Mike Maggio’s publication credits include fiction, poetry, reviews and travel in Potomac Review, Pleiades, Apalachee Quarterly, The L.A. Weekly, The Washington CityPaper, VOL. NO MAGAZINE, Gypsy, Pig Iron and DC Poets Against the War. His full-length publications include a collection of short stories entitled Sifting Through the Madness (Xlibris, Inc, 2001), a chapbook of poetry entitled Oranges From Palestine (Mardi Gras Press, 1996), deMOCKracy, (Plain View Press, 2007) and Haunted Garden (forthcoming from Pudding House Publications).
TODAY AT 3 read the sign on the neatly trimmed lawn in front of the Middleton Municipal Library.
Ruth Cummings, mother of three and steadfast pillar of the Middleton community, had completely forgotten, but now as she returned from her Saturday afternoon shopping, her bulging grocery cart in tow, and stumbled upon the prominently posted sign, she let out a sigh of guilt and glanced up at the library grounds where she at once witnessed the preparations in full swing.
Never one to waste a moment of God's precious time, Ruth quickly checked her watch. 2:15. She had forty-five minutes to make it home and gather the books she had accumulated over the past year -- horrid books: fiction, non-fiction, even poetry; books about sex and drugs; books morally corrupt; books she had collected while shopping -- some purchased, some surreptitiously taken (it was, after all, a civic duty); books she would be embarrassed to have read -- she had only had to scan one or two pages and scour the jacket to determine what the content would be -- books she decided were simply not fitting for any God-fearing individual.
Ruth Cummings, longtime member of the Hallelujah Auxiliary, which was responsible for organizing today's festivities, who had barely missed a scheduled meeting and who now marveled at how evil could so easily burrow its sinuous way into the heart of even the firmest believer, turned the corner, her face flush with sudden fervor. As she walked proudly down the sleepy street where not even the slightest crack was allowed to remain, she spotted, from the corner of her eye, Dr. Morton Pierce, her reclusive and rather questionable neighbor, relaxing nonchalantly on his front porch, and decided to assuage her burning guilt by urging him to attend today's vital civic event.
Spread comfortably on his plush, chaise lounge and dressed rather improperly in cut-off shorts (did he not have any sense of decency?, Ruth wondered, turning her eyes swiftly away), Dr. Pierce sat, buried in his newspaper, which he quickly folded in two and placed under his arm as Ruth marched straightway up to him without as much as a nod or a knock.
"Good afternoon, Dr. Pierce," she announced in her strident voice.
"Good afternoon to you, Mrs. Cummings," Dr. Pierce responded politely.
Like others in the tight-knit Middleton community, Ruth had tried to befriend Dr. Pierce ever since he moved to town to take over a professorship at the local college, but he had always managed to maintain his distance, refusing invitations to church events and other important civic affairs. Middle-aged and single, he preferred to keep to himself, and his neighbors soon learned to begrudge his aloofness by limiting their interactions with him to the daily niceties of life.
"It's a lovely spring day, don't you think, Mrs. Cummings?," Dr. Pierce added, trying to mask his annoyance at Ruth's surprise visit.
"Yes, indeed," she answered. "And most appreciated after the long winter we had. Are you coming to the book burning today, Dr. Pierce?" she asked, coming abruptly to the point.
Dr. Pierce's face stiffened momentarily.
"I don't think so, Mrs. Cummings," he said, forcing a smile.
"A pity. We'd love to see someone of your stature there. It's always such a stirring event, praise the Lord."
"Yes," he responded, clearing his throat. "I'm sure it is."
"A pity," she repeated. "Well, good day, Dr. Pierce."
"Good day, Mrs. Cummings."
Ruth Cummings about-faced in her tall, stiff manner and strode down Dr. Pierce's bushy walkway, frustrated by his cocky disdain, but satisfied she had at least done her duty. He was, after all, she comforted herself, slightly eccentric, just a bit off what she would call normal, though she couldn't clearly say why. It was something in the way he talked -- a turn of phrase here, a touch of affectation there, and -- well a man his age -- she didn't want to jump to conclusions, but, after all, he wasn't married, and all things being equal, a man is a man--. She just didn't want to think about the possibilities, especially in this day and age. Yet, as far as she had heard, he was well-respected at the college, and the students seemed to like him, though there were one or two off-color rumors about his behavior, but God be her witness, she would be the last to pass judgment. At least now he was aware that the book burning was taking place. The rest was between him and his conscience.
Lost in thought, Dr. Morton Pierce paced nervously about his spacious living room as a warm breeze blew through the window and brushed against his ruddy face. Ruth Cummings' unannounced appearance had caught him by surprise, and news of the book burning had left a rather unwelcome taste in his mouth. Neither could have come at a worst time -- Mrs. Cummings' visit, while he was reading the latest edition of The New York Times, a paper poorly regarded in this very conservative town, or today's alarming event, which was about to occur as his latest book, Sex and Sensuality, was causing a stir across the country.
How ironic, he thought, leaning his bare elbow on the cool mantel of the fireplace, that his best work had been produced in such a rigid environment. It was a bittersweet victory of sorts, a vindication of the two worst years he had spent in his academic life -- his course on Human Sexuality had been censured, the book list had been subject to review, and he was convinced that some of the students had been sent specifically to spy on him. With Bible in hand, they challenged his views, then had the audacity to dispute the grades he had fairly given them.
Of course, he conceded, the position had come at the right time. Unemployed and in need of money, he had been desperate for work. Maybe now, he would be able to leave Middleton. Perhaps, he thought hopefully, he would be offered a better-paying job at a reputable university.
Picking up a copy of his book from the mahogany coffee table, Dr. Pierce examined the jacket with a smile. Had he lived somewhere else, he would have placed it prominently on his bookshelf, but here it was something best left out of sight, even though he rarely had visitors.
Dr. Pierce gazed across the quiet dining room, past the large vase of colorful irises on his table, through the box window that overlooked his herb garden. Though the town library was obscured by the copse of trees that bordered his property, he could hear the day's activities starting to build. He dried the perspiration on his face with a handkerchief, poured himself a scotch and glanced at the book in his hand, wondering whether it wouldn't be better for him to pack up and leave town, at least for a couple of days.
Dr. Pierce savored the feel of the book as one relishes the texture of a well-aged wine. Then, he placed it in the center of the mantelpiece and stepped back to see how it looked. Satisfied, he took the newspaper and his drink and stepped back out onto the front porch.
Ruth stared blankly out the passenger window as her husband Jacob drove the van into the municipal parking lot. Having returned home to find her family anxiously awaiting her return, she could not help but question the depth of her conviction. How could she have forgotten?, she chided herself, feeling as guilty as a child who, having brazenly challenged the Sunday school teacher, was left to wallow in her own sense of shame. Though she had never considered herself overly zealous, she regarded the book burning as a personal and moral obligation. Now she wondered whether her forgetfulness was a sign of some deeper, spiritual crisis.
"Daddy, Daddy, look at the man on stilts!" her daughter, Mary, cried, startling her back to reality.
"Coool," Johnny, her eldest son, exclaimed, pointing to the huge bonfire.
"Can we go, can we go," Jamie, the youngest, begged in excitement.
"OK," Jacob responded. "But don't go too far. And stay together."
Ruth fidgeted with her seat belt as the children ran off into the crowd, past the stage where the church choir was performing, and straight to the fire pit where they eagerly watched the roaring blaze.
As Jacob and Ruth began unloading their books from the van, Marge Bainbridge came scurrying up from out of the crowd.
"Ruth, you've got to come right away. The Hallelujah Auxiliary is about to make a surprise announcement. Quickly!"
"An announcement about what?" Ruth asked, relieved to see her friend.
"I don't know. C'mon, let's go see."
"It's OK," Jacob called. "You ladies run off. I'll take care of these boxes and catch up with you later."
"See you later," Marge sang, as she dragged Ruth away.
"Marge," Ruth exclaimed to her childhood friend as they rushed up the stone steps and into the library, "I've got to talk to you."
"Why what is it, Ruth, darling," Marge responded, suddenly noticing the unsettled look in Ruth's eyes.
Ruth grabbed Marge's arm and stopped her in the hallway.
"It's about the book burning," she said, not quite sure how to begin.
Marge eyed her anxiously for a moment then broke out into laughter.
"Why Ruth Cummings, you silly thing. You nearly frightened me to death. Why I thought you was going to tell me something just awful. Now I see you're just excited over today's event just like everyone else is."
"Marge, you don't understand," Ruth said, nearly blushing in embarrassment.
"Course I do, honey. But you know what. If we don't hurry, we'll miss the meeting and the burning. Lord have mercy, I just can't imagine what the Hallelujah Auxiliary is up to. Constance Applebee informed me about it early this morning but she just wouldn't reveal a thing. Only that an emergency meeting had been called. You know how she is, all tight-lipped and proper, God forgive me. But she finally admitted, after a good prodding of course, that there was likely to be a sudden, unexpected change in the program. C'mon, let's don't be late," she said, pulling Ruth along.
Ruth followed Marge reluctantly into the crowded conference room as the meeting was called to order.
"Ladies, ladies," the chair said in a loud voice as a soft hush fell through the room. "Please quiet down. We've had some rather disturbing news, and we've got some urgent business to attend to even as today's glorious event begins."
"Really, Sister Faith" one member indignantly protested, "this is highly irregular. We planned this burning months ago, and now you take us away from it and want to make last minute changes besides. It's rather annoying, to say the least."
A hum of agreement spread through the room.
"Ladies, please," Sister Faith implored, trying to gain control of the meeting. "Do let us have some order here. Those who wish to leave are free to do so. But I assure you the business we have here today is extremely important and directly related to today's function."
"Sisters," Constance Applebee interjected impatiently, standing up and casting a stern look across the hall. "Let's hear what Sister Faith has to say. And we'll leave the rest to the Almighty."
"Yes," everyone agreed. "Let her speak."
The ladies of the Hallelujah Auxiliary took their seats again and waited anxiously for Sister Faith to state her business.
"Early this morning," Sister Faith began in her slow, plodding manner, "Brother James called me at home. Now, as you all know, Brother James monitors the papers each morning. Well, he was skimming through one of the more heinous ones when he came across a review of a book by one of our local professors --."
Ruth leaned unconsciously forward as the rest of the ladies clung to the air in silence.
"Dr. Morton Pierce," Sister Faith said at last.
At once, the room filled with gasps and sighs.
"Ladies, ladies. Please, let me finish. I'm appalled to say," she continued when everyone had settled down again, "that our own Dr. Pierce, whom we so graciously allowed to join our college and to settle in our fine community, and whom many of us have been, to say the least, suspicious of for quite some time, has written a most detestable treatise called" -- here, Sister Faith winced in embarrassment -- "well, I can't even say the name."
Again, a din of voices arose in the room.
"Ladies, I've called you here today so that, with God's help and guidance, we can decide how to deal with this most abhorrent situation."
"Let's seize every copy," one of the ladies shouted.
"Yes," another said. "We can burn them here today."
"Why don't we have him fired from the college?" Marge suggested. "That would send a strong message."
"Yes," everyone agreed.
"I say we run him out of town," Constance Applebee said.
Ruth sat quietly and listened to everyone's proposals when she had a sudden revelation: if forgetting today's book burning had been the work of the devil, her impulsive decision to pay a visit to Dr. Pierce was most certainly the work of God. Surely, He had guided her there for a purpose.
And then it struck her that maybe it wasn’t enough to have just invited this horrid individual to today's event. Maybe he should have been forced to come. Indeed, maybe every citizen of Middleton should be required to attend. It was, after all, for their sakes that the book burning had originally been organized. By the same token, she reasoned, it was not enough just to burn his books. No, an example needed to be made: a lesson for the whole community that should begin not with the book but with the author himself.
Ruth Cummings stood up from her seat and, in a loud, clear voice worthy of the best of preachers, said: “Ladies. Let us think about this carefully and thoroughly. It is not enough to burn his books or to run him out of town. Dr. Pierce, if he is indeed worthy of that title, is a vile individual. I speak as one who knows him as well as anyone, as his neighbor, as one who, I am proud to say, visited him just this morning, imploring him to attend today's event. Yet, upon my invitation, he looked at with me with contempt, as if I had uttered the most ridiculous words or, worse, had rejected the word of God. Ladies, I'm afraid your suggestions do not go far enough. God has put us here to carry out His work, and we must do so precisely and thoroughly."
"What do you have in mind, Sister Ruth?" Sister Faith asked.
Ruth gazed upon the members of her congregation, her body shaking with renewed conviction, her sense of faith surging through her in sudden waves, her eyes burning with fervor, as if she were about to speak in tongues, as if, in Dr. Pierce, she had found a cause to pursue in God's name. For a moment, she felt like a saint, like Joan of Arc, ready to lead the troops into battle.
"We must treat vileness with vileness," she declared with the eloquence of a preacher. "Burning every copy of Dr. Pierce's book we can get our hands on and firing him from the college is not enough. Does not the Holy Bible implore us to smite God's enemies?"
The conference room broke out into a loud frenzy.
"Praise the Lord!," the ladies of the Hallelujah Auxiliary shouted. "Hallelujah!"
"Ladies, please," Sister Faith implored, trying to restore order to the meeting.
"We must root out evil," Ruth persisted. "We must cut it out as one would remove a cancer."
Fired up by Ruth's words, the ladies of the Hallelujah Auxiliary began to file out of the conference room as if they had been suddenly charged with a sacred duty they could not help but fulfill. So forceful was Ruth's argument and so powerfully was it delivered that not even the parish minister could have stopped them from carrying out their mission.
"Ladies, please" Sister Faith implored, "Calm down. Let us discuss Sister Ruth's suggestion rationally and then come to a decision. Ladies. Ladies. Please be seated. This is no time to be taking the law into your own hands. Ladies!"
"Lady Chatterley's Lover. Five copies. Seized from two local book stores and a branch of the Middleton Municipal Library."
The harshly amplified voice reverberated through the unusually warm Spring air and abruptly awoke Dr. Pierce.
"Lolita. Seven copies. Confiscated from the college library, two book stores and a local citizen's house."
Disoriented, he blinked his eyes and shook his head, as if dispelling a bad dream. Then, recognizing his book on the porch table, he remembered Ruth Cummings' surprise visit and peered in the direction of the library. Just beyond the trees at the edge of his property, he could make out a black cloud of smoke rising up to the sky.
"The Canterbury Tales. Eight copies, including an anthology which contains other questionable material."
Dr. Pierce reached for his scotch. Suddenly, he detected the faint sound of voices coming from the street.
"Naked Lunch. Ten copies, including five which were confiscated by the principal of our local high school."
Instinctively, he jumped up and ran into the house.
"Ladies and gentlemen, brother and sisters. I have just been handed thirty-three copies of a book by Dr. Morton Pierce. Sex and Sensuality. Siezed this morning from our local book stores as well as from the dorm rooms on our college campus."
Carrying as much as his hands could hold, Dr. Pierce rushed out of the house and jumped into his car, gunning the engine and taking off as quickly as he could.
"These are the works of Satan whose purpose it is to corrupt our children and lead them further into sin. Cast them into the fire. Let them burn as their authors will surely burn come God's judgment."
The blue smoke from Dr. Pierce's aging jalopy had barely cleared the air when a crowd of men and women arrived at his driveway. Like a virtuous general leading her troops into battle, Ruth Cummings preceded the angry mob, brandishing a torch in her right hand and marching forthrightly up to the foot of Dr. Pierce's verandah.
"Let us pray that those who promote depravity be recognized one day by our government as perpetrators of evil and that they be duly punished here on earth as they will surely be punished by God."
"Dr. Pierce," Ruth called emphatically, her eyes burning with zeal, her renewed faith in God finely honed and ready to take aim. "You have betrayed our trust and confidence in you. Come out and surrender. You cannot escape God's wrath."
"Let us pray that the Lord guide us away from iniquity and lead us toward the straight and narrow path on which we were meant to travel."
"Come out!," the crowd demanded, waving their fists angrily in the air.
"Let us pray that evil be driven from our hearts and that, in its place, God's love and guidance will take root."
"Let him burn!," someone shouted, dousing the property with gasoline.
"Dr. Pierce," Ruth bellowed, raising her torch triumphantly in the air. "This is your last chance. Surrender or you will taste God's vengeance."
"Let us pray to God that, through his word, we will enter the Kingdom of Heaven."
"Let God's work be done!" Ruth shouted, tossing her torch high into the air. "Let the fire consume evil! Let all of God's enemies be defeated!"
"Praise be to God!" the crowd chanted as the house burst into flames.
"Let us thank God for the bounty He has bestowed on us and for taking pity on our wretched plight. May our sins be forgiven and may we forever be bathed in the light of His mercy. Amen."
Dr. Pierce’s house burst into flames, the thick, choking smoke combining with the rising black ashes of the burning books. Ruth Cummings and the ladies of the Hallelujah Auxilliary watched triumphantly, their faces illuminated by the blazing fire, as the book burning festivities came to a close.