After Weed
Randy Bechtel
After Weed

The rolling thunder of the incoming tide played rhythm to the squeals and squawks of seagulls overhead. On the beach with me was George Sanders, the British actor whose suicide note proclaimed, “I am bored.” “You want interesting, George?” I cried. “Follow me!” and then sprinted in combat gear to the sea.

“Do you hear that?” Jane’s voice said.

Sea and seagulls evaporated into darkness as the thunder turned to the grumbling of pistons and the squeals turned to the bleating of . . . SHEEP!

“Vivian! It must be Vivian!” Jane exclaimed, and an instant later the doorbell rang followed by pounding on the front door.

Jane switched on a light. I rolled out of bed.

“You can’t go down like that,” Jane said. “She probably has her friends with her.”

I was wearing a light sweatshirt and briefs. I quickly donned sweatpants.

The doorbell rang again followed by more pounding. Descending the stairs, I yelled twice that I was coming.

I opened the door to face my sister alone on the porch holding her carryon. Behind her, two suitcases were parked at the foot of the steps. Vivian turned and waved at an idling 18-wheeler in the street. Brakes hissed, gears ground, then the truck inched forward with its bleeping bleating cargo. By now Vivian was in the house and ascending the stairway. “Vivian, are you alright?” I heard Jane say.

“Never—never go anywhere where four-legged beasts outnumber people!” my sister whined.

Had Vivian spoken to me, it would have been the first time since she left our house in February. She had not called me nor I her, although that was not unusual. Unusual was that Vivian had not called Jane nor Jane her. My guess is, like me, Jane thought the last few months had delivered enough memories.

Not that we were altogether ignorant of Vivian’s adventures in Weed. Or of Eddie’s.

We knew both were in Weed from a copy of an article forwarded to me by Doug Hamilton that had appeared in The Weed News three weeks after Vivian departed. According to the article, the Weed City Council contracted for sheep owned by The Church of Mary Magdalene to graze on various stretches of inflammable dried grass. Also, one of Vivian’s followers, an old chum of the mayor, had convinced the City Council to explore the possibility of Weed becoming the sister city of Cannes, France. According to my sister’s church, Cannes was the destination of Mary Magdalene when she fled Jerusalem. The sister-city proposal was stalled by an injunction granted to the local taxpayer association led by one Rutherford B. Hayes VII.

The Weed News article also revealed Eddie’s presence by quoting Mickey Bitsko, a new resident of Weed whom I knew to have been a certified Old Timer. Bitsko was one of hundreds of old men who had belonged to the Walter Brennan Institute, an association created and run by Eddie’s cousins upon which Eddie had hoped to base a reality television series. When his cousins disappeared to avoid prosecution for tax fraud, Eddie still harbored the idea of creating a reality series. Then, at a dinner party days before my sister departed my house, Eddie pitched to Vivian the idea of a reality series based on her ministry. This idea Eddie soured on and instead traveled to Maui to visit his wife’s sister. Or so we thought.

To confirm Eddie’s whereabouts, Jane called his wife Leslie. Leslie said the day before their Maui flight Eddie opted to not accompany her and instead flew to Los Angeles to meet with Game Changer Productions.  At that meeting Eddie convinced Game Changer to assign him a director and a two-person camera crew to produce three one-hour episodes in Weed that could be shopped as a pilot to networks. For Game Changer, the inclusion of Vivian in Eddie’s pitch had been the game changer.

Eddie’s original concept featured in each episode a different Old Timer who had achieved the Institute’s highest ranking of Real Character. According to the Institute’s former website, a Real Character was an Old Timer who “had done or was doing something extraordinary and absolutely unique.” Omitted was the proviso that this should be something others would do if they could. Had that been included, no one who could have qualified as a Real Character would have wanted to. With the omission, most if not all Real Characters were whackos.

Vivian, a.k.a. Mary of Jefferson, was a game changer for two reasons. First, as founder of the Church of Mary Magdalene, she arguably could have qualified as the first female Real Character. Her interaction with her three female disciples would also deliver a needed feminine element to the series. Second, her ministry set the location of the series in Weed. According to Leslie, Eddie told Game Changer, “If my reality series follows Mary to Weed, Old Timers will follow my reality series.” With the Weed setting, the series concept changed from traveling the country to feature one Old Timer per episode to following the lives of elderly new residents of Weed.

Practically everything we learned about Vivian and Eddie afterward came from an online subscription to The Weed News. Eddie was never fond of social media and Vivian’s Facebook page was devoted to transcripts of sermons delivered at Weed’s Bel Air Park, the Weed Bocce Ball Courts and sites where Vivian’s sheep grazed.  News stories in The Weed News carried no bylines, probably because their sole author was the bi-weekly’s publisher and editor, Klaus Odle. The publication also included the gossip column “Mona on the Move” by Mona Odle. Just how much Mona moved was difficult to say because all her items could have come by telephone.

We first learned that the sister city dispute ended summarily at a City Hall meeting with Mayor Punter stating, “We can barely afford toilet paper for City Hall let alone the expense of defending a lawsuit.” The news article also quoted Rutherford B. Hayes VII: “The mayor should have thought of the expense before proposing taxpayer money pay for her and this Jefferson woman to whoop it up in France.”

In that week’s second edition, “Mona on the Move” introduced readers to Eddie Mars:

Harrah for Hollyweed!

“What’s George Clooney really like?” I can’t believe it! My one interview with a Hollywood producer and I ask that. Quickly I say I’m kidding and ask, “What are you filming?” Eddie Mars says, “Happenings in Weed.” Uh-oh! I’ve been writing a column about this town for five years. Biggest happening last week: Chick Zumwalt cast his fishing line, sat fishing three hours, gave up, looked up, and discovered his lure had been dangling from a tree branch above his head.

Happenings? Am I missing something here? Yes, says Eddie Mars. “There are several narratives in Weed we’ll be following,” he says. “All are influenced by Weed’s unique visual fabric, which means what may seem same-old-same-old to you will strike viewers around the world as different, quirky, fascinating and, above all, entertaining.”

Jiminy Cricket! Who’s sponsoring this TV show? (I ask because Weed News has never had an advertiser outside Weed’s city limits.) Too soon to tell, says Eddie Mars. By next month or so, he says, his crew will have filmed enough to put together three one-hour shows to sell the program to a network. The network will then sell the show to advertisers. I say, “If you can make Chick Zumwalt a star, tell your network that an advertiser made-to-order is Wild Turkey.”

I pop my top question: How do you pick who’ll be in the show? “Depends on the Weeder’s narrative,” he says. “Weeder?” I say. “Sure, like New Yorker, Londoner,” he says. As for getting to be in the show, don’t call Eddie, he’ll call you. “We want narratives of Weeders being themselves,” he says. There’s that word narrative again. Pretty sure it doesn’t include Irene Wright crabbing about her medical procedures. So I ask and Eddie says, “We want the ongoing stories of Weeders whose lives are ON THE MOVE.”

Coverage of the following week’s City Hall meeting introduced Weed’s second former Old Timer turned Weeder:

Rutherford B. Hayes vs. Millard Fillmore?

The Hollywood people producing a TV series in and about Weed were on hand Tuesday to film the City Council meeting. It appeared the meeting would be uneventful until the agenda item for public comment.

First to speak was Rutherford B. Hayes VII, president of the Shasta Taxpayer Association, who last week caused the City Council to drop a proposal for Weed to become the sister city of Cannes, France.

“First, let me say that I am resigning as president of the Taxpayers Association,” Hayes said. “I say this to preface my announcement tonight that I am a candidate for the office of Weed’s mayor.”

For many the announcement was no surprise because, according to word-of-mouth in town, Hayes has been printing campaign posters and junk mail at FedEx. 

Next up to speak was a newcomer to Weed who introduced himself as Millard Fillmore IX.

Hearing the name Millard Fillmore caused Hayes to pop up from his seat and interrupt, “This man is obviously mocking my name and my esteemed family heritage. Payback, no doubt, from the Jefferson woman and her Magdalenese cult.“

The mayor’s call for order did not impress Hayes, who now moved to face Fillmore at the podium. “Do you really expect us, sir, to believe you are a ninth generation Millard Filmore?” Hayes said.

Fillmore responded, “Do you expect us, sir, to believe you are a seventh generation Rutherford B. Hayes?”

Hayes took out his wallet, extracted his driver’s license and handed it to Fillmore. “Yes I do,” Hayes said.

Fillmore looked at the license and handed it back. He then took out his wallet, extracted his driver’s license and handed it to Hayes.

Hayes’ face flashed astonishment as he examined the license. He then snorted and huffed, “This is a Nevada driver’s license.”

“I believe Nevada is a recognized state in the Union,” Fillmore said. As an audience of six applauded, Fillmore retrieved his license and said to the councilmembers, “Would anyone else care to have a look?”

“Please proceed with your comments, Mr. Filmore,” Mayor Punter said. “Mr. Hayes, please have the courtesy to sit down.”

Fillmore said, “It’s true I came here from Nevada. But now that I have settled here, I cannot exaggerate how impressed I am by Weed’s potential to grow. To underscore my commitment to this fine community, I, Millard Fillmore, do announce now that I too am a candidate for mayor.”

An objection by Hayes that Fillmore had not resided in Weed long enough to qualify as a mayoral candidate prompted Mayor Punter to suggest that Hayes read the city charter.

In the next Weed News edition, “Mona on the Move” interviewed Millard Fillmore IX:

Millard Fillmore By Any Other Name

Even Weed’s bees are buzzing about the upcoming race for mayor between Millard Fillmore and Rutherford B. Hayes.

What can we say about Weed native Rutherford B. Hayes VII that hasn’t already been said? Or should never be said in polite company?

As for Millard Fillmore, I was on the move to find out who this great-times-eight son of America’s 13th president (13? Ouch!) is.  “Oh,” Millard tells me, “I’m not related to President Fillmore. I’m something better! I hold the Guinness Book of World Records title for the most legal name changes.”

Good golly Miss Molly! “So what’s your real name?” I say. And Millard says, “All 53 names were real.” “Okay, I get it,” I say. “So what was your first first and last name?” And he says, “Horatio Hornblower.” Yikes! And I’m Barbara Walters. So I say, “You’re kidding, right?” and he says, “It’s that kind of reaction that made me change my name.”

Millard then explained the Hornblowers are no different from other families in that one or two first names are repeated with each generation. That name for the Hornblowers—and unfortunately for Millard—was Horatio.

So I say, “What was your second first and last name?” And he says, “Elvis Presley, Jr.” Holy moly! I don’t get it!  I say, “If you got mad about people not believing you’re Horatio Hornblower, what did you expect they’d do hearing you’re Elvis Presley, Jr.?” Millard says, “The thing is, I got good at convincing skeptical people I was Horatio Hornblower by just looking offended. I didn’t even have to say a word. They’d feel bad and apologize. So I thought: Why not take a name that might get me some perks?”

As Elvis Presley, Jr., Millard scored invitations, dates, free drinks—perks galore. “This was before the Internet,” he says, “so to research whether Elvis Presley had a son, you had to look him up in a book.” Millard said all went swimmingly for Elvis Presley, Jr. until a girlfriend’s father went to the library.

“Still, it was a good run,” Millard says. “The shelf life of being a famous man’s phony son may be short, but the perks make it worth it. So I stuck with the formula. I’ve been Jimmy Stewart, Jr., Walter Cronkite, Jr., Ian Fleming, Jr., Dwight Eisenhower, Jr. . . . So on and so forth until the Internet came along. Although not long ago I was Winston Churchill, Jr., but that’s another story.”

I’m stumped. I say, “How could you do that and make a living?” Millard says. “I was a truck driver. That was important because you have to be constantly on the move and active in several states. But that’s the only hint I’ll give you about how it’s done. I want 53 names to still be the record when they torch my bones. Although I might have myself buried if I can get all 53 names on a tombstone.”

A week later Vivian became lead Weed News when she, her disciples and sheep were forced into a standoff with rancher Forrest Pine, his hired hands and a herd of goats.

Weed Rocked by the Bah! Bah! Stampede

The cost of property damages from Friday’s rampage of sheep and goats through Weed’s downtown is expected run into the tens of thousands, City Manager Vern Farrell said. The big price tag will include not only injuries to people and damages to automobiles and stores, but the cost of cleaning up feces everywhere the animals ran amok.

Meanwhile, an investigation into the cause of the catastrophe is ongoing. “The key question here is: Who is responsible for the explosion that precipitated the stampede?” Deputy Police Chief Fred Applewhite said. He added, “We do know now that what exploded was probably not a gunshot as many thought.”

The explosion came during a confrontation between members of the Church of Mary Magdalene led by Mary of Jefferson and a group of ranch hands led by their employer Forrest Pine. To reduce fire danger, the city had assigned the two groups separate stretches of roadside along Highway 97 on which to graze their livestock. Trouble broke out when the church people and their sheep met the ranch people and their goats at the border of their sectors.

According to the police report, Pine, an outspoken critic of Mary of Jefferson, yelled at the Magdalenese Christians, “Be gone witches!” Mary of Jefferson reportedly yelled back, “What is the symbol of Christ? The lamb. What is the symbol of Satan? The goat.” An instant later an explosion north of the goats sent them charging the sheep and created a stampede headed downtown.

Wanda Muldoon was shopping at the Grocery Outlet when the animals ran through the city streets. “Suddenly the automatic door opened and a sheep ran inside,” Muldoon said. “Hot on its tail were two goats with amorous intentions. What happened next was a terrible thing to behold!

The following week, Mona was on the move at Weed’s Rotary Club:

A-Lister Walt Disney Jr. Among Weed Newcomers

Big doings Monday morning at Rotary! No, not because Rutherford B. Hayes VII was the guest speaker. I mean, when isn’t the seventh Rutherford tooting his own horn? Still, Rootytooty did set the table by bad mouthing all the new “immigrants” in town. Immigrants, so you know, is a word the seventh Rutherford defines as anyone who wasn’t born in Weed.

Chiming in was Debbie Waddell, who said one of the newcomers had documented evidence of a secret conspiracy within the Elks Lodge to conquer the world. Time out! How can a conspiracy be secret if Debbie Waddell knows about it? Anyway, Debbie’s revelation put Earl Sweet on the spot. He’s a Rotarian and an Elk. Don’t ask what Earl said about Debbie and I won’t tell. Just know Debbie later qualified her statement, i.e., she meant the Elks Lodge International, not Earl’s Elks Lodge #2333.

Defending Weed’s newcomers was Doug Kraft, who noted the last two censuses show Weed is losing population. Rutherford then asked whether that’s such a bad thing. “It wouldn’t be,” cracked Debbie Waddell, “if you were the one who had left.” OMG! Everyone is so chippy after last Friday’s Bah! Bah! Stampede.

As usual, a little sunshine came by way of Becky Olson. She said we should count our lucky stars that the newcomers include celebrities. And no, she wasn’t just referring to Hollywood producer Eddie Mars and director Boris Menshevik. Bigger still! Debbie said she first saw this celeb 40 years ago at a casino in Reno. He hadn’t changed much at all when she saw him Saturday buying groceries at Ray’s Food Place. “No doubt about it,” Becky said. “It was Walt Disney, Jr.!” Stop the presses! Goodness girl, why didn’t you invite Walt Jr. out for a drink?

At 10 a.m. Vivian (Mary of Jefferson) joined Jane and me in the dining room. Jane volunteered to make Vivian breakfast, then deserted us for the kitchen where she could listen without being seen. Had I been shooting whiskey, I would not have felt it. Nothing is more sobering than being alone face-to-face with my sister.

“So, what are your plans?” I asked Vivian.

“I’m not forsaking my church in Weed if that’s your question,” she bristled.

“We never dreamed you would,” Jane said from the kitchen.

Slowly Vivian combed back her shoulder-length silver hair using her manicured rose-varnished nails. I remembered wondering if she could long endure in Weed without her La La Land hairstylist and manicurist. Now it occurred to me her hairstylist and manicurist might be her disciples.

Vivian smiled not at me but at the ceiling. “As Alice Morse Earle observed,” she said, “’Every day may not be good, but there’s something good in every day.’ Founding a church is a heavy but rewarding burden. After our Easter service I decided I needed a short sabbatical for meditation. I can only aspire to the wise words of Mary Baker Eddy, who said: ‘The lives of great men and women are miracles of patience and perseverance.’ After two weeks of meditation in Newport Beach I shall persevere in my mission.”

I asked: “What about your disciples? And the sheep? And the dog?”

“Margo and Joan are seeing to church business in Weed and will be moving us from the farmhouse we rented,” she said. “We bought one of Weed’s larger houses downtown.  Lucille is relocating to her cousin’s farm near Modesto where she can follow her dream of being a shepherd. The rest of us decided sheep make better symbols than they do the real thing. Lucille, though, is still a church member and will be founding our first parish.”

Jane said from the kitchen, “So you know, Viv—Mary, we subscribed to The Weed News online after Doug told us that’s where you’d gone.”

Vivian pressed her lips against her teeth and stared at me owl-eyed until I said, “What?”

“Did you subscribe because of me or to follow your Eddie Mars?” she said.

“When we subscribed,” I said, “we thought Eddie was in Maui with his wife.”

“That’s true, Mary,” Jane said from the kitchen.

Vivian placed her elbows on the table (something she never did), closed her eyes, laced her fingers, rested her chin on her hands and began moving her lips. Either she was having a stroke or a conversation between her ears. Suddenly her hands dropped to her lap, her chin raised and, opening her eyes, she said, “As Lysa TerKeurst preached, ‘We must not confuse the command to love with the disease to please.’”

Whatever that meant I don’t know. Jane ignored it. “What did go on between you and Eddie?” she said from the kitchen.

Vivian sighed. “I was in Weed maybe a week when Eddie called and said he wanted to pitch a reality series about me to some production company. A few days later he called saying he had the go-ahead to film three pilot shows provided I and others he filmed agreed to a contingency arrangement. We would be offered contracts if and when a network purchased the series. Of course, he was cagey about how much I might be paid, which I took to mean I would be offered the Actors Guild minimum. Married to Gary I learned about these low-balling ploys. But I said fine. If they do want to sign me, they’ll have to negotiate with a close friend of mine and one of the top entertainment lawyers in L.A. But more important, I thought a series about my ministry would be a great way to spread the word. On that point—thinking the series would be the one Eddie described to me here at your house—I was naive.”

“I remember now,” Jane said from the kitchen, “he was going to call it ‘Mary of Mendocino.’”

Vivian rolled her eyes and said, “Yes, well, you know what the working title is now? ‘Weed.’ Just ‘Weed.’ Not a word I want associated with my ministry. Margo said we’d become known as the Church of Cheech and Chong. What’s more, we only learned of the title through the grapevine. I saw your Eddie all of two times in Weed. He’d been in town a good two weeks before I got wind of it. And it was almost a week after that I saw him in the flesh.”

Jane entered the dining room and served Vivian her habitual morning beverage of Earl Grey tea with milk. “I’ve got cinnamon rolls hot out of the oven cooling,” Jane said sitting down with us at the table. “So what happened when you did see Eddie?”  she asked Vivian.

“It was a Sunday and I was about to commence my sermon at the city park,” Vivian said. “A van pulls up and out comes Eddie and four mangy men. Two are carrying cameras and being yelled at by a squat bald man whose neck was wider than his head. The fifth man was the oddest and oldest. I’ll never forget that face. Who was the movie actor who played Bean?”

“Rowan Atkinson?” I said.

“That’s it! This man was Bean at eighty. Except the poor man was even more wall-eyed than Bean, so much so you never knew what he was looking at. Anyway, Eddie runs up to us and says only, ‘Everyone, we’ll be filming so just go with it.’ Eddie then goes back to the van as Bean walks toward us with one cameraman following him. The other cameraman begins filming the action behind the 10 pious women seated before me on the grass. I began my sermon as Bean plopped down at my feet. An instant later both cameramen ceased filming and joined baldy a few yards away to smoke cigarettes and drink beer.”

“Oh my gosh!” Jane said. “You were playing second fiddle to Bean?”

“Oh, unquestionably. As soon as my sermon ended, the cameramen were back in place with cameras rolling. Bean gets up holding this full rucksack. He introduces himself as Mickey Bitsko, then says something like, “You have an understanding heart for the human condition. I’ve something here that a reverend such as yourself should not be without.’ He opens the rucksack and pulls out hardback books. I don’t say a word because I didn’t want to encourage him, not that he needed encouragement. “I have here,” he said, “my inspirational four-volume biography of Ralph Waite, which I can give to you for only $120 plus tax.’ I responded as anybody would: ‘Who’s Ralph Waite?’ Which was a mistake because Bitsko launched into this plodding tribute to Ralph Waite while being filmed.  Finally, Lucille interrupts and tells him we’ll think about it although the church budget is tight. And you know something? I left still not knowing who Ralph Waite is. Bitsko never got further than Ralph Waite in grammar school.”

“So who is he?” Jane said.

“He played the father in ‘The Waltons,’” I said.

“Which I learned when I googled him,” Vivian said. “And you know what’s even more insane? Margo heard through the grapevine that Eddie and his bald director, Nakita Menshevik, thought a romance between me and Bitsko would make a good storyline.”

“Did you speak at all to Eddie?” Jane asked, rising to go to the kitchen.

“We never talked period,” Vivian said.

“Not even during your second meeting?” I asked.

“Meeting isn’t the word I’d use. We were both present at a debacle they call the Bah! Bah! Stampede. If you followed Weed News, you know about that. Although I'm here to tell you that it involved three times as many goats as sheep.”

“But Weed News never mentioned Eddie and his film crew were there,” I said.

“Ha!” Vivian burst forth. She composed herself breathing deeply and looking down at her folded hands in her lap.

“Goodness,” Jane said entering with a plate of cinnamon rolls. “That touched a chord.”

Vivian said: “No one mentions the Hollywood people because Weed’s movers and shakers don’t want them blamed for the explosion.”

“Eddie may be a dork," I said, "but he wouldn’t have caused that."

Vivian said: “Nakita Menshevik would. Nakita Menshevik did. Lucille was sure of it. But mum’s the word. Have to protect the Hollywood people. The show ‘Weed’ will put Weed on the map.”

I rose and went into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. An instant later I heard Jane raise the subject I wanted to avoid.

“Have you talked to Ashley recently?” Jane said.

“Not since Thanksgiving,” Vivian said. “She was so . . . so snotty to me I didn’t see the point. And it wasn’t just over Vlad. She doesn’t forgive me for divorcing her father. And she said outright that she can’t approve of my holy mission. Why do you ask? Have you spoken to her?”

“I have,” Jane said. “Not long ago. She’s given up on being ordained as an Anglican minister. At a Bible class she mentioned that she was a direct descendant of Jesus and was condemned as a heretic and blasphemer.”

“What did she expect?” Vivian said. “Sometimes I think my daughter lacks common sense. You know, I tell people I’m a direct descendant of Mary Magdalene and leave it at that. I truly wish I’d never heard our lineage began with Jesus fathering Mary’s child. And I’d never breathe a word of that outside our immediate family. I have 14 in my congregation and half of them believe all sex is rape.”


Copyright © 2022 by Randy Bechtel

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