Way of the Dodo
Randy Bechtel
Way of the Dodo

The instant I said it I knew it would lead to no good:

“This is my friend Eddie. Eddie, meet my sister, Vivian.”

Eddie’s head bobbled, a mannerism that for Eddie signifies eureka. If lunatics were truffles, Eddie would be a truffle hog. Mind you, he never recognizes lunatics as lunatics—or, at least, not until it is too late.

Vivian is not a lunatic, but she does have a loosening screw. Highly impressionable and idealistic, her one and only professional job was that of a newspaper lifestyle reporter covering people and things that ranged from her idea of impressive to dream-come-true. She then married a Sacramento TV news anchor and a few years later, when husband Gary was hired as the marketing vice president of a SoCal corporation, became an Orange County housewife. Vivian has since spent four decades of ample free time championing civic organizations such as The Save the Jacaranda Trees Committee and The Southern California Tap Dancing Society. That is, she did until last September when she separated from Gary and soon afterward communed with the minister of the Romanian Baptist Church in El Segundo.

“Actually, I go by Mary now,” Vivian said looking only at Eddie as if I were privy to her new name preference.  “Mary is my real Christian name. Vivian is my middle name.”

“She switched to Vivian in high school,” I said. “Our parents, of course, always called her Mary.”

“Why the change back now?” Eddie asked.

“Because of my conversion,” Mary Vivian said beaming.

(To avoid confusion, I will hereafter refer to my sister as Mary Vivian.)

Eddie’s head bobbled. Unfortunately, I knew his head would bobble much more should he learn of Mary Vivian’s pending divorce, her fling with Reverend Vlad, her conversion to whatever Mary is, and the Christmas Eve that I’m convinced led to it all.

“Randy, could I see you a second?” my wife called from the kitchen.

When I joined Jane, she said: “You need to take Vivian’s luggage upstairs.”

Through the kitchen door I could see two suitcases and a carryon which had been transported to the foot of our staircase apparently by Mary Vivian’s taxi driver.

“I thought she wasn’t coming until tomorrow,” I muttered.

“I thought she’d be here three days ago,” Jane muttered back. “Flight cancellations, delays, changes—she babbled about it coming in the door. The point is, she’s here.”

“Then you need to go in the living room until I get back. We can’t leave her alone with Eddie.”

Jane glared at me. “They’re grown adults! Look, I’ve got dinner to start! Leslie called and said she’d be here at six. Doug and Corky are coming at six too.”

As I lugged luggage upstairs, I reasoned the best outcome to tonight would be Eddie and Vivian having no compelling reason to meet again.  To prevent their bonding, I would need to disrupt their conversation at least until Eddie’s wife and/or Doug and Julie arrived.

“Mary tells me she’s founding her own church,” Eddie said when I returned to the family room.

“Really!” I said. “A Romanian Baptist Church?”

“One doesn’t found a Baptist church,” Mary Vivian said. “I’m creating a new Christian denomination—the Church of Mary Magdalene.”

Eddie said to me: “Why didn’t you tell me a genealogist traced your family tree to the Merovingian Dynasty and Mary Magdalene?”

I shrugged. “Because, in the final analysis, everyone is related to everyone else,” I said. “Anyway, the whole thing smacked of The DaVinci Code.”

“Mr. Shohei Fuji is a genealogist on the staff of the California State Library,” Mary Vivian said. “I seriously doubt, dear brother, he would base his research on pop fiction.”

“Fine. Maybe there’s something to the Mary Magdalene link,” I said. “Even so, I have little faith in The DaVinci Code theory about the Holy Grail.”

“That’s because, sadly, you have little faith period,” Mary Vivian said.

It was the kind of comment that allowed me to change the subject.

“So Eddie,” I said, “what do you know about Doug’s 10-year study on how to better repair potholes in asphalt?”

Looking at Mary Vivien, I said, “Doug is an old friend who’ll join us for dinner. Along with his wife, Corky.”

“I assume he’s an engineer,” Mary Vivian said with zero enthusiasm.

“Hardly. He was an estate planner before he retired,” Eddie said. “These days he entertains himself with all sorts of offbeat projects. Although he thinks they make him a Renaissance man. This study, though. is news to me. Ten years you say?”

“It’s been 10 years since Doug quit smoking by chewing Orbit gum?” I said. “Well, on his morning jogs—” I looked at Mary Vivian and said, “Doug jogs every morning, rain or shine, even now.” Looking back at Eddie, I said, “During his jogs he’s been dropping chewed gum in potholes around his neighborhood.”

“That’s disgusting!” Mary Vivien said.

“No worse than dead squirrels on the road,” I said. “And Orbit gum doesn’t emit petroleum fumes. Anyway, once a pothole is full and cars compress the gum, it quickly hardens and turns black. Doug says you’d think a pothole was patched with asphalt unless you notice, looking at it at a distance, that the surface reflects light. Doug has occasionally added rocks to the mix and found that a few larger white rocks whose tops are visible above the surface have remained fixed in place for years. He says that while asphalt in potholes eventually crumbles, his gum remains pristine.”

Eddie looked at Mary Vivian and said apologetically, “Not all of Doug’s studies are so—earthy. Like his three-year survey of cable television programming. Doug made a record of all presentations of pre-1990 movies to identify bona fide classic movies. Randy published the study on his Hollywood Lexicon website.”

“The study’s rationale,” I said, “is that the old movies presented most by cable stations are those that have received the highest ratings. Much like theaters devote the most screens to new releases that generate the most box office.”

Mary Vivian gave her head a shake, reflected, then said: “What about streamed movies? Isn’t cable TV becoming passe?”

“It is—although it was less so between 2018 to 2020, which is the period the study covers,” I said. “But as Doug points out, the source of most streamed movies—or at least at the time of his survey—were the TV networks that also presented the movies on cable. Ratings from streaming simply contributed to identifying which movies people want to see most, which translated into how many times they were shown on cable.”

“What was number one?” Mary Vivian asked.

“Doug will tell you that his data indicates people are biased toward movies released in their lifetimes,” I said. “So he argues it’s better to identify classics by increments of time, such as the most popular movies of each decade.  But he also includes an overall list and number one is ‘Back to the Future.’”

“Ashley loved that movie!” Mary Vivian said referring to her daughter. “What’s number two?”

“’Road House.’”

“The Patrick Swayze movie?”

“That’s right!” Eddie said. “Coming from L.A., you probably find that hard to believe. Urbanites rarely recognize the power of rural America.”

“Oh, but I do recognize it, Eddie!” Mary Vivian said. “That’s why we’re moving up here.”

A gut punch!

Putting on a happy face, I said, “Why Vivian—Mary—Mary Vivian, whatever do you mean?”

“I don’t mean Sacramento, dear. No, we’re looking to settle in some small town in the Northern California countryside.”

We being you and Vlad? I know it can’t be Gary,” I said.

We is myself and my three spiritual sisters who shall assist me in my ministry,” Mary Vivian said. “I am blessed because all are young, energetic, and committed. Right now, they’re out scouting possible locations. Margo is in Siskiyou County, Joan is in Mendocino County and Lucille is in Butte County. Thursday we’ll meet here and they’ll whisk me away to visit their possibilities.”

“And then what? You’ll build a church somewhere?” I asked.

“Goodness no. We need only an address in which to reside. My ministry shall be as those of Scripture. I shall travel to the people, spreading the word in parks, beaches, fields, public places, private residences—wherever good Christians can congregate.”

Eddie’s head bobbled. He snapped his fingers. “Mary, what’s your last name?” he asked.

“At the moment Adams,” she said. “But that’s about to change to my birth surname. Why?”

“Forget the surname. Doesn’t matter. What matters is your brand name.”

“Beg your pardon!”

“You say you’re going Old World. Then promote yourself that way. Instead of a last name, couple your first name with a place—à la Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus . . . “

Mary’s blue eyes flashed. 

Eddie snapped his fingers. “Mary of Mendocino!” he gushed.

 “Yes, I see,” Mary said thoughtfully.

“Better warn her you’re a Methodist, Eddie?” I said. “Eddie actually is an official member of a Methodist Church.”

“In Ionia, Iowa,” Eddie said. “I was twelve. But I actually went through catechism to be admitted.”

“So tell us what Methodists believe,” I said.

“Huh?” Eddie said.

“How do Methodists differ from say Baptists or Episcopalians?”

Eddie’s head steadied as he pondered the question. “I know what it is to be a Methodist Christian,” he said. “But I don’t know what it is to be a non-Methodist Christian.”

“Maybe Doug knows because I’m pretty sure he’s an Episcopalian,” I said. “Although, like you, non-practicing. Maybe it’s Doug’s Episcopalianism that makes him so . . . so . . . mystical . . .  if that’s the word. Although having dealt all the time with death as an estate planner probably affected him. He told me, for instance, that all of his filled potholes contain some of his body hair. I asked him why, and he called it his mojo. Sounds a little like voodoo to—”

 “I’ve been to Mendocino twice, Eddie,” Mary Vivian interrupted. “I loved it there! Did you know that Mendocino was Cabot Cove in ‘Murder, She Wrote.’? More and more I’m sensing the title of Mary of Mendocino is the Lord’s plan for me.”

 Eddie’s head so bobbled he pressed his palms against his temples to steady it. A moment later, he held both hands out as if poised to conduct an orchestra. “Do you know someone named Martha?” he asked Mary Vivian, “A Martha who could join your three disciples?”

“Disciples? You mean Joan, Margo and Lucille?”

“That’s right.”

“The only Martha I know is my Aunt Martha,” Mary Vivian said. “I don’t see her joining us. She’s 89 and the last time we spoke—which was last Thanksgiving—she told me she was a member of the Libertarian Church, which, she said, devoutly believes in every man for himself.”

“Seems a tall order for an organized religion,” Eddie said. “How do you get organized?”

“Aunt Martha has a very sarcastic sense of humor,” I said.

Mary Vivian cast me a disapproving sidelong glance. “Why should I want a disciple named Martha?” she asked Eddie.

“Because you would then have disciples named Martha, Margo, Lucille and Joan!” Eddie said. “Get it? Martha, Margo, Lucille and Joan?”

I said: “She should also be looking for a Pilar and Paula. But definitely not a Judith.”

Mary Vivian took a deep breath and exhaled with a sigh. “If you two think this is funny, I forgive you,” she said.

“No! No! Absolutely not!” Eddie said.

Mary Vivian cast me another sidelong glance. With a straight face, I said nothing.

Mary Vivian said to Eddie: “I doubt very much that my flock-to-be would make the association with the apostles. It’s rather subtle and I certainly would not do or say anything to communicate such an association. Equating my sisters to the apostles would be blasphemous.”

“I understand that,” Eddie said. “But what if it were communicated by a narrator or a relative or a John Doe in a reality TV show?”

Mary Vivian looked at Eddie as if he were crazy. She said: “What are you suggesting?”

“I happen to have connections high up in Game Changer Productions in L.A.,” Eddie said. “They produce hit shows like ‘Albinos in Harlem’ among others. I’m thinking your mission to create a church would make must-see TV.”

“I don’t know.”

“Listen, your mission is to spread the word, isn’t it? Think how much your word would spread if it spreads on national TV! And you wouldn’t be asked to do much of anything you wouldn’t do normally. Go ahead and travel the countryside. Deliver your sermons on the beaches, in the fields, in the streets—”

“In the hills. Never surrender!” I said.

They ignored me.

“Do everything you were going to do,” Eddie said.  “Nothing much would be different other than cameramen and sound people would record it. Just think, each episode could open with you walking among the people and a voice-over with you saying what you said to me earlier: ‘The humanity of Christ comes to us through two women—the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene.’”

I could sense a screw turning counterclockwise as Mary Vivian reflected.

“Nothing inspires piety,” I said, “more than a sermon inserted in between Limu Imu and Geiko Gecko commercials.”

“Ah, it’s true that money would be involved,” Eddie said.

Looking up at our popcorn ceiling or more likely Heaven, Mary Vivian said, “Money?”

“Manna from the airwaves!” Eddie said. “More than enough to fund your ministry and your good works.”

“Blessed sums they would be,” Mary Vivian said. “I assume they would include revenue from domestic and foreign distribution rights, rebroadcast residuals, product placement, streaming and video-on-demand rights, sales of DVDs, merchandising sales, copyright permissions for accounts and descriptions, etc.”

“Uh . . . yeah . . .” Eddie said. “They could—probably.”

I said: “Eddie, so you know, Gary, Mary’s ex, is the marketing vice president of a Fortune 500 company.”

“What’s this about?” Jane said behind me. “I do hope you’re not cooking up another reality show!”

I looked around and said, “Vivian—or, I should say, Mary, the name she’s going by now—”

“My true Christian name,” Mary Vivian said.

“Right," I said. "Mary is moving to Northern California—most likely Mendocino—where she plans to found the Church of Mary Magdalene. Helping her will be three disciples who’ll pick her up here Thursday.  Eddie—not me, I’m out of this—thinks their mission will make good reality TV.”

Jane closed her eyes, then slowly opened them. “Did Eddie mention,” she said, “that he’s a retired high school principal whose only real television experience consists of being a losing contestant on ‘Let’s Make a Deal’? And that was when Monty Hall was the host.”

“Hey, I’ve got connections to players in The Business!” Eddie protested.

Jane sat down in a chair next to my sister. “I really think you’re being impulsive,” she said to Mary Vivian. “Leaving your lovely home? Moving 500 miles away from your daughter? Easily 200 miles from us? To start your own church in a place where you know no one? It sounds to me like an overreaction to catching Vlad doing it with Dodo.”

“Who’s Vlad? Who’s Dodo?” Eddie said.

“Shut up Eddie,” I said.

“I understand how Vlad has upset your life,” Jane said to Mary Vivian. “But you need to take a deep breath and settle yourself emotionally. This is not the time to make life-changing decisions. What you’re thinking about just doesn’t make sense.”

Mary Vivian smiled demurely and reached to pat Jane on the hand.

“Vlad tested me, but did not diminish me,” she said. “Quite the contrary. Vlad is a tempter, a liar, an antichrist whom I triumphed over thanks to the power of our Savior. I am now a Christian soldier on a Christian mission. You think I am being unreasonable. I say to you the words of another Christian soldier on a mission, the devout Drusilla Clack, as she is quoted in the book The Moonstone: ‘We are above reason.; we are above ridicule; we see with nobody’s eyes, we hear with nobody’s ears, we feel with nobody’s hearts, but our own. Glorious, glorious privilege! And how is it earned? Ah, my friends, you may spare yourselves the useless inquiry! We are the only people who can earn it—for we are the only people who are always right.’”

Jane, Eddie and I sat speechless.

Mary Vivian stood and said, “Now, I think I shall go upstairs to unpack and freshen up before the others arrive.”

After she had gone, Jane was the first to speak. “I do believe,” she said, “that The Moonstone is a Victorian novel by Wilkie Collins that I recommended to Vivian at Thanksgiving. Miss Clack is a fictional spinster Christian fanatic.”

Eddie enthused: “I don’t care where Mary’s message came from! There’s a huge evangelical demographic that’ll love it. Question is: Will they accept it coming from a woman? Probably not the men, but I can see evangelical women being hooked with a big injection of romance—happy and unhappy. Mary called her disciples young. I don’t even care if they’re single or even lesbians as long as they’re not ugly. We can go Hallmark featuring their encounters with men.”

“In God’s name, Eddie, where do you get this from?” Jane sneered. “You have absolutely no experience producing television.”

Eddie held his right thumb and forefinger up and said:. “So you know, Jane, I was this far from Game Changer greenlighting my show about the Association of Old Timers. We’d be in production now if those running the association hadn’t fled prosecution for tax fraud.”

Jane rolled her eyes.

“Now this business about Mary catching Vlad cheating,” Eddie said. “Just what did she see?”

“Vlad having sex with Dodo on his office desk,” I said.

Eddie pumped his fist. “I’m feeling it now!” he said. “’Mary of Mendocino,’ Season 1, Episode 1: ‘Doing It with Dodo.’ We emphasize the backstory of how Mary found her calling because of Vlad and Dodo. We see Mary walking with a procession of followers to her first sermon at a gorgeous seaside spot. In the rear of the procession is Lucille and Margo. Margo says to Lucille that she never thought she’d praise the day that Reverend Mary caught Vlad screwing Dodo.”

I looked at Jane who was staring pensively into space and obviously not listening.  

“Screwing Dodo, Eddie?” I said. “I know you know none of these women would ever say 'screwing Dodo.' But never mind that. Not five minutes ago you told Mary you’d be filming what she and her followers do and say on their own. Now you’re introducing plot, directing scenes and supplying dialogue. Good luck selling that to Vivian!”

“First of all,” Eddie said, “I said ‘mostly’ film what they say and do on their own. This will be, after all, a television show that requires some structure and proven story content. But we would go with the flow as much as possible and edit it to feature a storyline. And no, we wouldn’t script dialogue. We would do what every reality show does—give players a topic and ask them to talk about it in their own words during the length of a scene. We’ll want them to be descriptive but not too explicit. I wouldn’t want Margo to say, quote, ‘Mary caught Vlad screwing Dodo.’ That’s far too explicit.  Reality TV is like soap operas. You don’t say what you mean in 10 words when you can hint at it saying 1,000. And what better topic for church ladies to hint at than Vlad having screwed Dodo?”

Eddie’s head bobbled. He snapped his fingers. “You don’t suppose,” he said, “that Vlad and Dodo would agree to appear on camera?”

“I doubt Vlad would,” I said, “because he’s a Baptist minister. As for Dodo, you’d need to ask her parents. She’s only sixteen.”

Eddie’s expression soured.

Jane said to me: “I told you that Vivian said she caught Vlad having sex on his desk with a 16-year-old called Dodo. I never said Dodo is a she.”

I distinctly recalled Jane having referred to Dodo as a girl, but that was beside her point. Her point was that Eddie didn’t know that.

Eddie’s head steadied as he slumped in his chair. “That’s a kick in the head,” he muttered. “I end my pitch with that and the boys at Game Changer will say what they said last time: ‘Eddie, you drove down to the one. It was first and greenlight to go. And then you fumbled the ball.”

Copyright © 2022 by Randy Bechtel

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