ruffling a few feathers. We have a few small people in Sleepy Eye, people who can easily be scared by those who misuse religion. Thank God we don’t have that many.”

He shrugged. “What does the board hope to gain by firing me?”

“Gain?” Her eyes narrowed. “This town has steadily lost since you started this nonsense. We don’t want to do anything but cut our losses.”

“You’re not going to stop the Lord’s work,” he said with resolve. “I’ll rent a tent and hold services in the park on Sunday. If you get the sheriff to harass me there, I’ll just find some other ground. My church will be many times bigger than St. Olaf, I’m sure of that.”

She nodded slowly. “Hate is popular. I’m sure you stand a good chance of attracting quite a number of fools. We’ll give you two weeks to move your things out of the parsonage.”

Lawrie silently watched in the restaurant window, as consistently silent as she had been since hurting Almanso’s feelings. Her face seemingly clouded by sympathetic pain, but not filled with anger.

To Almanso she was dead and hopefully would soon be kicked to the curb as the good people of Sleepy Eye came to their senses.

***

“Yes — this is Reverend Almanso Badcher.”

The man on the other end of the phone conversation said he was a talent agent who was spending the night in Morton, Minnesota with his client, Charlie Pride, who was singing at Jackpot Junction, the Indian casino. “I’m nearly 100% sure I can get a nationally syndicated Sunday morning worship TV show for you. I’m leaving in the morning for Las Vegas and then on to L.A. If you’re interested I’d like to meet with you tonight.”

Almanso looked at the clock. It was 8:00 and he had just given candy to what he thought might be the last of the kids in Halloween masks.

Almanso had had many dreams of getting around to saving the evil gamblers who frequented the casino, but he’d never actually seen it.

They set a meeting for midnight. At just after 11:00 Almanso headed north on Highway 4 cruising at his customary 40 mph. He would turn west on Highway 19 through Franklin to Morton.

He had been on the road for about twenty minutes and reached the bottom of the Minnesota River valley when his car sputtered to a stop and the lights faded. His battery was stone dead and wouldn’t even run the radio, much less the headlights.

Almanso sat in total darkness. He had seen several cars in the opposing lane during the first five miles out of Sleepy Eye, but there hadn’t been any traffic since. He figured he would just sit in his car until someone came by — that he could flag down to help him.

He was deep in the trees of the river valley. He scanned what he could of the horizon for signs of lights from farmsteads where he could go for help, but saw none.

Thirty long, long minutes went by without a car from either direction. Almanso had given up waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness; even so his head continually pivoted looking for signs of oncoming danger. It was a cloudy night so there wasn’t even moonlight to help pierce the foreboding darkness.

His fingers drummed on the dashboard as he became increasingly anxious. It would probably dip into the twenties and he hadn’t even brought a jacket. He cursed his dilapidated VW and stubborn reluctance to purchase a cell phone.

If I had a phone I probably couldn’t get service way out here.

The first light hit him in the eyes from a spot not more than fifteen feet to the left of his car. It seemed to be moving slowly toward him. He had to close his eyelids and abruptly turn his head. Reds, oranges, and bright blues danced in the back of his head.

A second light seemed to be coming from directly behind him and moving toward him at a rapid pace.

Run! To where?????

His hands searched under the seat for a weapon and found only old candy wrappers and two torn maps.

An unearthly noise made him cover his ears with both hands. It was impossible to determine its source, and Almanso wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

It sounds like someone’s stomach is rumbling.

A third light came from exactly the opposite direction as the second. It was so bright in his car it almost seemed like daytime. There was nowhere to turn to rest his eyes.

The eerie sound stopped for a moment. He rolled down his window and listened intently for the sounds of engines, but heard . . . nothing.

Two more lights rushed toward him from what he thought was an easterly direction so that he was totally surrounded by them.

He opened the door and jumped out of the VW, looking for an avenue of escape. It had been less than thirty seconds since the start of the attack and he was totally covered in sweat.

Suddenly a very tall creature who looked a little like a man was standing directly in front of him. “He looks frightened,” the alien said. “I thought you said he knew all about us.”

They speak English. Of course, they probably invented English and every other modern language.

“He does have a rudimentary knowledge of our history, but you know how stupid they can be.”

Stupid!

Their voices were gravelly and jumped in pitch from the start of the sentence to the end rising from bass to tenor.

“He can hear what we say, you know. Our translators are set on automatic.”

They are all men, and they smell like vanilla extract.

“The Leader said he was cute. I don’t think he’s cute. Do you think he’s cute? What’s cute about that nose?”

He was surrounded by six of them. Every one of them had to be at least seven feet tall. They seemed to have metallic skin.

“I don’t care what you say . . . I think he has a nice butt.” One of them reached out and cupped Almanso’s posterior. “I’ll bet he would be good for sex.”

The Reverend cringed and his rear end involuntarily puckered.

“His arms are too short. We aren’t allowed to mate with any of them unless they meet normal size requirements. Turn his car back on.”

“No — don’t,” the one who had touched Almanso argued. “I want him. I’ll talk to the Leader. He’ll let me keep him. Just for fun.”

“We haven’t got all night,” another said. “I say we go find one with nice long arms. We can always come back to Sleepy Eye for your little-armed sex toy some other day. I’m letting this stripped one go.”

The VW’s lights came back on. Almanso jumped in and quickly headed toward the Twin Cities, stopping only in Jordan for gas.

***

“Things were hoppin’ at the White Castle tonight,” Almanso complained. He sat at a Formica-topped table under a bare light bulb hanging from a single cord. A half empty bottle of Charles Shaw’s cheapest sat in front of him. They drank from glasses he had salvaged from a dumpster. The rims were chipped so you had to be careful, but other than that they worked just fine.

The man across from him had tacitly agreed to listen to Almanso’s story -- if his glass would be kept full. Most of the other residents in the monthly rental motel had long ago tired of the defrocked minister’s nonsense.

Mostly he drank alone, but since it was Halloween he felt the need to tell someone his story of how he had been “tricked and treated”.

“That was two years ago,” he said. “Two years ago when I came within a gnat’s butt of being gang raped.”

The wino scoffed, even though he was putting his source of libation in jeopardy.

“No. . .really,” Almanso said solemnly.

“By little green men.” He laughed openly.

“They were gray and not at all small. I figure they were all ex-NBA players.”

“You’re full of crap.”

“Nahhhhh. That’s how it was. You don’t understand how rich the Petersen’s are. They can afford almost anything and I was picking on their. . . .” He took a long drink from his glass. His teeth hurt. They needed attention, but he didn’t have the money. Being the night supervisor at White Castle only paid a dime an hour over minimum wage. His diet consisted entirely of food made during his shift -- and not sold before its allotted time. “I almost thought they were extraterrestrials. But they weren’t.”

The wino stood, turned around, opened the window, and then pissed out.

Almanso was pleased at least one wino had a sense of direction.

His guest grunted, indicating Almanso should continue.

“I eventually figured out what they did. It wasn’t until a month later when my car gave out, and I paid a mechanic ten bucks to tell me if it was worth fixing. He found a switch connected to the electronics under the hood. Someone had set it up so they could cut that car’s power by remote control.”

“So why are you in hiding?”

“Cuz I’m scared shitless.”

“Them bastards. Bad guys, huh.”

“Like I was saying, once my mind got right I started to understand how they tricked me. I figure they got the sheriff to shut down the road a couple miles in each direction so they’d have time to scare me good.”

“Did they also set it up so lights would appear out of nowhere?”

Almanso couldn’t tell if the wino believed a word he said. . .or cared. “One of the guys staying here last year lost his motor home dealership because of the recession. He said those lights were probably LED headlights on dirt bikes.”

“Then why didn’t you hear any motors running?”

“That same guy said he sunk a bundle into the development of battery operated dirt bikes, but lost his butt again because the government wouldn’t let the gas and oil people get hurt. He said his bikes would’ve had lithium-ion batteries. He speculated the Petersens had the money to buy some of those bikes.”

“What about the N — B — A?”

“The only place I ever saw that many tall guys was the National Basketball Association. The Petersens must have pulled out all the stops and hired ex-NBA players.”

“Makes sense.” He lifted his leg and let out a smelly cloud of gas. “Those Petersens must be wicked diabolical.”

“I’m sure that Abe and his three buddies helped them with the planning. They knew how to get to me.”

“ ‘Abe’ doesn’t sound like the kind of name for a guy who goes around scheming about dishonest stunts.”

Almanso scratched his chin. “His real name was Abraham. Some of the folks in town called him ‘Brom’ — Brom Boones.”

The wino raised his hand for silence. “So you think they rigged the car to stop where they wanted it and had speakers set up to play strange noise, hired NBA guys with weird suits, and used voice distorters.”

“Uh huh.”

“It’s just as probable there really were aliens, because I once had an electric shut off on a car as a devise to stop it from being swiped.”

“Wasn’t like that. At least I don’t think so.”

“Why don’t you go back and take up where you left off? It sounds like they got it coming.”

“Are you crazy? Like I said -- I almost got gang raped.”

“How do you figure?”

“If the Petersens were willing to put out the money for NBA guys they could of just as easily hired a bunch of NFL has-beens. Five ex-footballers would have raped me and left me in the ditch. If I ever go back to Sleepy Eye I’m sure that’s what would happen to me.”

The wino shuddered. “This is the third time you’ve told me this story. What strikes me is you never mention praying for help when you were scared to death.”

“Not then,” he admitted, “and never since then. I’ve totally sworn off fantasy. That night I was convinced the Lord I had worshipped was one of them aliens, and later when I realized I’d been had, I swore off all fantasy. My mind had been opened to take a critical look at all the hogwash I’d been fed about Jesus.”

“At least you started something in Sleepy Eye. I’ll bet they’re still walking around with them signs about homos.”

Almanso shook his head ruefully. “Somehow someone from Sleepy Eye, probably the Petersens -- found me about a month after I got to the Cities. A box arrived with no return address, but with a Sleepy Eye postmark. It had a dead rattlesnake in it with its head cut off. The note with it said. ‘To kill a snake, you cut off its head. The picketing ended the day after you snuck out of Sleepy Eye. We don’t know why you left, but we’re happy you’re gone.’ That snake scared the life out of me.”

“Smart of them not to admit to any part in the conspiracy.”

Almanso nodded silently. He was regretting having told his story.

“There was at least one space cadet out on that country road that night.” The wino then laughed so hard a lot of wine sloshed out of his glass, at least a penny’s worth.

“What’s so funny?” Almanso demanded.

“I didn’t think anyone who looks exactly like a damn badger would be scared by a little old snake.”

The End

Thank you for reading my story. I appreciate all comments and other indications you enjoyed reading it, such as clicking the Good Story button. - Jill



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