Every member of the Creedish Cult learns how to be a servant for the human race--most of them are butlers and maids--and fear most human pleasures. They await a sign from God to tell them to ...(more)
Before it's too late, before we get too close to my plane crash, I need to explain about my name. Tender Branson. It's not really a name. It's more of a rank. It's the same as somebody in another culture naming a child Lieutenant Smith or Bishop Jones. Or Governor Brown. Or Doctor Moore. Sheriff Peterson.
The only names in Creedish culture were family names. The family name came from the husband. A family name was the way to claim property. The family name was a label. My family name is Branson. My rank is Tender Branson. It's the lowest rank. The caseworker asked one time if the family name wasn't a kind of endorsement or a curse when sons and daughters were contracted for work in the outside world. Since the suicides, people in the outside world have the same lurid picture of Creedish culture that my brother, Adam, had of them. In the outside world, my brother told me, people were as reckless as animals and fornicated with strangers on the street. These days, people in the outside world will ask me if certain family names brought higher prices. Did some family names bring lower labor contract prices? These people usually go on to ask if some Creedish fathers would impregnate their daughters to increase cash flow. They'll ask if the Creedish children who weren't allowed to marry were castrated, meaning was I. They'll ask if Creedish sons masturbated or went with farm animals or sodomized each other, meaning do I.
Did I. Was I.
Strangers will ask me to my face if I'm a virgin. I don't know. I forget. Or the entire issue is none of your business. For the record, my brother Adam Branson was my older brother by three minutes and thirty seconds, but by Creedish standards it could've been years. Since Creedish doctrine didn't recognize a second-place finisher. In every family, the firstborn son was named Adam, and it was Adam Branson who would inherit our land in the church district colony. All sons after Adam were named Tender. In the Branson family that makes me one of at least eight Tender Bransons my parents released to be labor missionaries. All daughters, the first through the last, were named Biddy. Tenders are workers who tend. Biddies do your bidding. It's a good guess that both words are slang, nicknames for longer traditional names, but I don't know what. I know that if the church elders chose a Biddy Branson to marry the Adam of another family, her first name, really her rank, changed to Author. When she married Adam Maxton, Biddy Branson would become Author Maxton. The parents of that Adam Maxton were also called Adam and Author Maxton, until their just-married son and his wife had a child. After that, you addressed both members of the older couple as Elder Maxton. Most couples, by the time her firstborn son had his first child, the female Elder Maxton would be dead from having child after child after child. Almost all the church elders were men. A man could become a church elder by the time he was thirtyfive if he was quick enough. It wasn't complicated. It was nothing compared to the outside world and its ranking system of parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, all of them with their own first names.
In Creedish culture, your name told everybody just where you belonged. Tender or Biddy. Adam or Author. Or Elder. Your name told you just how your life would go. People ask if I'm ever mad that I lost the right to own property and raise a family just because my brother was three and a half minutes ahead of me. And I've learned to tell them yes. That's what people in the outside world want to hear. But it's not true. I've never been mad. This would be the same as getting angry over the idea that if you had been born with longer fingers you might be a concert violinist. It's the same as wishing that your parents had been taller, thinner, stronger, happy. There are details in the past you have no control over.
The truth is, Adam was born first. And maybe Adam envied me because I would get to go out and see the outside world. While I was packing to leave, Adam was getting married to a Biddy Gleason he'd hardly met. It was the body of church elders who kept elaborate charts of who'd married which biddy from which family so that what people in the outside world call "cousins" never married. Every generation as the Adams started turning seventeen, the church elders met to assign them wives as far from their family history as possible. Every generation, there was a season of marriages. There were almost forty families in the church district colony, and every generation almost every family would have at-home weddings and parties. For a tender or a biddy, a wedding season was something you'd watch only from around the edges. If you were a biddy, it was something you might dream of happening to you. If you were a tender, you didn't dream. Tonight, the calls come the same as every night. Outside's a full moon. People are ready to die for their bad grades in school. Their family upsets. Their boyfriend problems. Their dodgy little jobs. This is while I'm trying to butterfly a couple of stolen lamb chops. People are calling long-distance with the operator asking if I'll accept the charges for a collect cry for attention from John Doe. Tonight I'm trying out a new way to eat salmon en croute,a sexy new turn of the wrist, a little flourish for the people who I work for to wow the other guests at their next dinner party. A little parlor trick. Here's the etiquette equivalent of ballroom dancing. I'm working up a showy little routine for getting creamed onions into your mouth. I've just about perfected a failsafe technique for mopping up extra saged cream when the phone rings, again.
A guy's calling to say he's failing Algebra II.
Just as a point of practice, I say, Kill yourself.
A woman calls and says her kids won't behave.
Without missing a beat, I tell her, Kill yourself.
A man calls to say his car won't start.
A woman calls to ask what time the late movie starts.
She asks, "Isn't this 555-1327? Is this the Moorehouse CinePlex?"
I say, Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself.
A girl calls and asks, "Does it hurt very much to die?"
Well, sweetheart, I tell her, yes, but it hurts a lot more to keep living.
"I was just wondering," she says. "Last week, my brother killed himself."
This has to be Fertility Hollis. I ask, how old was her brother? I make my voice sound deeper, different enough I hope so she won't know me.
"Twenty-four," she says, not crying or anything. She doesn't even sound all that sad. Her voice makes me think of her mouth makes me think of her breath makes me think of her breasts.
I Corinthians, Chapter Six, Verse Eighteen:"Flee fornication ... he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body."
In my new, deeper voice, I ask her to talk about what she's feeling. "Timing-wise," she says, "I can't decide. Spring term is almost over, and I'm really hating my job. My lease on my apartment is almost run out. The tags on my car expire next week. If I'm ever going to do it, this just seems like a good time to kill myself."
There are a lot of good reasons to live, I tell her, and hope she won't ask for a list.
I ask, isn't there someone who shares her grief over her brother? Maybe an old friend of her brother's who can help support her in this tragedy?
I ask, nobody else goes to her brother's grave?
I ask, not one person? Nobody else puts flowers on the grave? Not a single old friend?
It's clear I made a big impression.
"No," she says. "Wait. There is this one pretty weird guy."
Great. I'm weird. I ask, how does she mean, weird?
"You remember those cult people who all killed themselves?" she says. "It was about seven or eight years ago. Their whole town they started, they all went to church and drank poison, and the FBI found them all holding hands on the floor, dead. This guy reminded me of that. It wasn't so much his dorky clothes, but his hair was cut like he did it himself with his eyes closed."
It was ten years ago, and all I want to do is hang up.