It's a perfect day for Easter. Cows are grazing in the pasture next to the Caspar Lighthouse Church of the Foursquare Gospel. Like absent-minded professors browsing in a library of rare books, they pick from among only the choicest, the greenest of grasses. Lupines blaze in all their glory along the barbed-wire fence. Sun is everywhere. The light appears to be glowing from inside things rather than glancing off them. The pink ribbons fluttering from the Easter bonnet of the little girl skipping up the sidewalk to the church steps are alive with sunlight. Even the peals of the simple bell in the belfry are full of light. It's as though incandescent daffodils inhabit each ringing tone, as though the daffodils are shaking flakes of light out of themselves, and the flakes are chuckling over their newfound freedom.
I'm sitting with my morning coffee on a makeshift bench across the road from the clanging bell, admiring the white steeple pointed at a flawless blue sky, the cunning swoops of the barn swallows busy with their spring-cleaning. The blue belongs on the Greek flag. Bent just the right way, it could arch over the island of Patmos. It could be spread for a picnic blanket on the shore of the sea called Galilee, where the wild olives are ever ripe and sweet.
Belief is possible on such glorious days, easy as pie and just as tempting, even for unbelievers. Doubts crumble. Riddles unravel themselves, enigmas strip to the buff, the irrational becomes the only and obvious answer. Of course there was a carpenter who died and was raised from the dead a score of centuries ago. There is no God, as Tertullian noted during the persecutions of the emperor Trajan, and Mary is His mother.
And so, after living within a stone's throw of the squat church for many years, I at last find myself setting down my coffee cup to cross the road, to make my maiden voyage into the sanctuary. I follow a knot of chatting worshippers inside, where metal folding chairs are arranged in neat rows to receive us. While my eyes are adjusting to the new light, a woman in a filmy dress printed with big flowers seizes me by the elbow and begins gushing.
"I knew you'd come," she says.
I'm bewildered. The gaze of the whole congregation seems to be upon me, as if I'm a contestant stumped in a quiz show. And then I notice a few long, white hairs clinging to the dress, hear a vaguely familiar nervous gurgling in the stream of words pouring in my direction. I remember a night a few months ago.
"You have to sin before you can repent," she said that night.
Aided by middling cheap red wine, we'd been having a colloquy about abstruse theological topics. The niceties of the Trinity and the finer points of Augustine's view of caritas and cupiditas were fully covered. I was frequently compared to a lost sheep, the lone stray worth more in God's eyes than the hundred tucked safely away in His fold.
"You have to sin before you can repent," Gretchen said with a bewitching smile as the bartender flashed the lights for last call. "That's my motto."
I may discuss politics and religion, but I never argue about these delicate topics, particularly not with ladies.
"Your place or mine?" I asked.
Hers. She hadn't been home all day and needed to feed the dog. I pursued her south down Highway One, no easy task, since Gretchen drove her cancerous boat of an Oldsmobile with the reckless abandon of a jet fighter pilot diagnosed with terminal cancer, and both her taillights were burned out.
The dog that needed to be fed belonged to the largest, whitest, fluffiest breed known to canine science. He should've been pulling the tiny travel trailer Gretchen called home instead of inhabiting it. The mystery of how he kept his white coat so spotless while romping about the muddy trailer park was revealed when his mistress petted him. Gossamer clouds of fur floated off into the air. Apparently he shed his entire coat on a daily basis.
The three of us squeezed ourselves into the tight space of the trailer. After a while, when the pony disguised as a jumpy dog finally plopped down on the floor like a piece of snuffling wall-to-wall carpeting, Gretchen and I arranged our flesh on her flimsy bed and squeezed into each other. All the while Jesus gazed down from the picture taped to the curved aluminum ceiling above us. One of His hands rested languidly on the head of a fuzzy lamb. The horny toes of the lamb's hoof clutched a pole bearing an inscribed banner, but I couldn't make out the letters with my glasses off.
Suffice it to say that Gretchen's spiritual exercises were not exactly those recommended by Saint Ignatius Loyola. They were ardent, however. She made love pretty much the way she drove. I was engineered into a non-missionary posture during most of her gymnastics, and felt like a broken trampoline by the time they were done.
"It's enough to make even you believe in God, isn't it?"
"Uh um," I mumbled, shifting to take the weight of her off my bruised ribs, "almost."
Her hair smelled like Russian tea, like fired leaves flavored with bergamot. Something wet and cold touched my cheek. I turned my head. Inches away lay a dead soldier, a felled bottle of Astroglide love oil, the last viscous drops dribbling from the open spout as disconsolately as mucus dripping from a runny nose during flu season.
"Almost?" she hissed. "You mean it wasn't ecstatically good for you, too?"
I'm delivering a wisecrack about how probably nothing in this post-lapsarian world is quite that good when I'm suddenly airborne, propelled over the startled, yelping carpet and shoved out the entrance to Gretchen's tin house. Seconds later a bundle of wadded clothes hurtled through the night. Matted with white hairs, its flight in the moonlight reminded me of a ghostly bird coming apart at the seams. The door slammed shut. I banged on it, begging for my boots, too, but the door never opened. I drove back home barefoot that night.
There's a twang of electric guitars warming up. I suppose I could ask about my footwear now, except so many eyes are still turned in our direction. Women shoot us glances that would curdle rattlesnake venom. The men grace us with guarded but knowing smiles. As Gretchen guides me to a seat, it dawns upon me that she has shown many members of this very congregation the miraculous way to repentance, attempting to accomplish with her charms and lotions what another did with loaves and fish.
The Grateful Dead launch into a laid-back boogie of a hymn. It isn't the real Grateful Dead, of course, but an ecclesiastical rock group that sounds remarkably similar. Voices around me increase in volume as the worshippers get into the groove. The preacher steps to the podium, which is draped in a black velvet tapestry depicting a lighthouse casting its beams onto an inky, troubled sea. I begin to feel like a man overboard, about to be drowned in a hot wave of paschal hallelujahs. Then the music dies, and people sit down to the creak and clank of folding chairs.
A moment later the preacher spreads his arms to embrace us all. Slowly he lifts them, a signal for the congregation to rise again. The silver clasp of his string tie flashes in a certain ray of sunlight slanting through the windows of the church. He urges us to join hands, to bow our heads together in silence and thank the Lord. He wants each of us to think of three things Jesus did for us during the past year, and give thanks.
I do my best. My hand is locked in Gretchen's. Her middle finger doodles on my sweaty palm, perhaps urging me on, telling me this part ought to be a piece of cake. I try, but the quest seems as hopeless as squaring the circle, the geometrical bugaboo that tantalized so many ancient minds, and I think about that instead.
A couple millennia passed before it hit anyone that the problem of squaring the circle was insoluble, before the best bean counters realized that pi, with its endlessly repeating decimals, was an irrational number. You can never present your favorite calculus teacher with pi number of apples, no matter how keen the blade of your knife or how precisely you carve up the fourth fruit. If the serpent in the Garden had tried to entice Eve with pi number of apples, she and Adam would still be buck naked, munching happily away.
Pi has another unnerving little secret. Unlike other irrational numbers, say the square root of two, it cannot be the root of an algebraic equation. It is what those versed in the lore of mathematics dub a transcendental number. The cosmos contains untold hosts of these incorrigible digito-desperadoes. The set of law-abiding, algebraic numbers is infinite. This may seem like about enough numbers to satisfy most folks' needs. But for the wizards in the math business, it's only a beginning. They have recently concluded that the set of transcendental numbers is actually even larger, is more than infinite. Despite the double surplus of numbers they've created, however, the multiple infinities of numbers entered in the cosmic double ledgers, you can't use any of them to square the circle, especially not a transcendental like pi. Circles and eternities do indeed work in curious ways.
It's all clear to me now. The preacher of the Foursquare Gospel church might just as well ask me to think of pi things Jesus did for me since last Easter.
The boa constrictor will momentarily loosen its grip to get a better hold on its prey. I use the reverse ploy, tightening my fingers so Gretchen will have to release them.
"What're you doing?" she whispers, grabbing for my hand. "You've only been here ten minutes. It's hardly started."
"Quit while you're ahead," I whisper back, already sidling past her. "That's my motto. I don't believe I can do any three things stuff."
Judging by the sharp snort of disgust she gives as she turns away, I do believe I better kiss that pair of boots good-bye.