Remember, this is a novel. That means it’s fiction. But it is quite faithful to my two years in a Sadventist boarding school. Most of the incident described below actually happened.
* * * *
At the end of chapel one morning, Tom Spinner, the vice principal, rushed to the pulpit. He always rushed to the pulpit, as if to get there before the powers that be changed their minds about letting him speak. He was a man of medium height with auburn hair that looked like it had been cut in the dark. It was parted on the right and flopped down on his forehead boyishly. He had a long mustache that extended beyond the corners of his mouth. When he spoke, it was in an artificially deep voice. I don’t know how Mr. Spinner really talked, but whenever he talked to students or spoke from the pulpit, it was in that fake deep voice that trembled slightly as he struggled to maintain it. It always sounded like he was trying to do an impression of Mr. Sulu on Star Trek. On that misty November morning, he went to the pulpit and leaned close to the microphone, as always – his artificial deep voice was not very loud – and said, “I have noticed that when you are dismissed from the chapel, you all leave at once and get bottlenecked at the doors. This is a problem. I have come up with a way to remedy that.”
He spoke so seriously, so somberly, he might have been announcing that a meteor the size of Texas was on a collision course with earth. As he spoke, his eyebrows rose high above his watchful eyes.
“From now on, at the conclusion of our assemblies, I will announce that you are dismissed from the front and center,” he said. “Then the first row and the center row will get up and leave. Once they have gone, the subsequent rows will get up, one at a time, and leave. Is that understood?”
No one responded, because I don’t think anyone knew what the hell he was talking about, and I’m sure no one cared. No one listened to Mr. Spinner much, and that morning was no exception.
He paused and looked over us all to see if his announcement had sunk in. “Now, let’s bow our heads in prayer.” Mr. Spinner used his phony voice when he was talking to god, too. I always wondered if he thought he was fooling god with that voice – he certainly wasn’t fooling us. His prayer went on for a while, then he said, “In Jesus’s name, amen. Now – “ He paused for effect, then leaned so close to the microphone that his lips almost touched it and said dramatically, “You are dismissed from the front and center.”
Everyone stood up and left at once and bottlenecked at the doors in the rear of the chapel.
Mr. Spinner frowned at the departing students and pressed his lips together so hard they turned white.
The next day at chapel, after the closing prayer, Mr. Spinner shot to his feet and rushed to the pulpit again with a couple of long, quick strides.
“It seems you did not understand what I tried to explain to you yesterday. Listen carefully. When I announce that you are dismissed from the front and center, the first row and the center row are to stand and leave, followed by the second row, and the row behind the center row. Then, when they’re gone, the next consecutive rows are to get up and leave one at a time, and so on. So let’s get it right this time. Now – “ Another dramatic pause, mouth close to the mike. “ – you are dismissed from the front and center.”
Everyone got up and left at once.
Who the hell knew which row was the center row? Nobody was getting extra credit in anything for finding out, so who the hell cared?
Every day at the end of chapel, and on sabbaths at the end of church, Mr. Spinner rushed to the pulpit as if someone else might get there first and very solemnly announced, “You are dismissed from the front and center,” and every day at the end of chapel, and on sabbaths at the end of church, everyone stood up and left at once and bottlenecked at the doors in the rear. Although Mr. Spinner seemed to think the bottleneck at the doors was a problem, we students didn’t care. Where were we going to go? To class? We were in a hurry to get to class? No, I don’t think so. And it was more fun to mill around and talk than to sit waiting for our row’s turn to leave.
He tried explaining his idea a few more times, then just gave up. But at the end of the program, he never stopped rushing to the pulpit and announcing it. That no one listened or cared seemed irrelevant. What was important was that he go through the ritual, that he say the words each time. It had been his idea, of which he seemed quite proud, and it was his only contribution to the entire program, so by golly, he was going to announce it every day, whether we cooperated or not. And we did not.
Mr. Spinner was an odd man. He was a darter – he darted everywhere he went, taking long, fast strides as if he were racing the clock. He always gave the impression of being an extremely busy man, although no one was certain exactly what it was he did. He was the vice principal, that was all we knew. That meant that if Elder Gash was hit over the head with a skillet by Gory Rash during one of their screaming fights up on Faculty Hill and was rendered comatose or dead, Mr. Spinner would be principal. As far as we could tell, that was all it meant. I think many of us sensed that such power would go straight to Mr. Spinner’s head with unpleasant results, so it’s probable that we were all secretly hoping Elder Gash, despite his many faults, would remain conscious. Mr. Spinner’s only apparent accomplishment to the entire school during my time there seemed to be the idea of dismissing everyone from the front and center; he ignored its utter failure and continued to milk it for all it was worth.
His only other memorable accomplishment was a dubious one – a disastrous chapel in the girls’ dorm, a chapel so horrifying and legendary that it was still being talked about when I graduated over a year later. For all I know, it is still being discussed at Beautiful River Academy to this day. I was not present for the chapel, of course, because it was in the girls’ dorm. But it was relayed to me in great detail by Natalie Ruskoff and others. The next day, it was the topic of conversation.
It started out like any other girls’ dorm chapel. Mrs. Hockstetter, the girls’ dean, opened with a prayer. Karen Kniddly played the piano while the girls sang a few hymns. Seated in a chair behind the pulpit was Mr. Spinner. In his lap, he held a rectangular stainless-steel pan. A wooden clipboard served as a lid. On top of the clipboard was his bible.
“We have a special guest this evening,” Mrs. Hockstetter said after the musical portion of the program was over. “Mr. Spinner is here to conduct tonight’s chapel. Mr. Spinner?”
She stepped away and Mr. Spinner shot to his feet and rushed to the pulpit before someone could snatch it away from him. He put the pan on the pulpit and opened his bible on top of it. He leaned in close to the microphone and droned in that deep voice, “Good evening, ladies.”
Several of the girls said, “Good evening,” in response.
Mr. Spinner opened his bible and said, “In John 14:6, Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’” He turned a page in the Bible, then said, “In John 15:5, Jesus said, ‘I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.” He carefully closed the bible and looked gravely over the girls seated in the pews before him. “What does that mean? He is ‘the way, the truth, and the life.’ The life, he said. That means that Jesus is not only the son of god, not only the savior of the world, he is ... the life. What does he mean when he says that we are the branches and he’s the vine? We’ve all heard those two verses many times, from the time we were little children, right? But what do they really mean?”
He paused with the usual drama and looked back and forth over the girls, as if he expected an answer when he really didn’t. They knew that, and did not give one. This was a chapel, not a Bible class, and they knew the only voice Mr. Spinner was interested in hearing was his favorite voice in all the world – his own. It might have been annoying to the rest of us, but he loved it.
“Think of a woman who is with child,” Mr. Spinner went on. The word “pregnant” had not quite come all the way out of the closet among Sadventists back in 1979. “The fetus growing inside her is fed and nourished by the placenta. Without that placenta, the fetus would not grow, it would die. It would shrivel up and die. Jesus is to us what that placenta is to the growing fetus. He holds us in his protective care. He feeds and nourishes us. He makes us grow. Without him, spiritually we would shrivel up and die. There would be no nourishment, no growth. Jesus is the way, the truth, and most of all, he is the life.”
Mr. Spinner took the bible off the clipboard and set it aside on the pulpit. Then he took the clipboard off the pan and set it aside.
He said, “I have brought with me this evening a visual aid, something to illustrate how Jesus feeds and nourishes us as the vine feeds its branches. It illustrates how he really is the life.”
Mr. Spinner took from the pocket of his suit coat a pair of pale rubber surgical gloves. He slipped them onto his hands. Then he took the pan in both hands and stepped around the pulpit. Away from the microphone, he raised his phony voice as much as he could as he came down the steps and onto the main floor of the chapel. He reached into the pan and lifted something out to show the girls in the front row of the column of pews to Mr. Spinner’s right. The gelatinous object he held looked like slimy, dark-red, thinly-rolled raw pizza dough with a tawny, rather translucent skin. It was wet and bloody and glistened and trembled with each movement of Mr. Spinner’s hand.
“This is a human placenta,” Mr. Spinner said.
Gasps rose from the group as he walked over to the girls in the front row of the left column, holding the placenta over the pan. Then he walked down the center aisle.
“I want to make sure you all get a very good look at this,” he said. “Would you like to pass it around?” He put the placenta back in the pan and offered it to a girl seated on the end of one of the pews.
She shrank away from him with a horrified gasp, pushing against the girl seated next to her, made a disgusted gurgling sound and said, “No!”
He offered it to girl after girl, as if offering them salvation itself.
A chorus of “Eeewwwws” rose from the girls as he moved back and forth in the center aisle, determined to show it to all of them. One of the girls let out a piercing shriek.
Mr. Spinner lifted the placenta out of the tray again as he passed it around to show all the girls. It slipped from his hand and dropped right into the lap of a heavyset Hispanic girl named Juanita Reynolds. Juanita’s scream filled the chapel as she slapped at the placenta in her lap and knocked it to the floor. She stood and stumbled away from the pew and screamed as she left the chapel in a lumbering run.
There were disgusted yelps from several girls, while others gagged into the palms of their hands.
Four girls threw up – two on the chapel carpet, one on herself, and one on the girl seated next to her, who screamed.
One girl fainted and had to be revived with smelling salts.
Six of them ran out of the chapel holding their stomachs and/or mouths.
But Mr. Spinner did not seem to notice any of them. He picked the placenta up off the floor, put it back in the pan, and continued to expound on the similarities between the slimy, viscous glob of tissue and our lord and savior Jesus Christ.
Thinking back on it now, I am reminded of a line in the Woody Allen film Hannah and her Sisters. Max Von Sydow’s character has spent an evening watching television for the first time in years, and he complains about the televangelists. He says, “If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”
Had he been there, Jesus wouldn’t have been the only person throwing up in the chapel that evening.
The next day, the placenta of Christ was the talk of the campus. Where had Mr. Spinner been when that gem of an idea occurred to him? At the desk in his office? At the dinner table? On the toilet? Lying in bed with Mrs. Spinner? “Honey, Jesus just gave me a brilliant idea!” No one could figure out why anyone, even an odd guy like Mr. Spinner, would bring a real human placenta into a chapel as a visual aid. I couldn’t figure out how the hell Mr. Spinner had managed to find a placenta. I tried to imagine him getting it from the hospital in Healdsburg:
Hello, I’m a professional educator and I’m looking for a placenta. Do you have any spare placentas lying around? I’d like to use a placenta to illustrate the love of Jesus Christ. Where do you keep them?
I could think of no other way he could have gotten one. Was there a black market for placentas? Had Mr. Spinner found some guy parked in an alley selling them out of his trunk? They’re not exactly a readily-available commodity because, let’s face it, there’s not a big demand for them outside the womb. I decided it probably had come from a hospital. I wondered why Mr. Spinner hadn’t been chased out of the hospital like some kind of lunatic.
* * * *
The next day at work, I discussed the chapel with Mrs. Spinner.
Like her husband, Mrs. Spinner was always in a hurry. She ran around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off, darting here and there, talking fast and always looking frantic and rushed. I wondered what made the Spinners such hurried people, always appearing desperate to meet some deadline. They were like overwrought characters in a movie rushing to find and defuse a bomb with a digital readout steadily ticking down to its explosion. It’s typical of Sadventists to charge around frantically on Fridays as they prepare for the coming sabbath, but the Spinners did it every day, all the time.
Hope Spinner was a small woman, and quite pretty, with long black hair and a nice figure. The only thing that marred her beauty was a broad, flat nose that was disproportionate to the rest of her face. Mrs. Spinner’s nose was why Jesus created plastic surgery. But even with the nose, she was quite attractive, and everyone wondered how in the world a strange, annoying man like Mr. Spinner had ended up with such a pretty wife.
Naturally, Sadventists are not the swearing kind, so sometimes they invent innocent slang to serve the same purpose. Mrs. Spinner’s favorite phrase was, “Good honk!” Whenever I told Mrs. Spinner something interesting, she would say, “Good honk! Really?” Coming from a grown woman – or anyone, actually – “good honk” sounded ... well, ridiculous. But she said it a lot.
“Where did Mr. Spinner get that placenta?” I asked her.
“I really don’t know,” she said. “I didn’t ask him. He’s very resourceful, though, and when he sets his mind to doing something, it gets done.”
I thought, I wish he’d set his mind to getting a decent haircut and talking normally.
I said, “I’m not sure, um ... well, I don’t think that chapel was such a good idea.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well ... a real placenta? In a chapel?”
“He said several girls devoted their hearts to Jesus after that chapel.”
“A lot of them threw up for Jesus, too.”
“Good honk, don’t say that, Arty! That’s sacreligious.”
“But it’s true.”
“Stop it. Nobody threw up.”
“I’m afraid they did.”
She frowned at me. “Really?”
“One girl fainted.”
She tucked in her chin and looked at me doubtfully. “He never mentioned that.”
“Haven’t you heard everyone talking about it today? It’s the talk of the school. That placenta is on everyone’s lips.”
“Why?” she asked with a frown.
“Well ... because he brought a human placenta into a chapel service.”
“So? It was to make a point.”
“People are ... well, frankly, they’re disgusted by it.”
She waved a hand dismissively and said, “Oh, good honk, what’s wrong with them, anyway? It was only a placenta.”
Yes. Good honk, indeed.
("Operation Homo-sek-shool," another chapter from Dismissed from the Front and Center)
© copyright 2011 by Ray Garton