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The Reverend John Pickett and the damage done

Sat 9 Dec 2000 by mskala Tags used: ,

The son of Abraham and Mary Pickett was born on an overcast Sunday morning in May of the year of Our Lord 2015. When the Reverend Frederic McAuley performed the baptism, he held the screaming baby up to the light and asked the parents what his name should be, and in a choked-up voice Abraham Pickett said "John, call him John," and John Pickett was his name.

Fast forward seven years and John Pickett was in second grade and the public health nurse kept coming around to give them needles for HIV and measles and a bunch of other things. Even polio, ever since the World Health Organization had realised it was so close to being eradicated that the freak failures of the live oral vaccine were a bigger risk to public health than wild-type virus. There were so many needles that John Pickett couldn't remember them all. "I hate needles," he said to his mother, but she just laughed and said it was important for him to grow up to be a big, strong, healthy, and clean man. Mary Pickett asked him what he wanted to be but he didn't know, and she thought about the big, strong, healthy, and clean man as she stood on the porch with her arm around her husband, watching their beloved son play on the tire swing in the yard.

A short time later Mary Pickett took her son to the clinic and they gave him another needle. The government wouldn't pay for this one, so Mary Pickett paid the nurse with four crisp fifty-dollar bills. John Pickett couldn't understand paying for a needle, but she just laughed and told him, "One day, when you're older, you'll understand it all," and took him for an ice cream. As John Pickett was walking out of the mall, three fire trucks shot past on the highway with sirens blaring and lights flashing, and when he and his mother got home there was smelly carcinogenic smoke in the air for hours before the municipal scrubbers restored it to its normal purity, and that was what the boy remembered most about that day.

Fast forward fourteen years and Abraham Pickett was proud to sign the cheque for the first term's tuition at the seminary, proud to tuck it into his son's pocket and watch him climb onto the bullet train. As Abraham Pickett walked back to his car he thought back on the years of his son's growing up, thought about Mary and the arguments they had had, at night when the kid was asleep, thought about the big, strong, healthy and clean boy and decided that she had been right all along. When he got back home he kissed her and whispered something sinful in her ear.

Fast forward five years. John Pickett had completed all his required courses, and was taking elective after elective and meeting regularly with his advisors. Something was still missing. He spent long hours in his dorm room, praying, waiting for the call. Most of his friends received it, and went off on missions to Africa and California, spreading the Word of God or teaching natives to read, or taking nursing training so that they could give needles to long lines of children.

Polio had been eradicated in the year of Our Lord 2033, malaria was close and none too soon with global warming expanding the range of the Anopheles mosquito year by year, and the World Health Organization was starting to talk seriously about cholera, bubonic plague, and hantavirus. With the population at eleven billion and still growing, as soon as one disease fell another would step in to take its place.

He wondered about the world population, why people kept bringing new children into this vale of sorrows. He couldn't understand why people kept having babies. He couldn't even understand his own birth, and he was not particularly thankful for it. As a child, John Pickett had sometimes seen an unfamiliar light at the edges of Mary Pickett's eyes when she looked into Abraham's, or in Abraham Pickett's eyes when he watched his wife bend to take a roast out of the oven. But none of that had ever made sense to the boy. It all seemed so pointless. Maybe, he thought, when I'm older I'll understand it all; but how much older did he have to be?

When the government finally legalised cannabis, a group of the seminary students quietly slipped out one night to a poetry house which had been openly selling the stuff since before it was legal. Rumor had it that if you asked in the right words, they would even serve you real coffee in that place. John Pickett was somehow included in the group, probably through oversight or accident, and when the joint was passed to him he had a sudden sinful thought and put it to his lips and inhaled the smoke deeply. But all it did was make him cough.

Fast forward two years and John Pickett decided the call would never come. He got in his car and drove without looking back. He said if God wanted him, God would know where to find him. But God didn't seem to be listening. Maybe God was dead.

He stopped in Las Vegas and walked into the first casino he saw, with his last two hundred dollars in his pocket. He changed all his money into shiny five-dollar coins and systematically put them into a slot machine until they were gone, while a jazz singer wailed "Oh no, they can't take that away from me" somewhere in the background. Then he shrugged, found the administration office, and applied for a job as a blackjack dealer. He lied and said he was twenty-five years old and had three years experience. The manager knew that John Pickett was lying, but liked his quiet calm manner and decided to give him a chance. After a few weeks, he decided to raise John Pickett's pay. Then he raised it again.

Fast forward one year. As John Pickett was walking home from the casino at three in the morning, home to his apartment in the bad part of town, he had a sudden sinful thought. He turned and entered a shabby building. There were women there, and he chose one with a sweet round face and negotiated in a lowered voice, with an odd feeling building in his chest.

She asked him his name and he said "John. I am John Pickett," and she laughed and said they were all John, but she liked the Pickett part, and she liked big, strong, healthy and clean Johns like him. They climbed some stairs to a dingy room and he took off his pants and she said, "Oh baby," without much interest. Then she washed his cock in a basin of warm water and put it in her mouth, but it didn't get hard and after a while John Pickett gently told her not to bother.

He paid anyway with four crisp fifty-dollar bills that weren't really worth anything at all in the year of Our Lord 2044, and he said it wasn't her fault. As John Pickett was walking down the sidewalk again in the night, feeling sick and confused, he remembered seeing the tracks on the whore's arm and thought about what they meant and what she would do with the money. He shuddered. "I hate needles," he said. And for the rest of his life, he never tried to do that again.

Fast forward twenty-two years.

As John Pickett was walking to church on an overcast Sunday morning in May of the year of Our Lord 2066, he passed a street-corner preacher. He was ragged and smelly and a less charitable man would have recoiled and a less serious man would have laughed, but John Pickett allowed him a tiny smile and a nod, professional courtesy, before walking away. For a long distance down the street John Pickett could hear the man's words echoing from the deserted buildings: "Fluoride and iodide poisoning! In the name of protecting children, pfah! Yes, they're putting it in children's ice cream now! Can you credit it? Children's ice cream! Lord have mercy on all of us!" Then he passed out of earshot.

John Pickett straightened his collar and walked into the church, barely glancing at the serious young man who greeted him at the door. He removed his wire-rimmed glasses from an inside pocket and put them on. He had perfect 20/20 vision, of course. Hardly anyone actually needed to wear glasses anymore since the myopia vaccine made it onto the government funding list in the year of Our Lord 2049. But he knew the value of symbols. Then he walked into the hall, which already contained a pretty good crowd. Good. He reached the front and climbed onto the dais, nodding to the others: the Reverends Paul Ming, George Ramakrishnan, and Elizabeth Starr.

He noted with slight irritation that the Reverend Paul Ming's wig had slipped a little to one side, and he wondered if there was a discreet way to tell him. Probably not, he decided as he watched more people arrive. Serious young people, almost all of them. Mostly men, but a few young women blooming with what the Reverend supposed must be sex appeal. He was immune to it. John Pickett wondered how many were virgins like himself. Probably almost all of them, he thought. Ever since... ever since what? But the music was starting and it was time to do his job, so he set that thought aside and reached for the knob in front of him. He goosed the amplifier up just a tiny bit and began.

"Welcome, everyone, to the God Is Dead Church. My name is John Pickett. You may call me the Reverend John if you wish. I see some new faces in the audience today, so I hope you'll join us for coffee after the service. Decaf, of course." There was a hollow chuckle from somewhere near the back. "Now, I see that the band is ready, so as they play our first hymn I'd like you all to close your eyes and get comfortable in whatever way is appropriate for you, and concentrate on my voice. Good. Now, please imagine there's no heaven."

He had given the service a hundred times before but he didn't allow his mind to wander because the words were so good, like Norwegian wood, growing more and more significant through the years. He closed his own eyes through much of it, the better to appreciate what he was saying, and when he opened them at the end and looked out at the congregation, his gaze fixed on a girl in the third row. One perfect tear had rolled halfway down her cheek, and John Pickett knew he had heard the calling at last as he finished speaking: "No pleasure, no pain. We are automata, machines playing a tune nobody wrote, with no comprehension or purpose. Free will is an illusion, and God is dead. I hope you will join me in singing the closing hymn."

And they sang the closing hymn. "You can take my chicks, you can take my drugs, but you cannot touch my rock'n'roll, Mama hands off my rock'n'roll." The Reverend John Pickett smiled coolly at the congregation of his God Is Dead Church. He said "Amen," and then joined them for coffee after the service. Decaf, of course.

Later, in his apartment alone with the old music on the stereo, darning his socks in the night, John Pickett accidentally pricked himself with the needle. He watched fascinated as a tiny droplet of blood welled up from the wound, thinking to himself, I hate needles. He thought some more about needles then, and blood, and his brain reminded him of the thought about the virgins that he had set aside when it was preaching time, and then he thought about his childhood and his mother Mary Pickett and what she had told him on the day of the fire and the smoke. He thought about the world population now stable at seventeen billion. "One day, when you're older, you'll understand it all." And it was one day and he was older and he did understand it all. God, I hate needles, thought the Reverend John Pickett. But God was dead.

Notes

From _Tintin and the Picaros_ by Hergé, translated by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner:

PROFESSOR CALCULUS: "The preparation has no taste, no smell, and is absolutely non-toxic. Having said that, a single one of these tablets administered in either food or drink imparts a disgusting taste to any alcohol taken thereafter..."

"...And the very first person upon whom I tested it was you, Captain!"

CAPTAIN HADDOCK: "ME?"

"You dared to do that?...Borgia!...Cannibal!...Miserable blundering barbecued blister..."

PROFESSOR CALCULUS: "I tell you my sister has absolutely nothing to do with it!"

See also "A vaccine to help ex-smokers", _Science News_, volume 158 number 22 (November 25, 2000), page 344, and "Problems with eradicating polio", page 348 of the same magazine.

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