“What’s the product?” Mark interrupted rudely. He was the class’s stuffiest conservative and the most faithful to Godley’s thinking. “We don’t have a moment to waste.”
“It’s a cool motor bike,” Norma replied, unflustered, “but I’m getting ahead of myself. First, all Einsteins believe in personal responsibility.”
Unfortunately, her snapshot of her little scooter stalled in no-man’s land between Juanito’s cold taco and Luke’s scratching pen.
“As we all know,” she confided, motioning inclusiveness, “thoughtless Americans’ addiction to SUVs is warming the planet, with disastrous consequences for all of us—Matt, Mark Luke, Juanito, and myself. And Dr. Godley.”
She nodded to the empty chair.
“You may never have heard of ‘peak oil,” but I researched the subject for this project. The United States, with only four percent of the world’s population, burns twenty-five percent of the fossil fuel. At the current rate the world will run out of affordable petroleum before your kids enter high school.”
Matt, the wannabe physicist, sat erect, suddenly listening intently.
Norma acknowledged his attention by addressing him personally.
“Grandpa Albert — that’s our endearment for Albert Einstein — emphasized the interconnectedness of everything that exists and stressed our human responsibility to maintain a respect for the earth and for all of its other inhabitants. We can’t just ignore the basic laws of thermodynamics, can we Matt?”
Suddenly, Matt locked onto Norma’s wavelength.
“Luke, we’re destroying the world’s balance of life,” she warned. “We are wiping out species every day.”
Luke, both biology enthusiast and school filmmaker, stopped his scribbling.
“We can’t replicate a dolphin in a test tube, can we Luke? Grandpa Albert also believed in the special connection among all people. And he didn’t limit that to people living today, and he certainly didn’t limit it to people living in any particular country.
“We are responsible to past generations and those to come. We young people have been entrusted with the achievements of our ancestors, and we have an obligation to build a better world for our children and grandchildren.
“The fossil fuel you burn when you drive to the Grab ’n’ Run Mini Market for a soda could run a generator for a day to purify a Iraqi village’s water supply, depriving a virus from mutating into one that kills your grandson.
“Every time you drive anywhere you’re adding to global warming, a process that we know will wipe out millions of people. You not only kill future generations but their kids and their kids as well. Instead of wasting dwindling hydrocarbon energy in an elephantine internal combustion engine for a 12 ounce bottle of Dr. Pepper, you could invest it in a wind farm to generate electricity for a rural hospital in Bangladesh, saving the life of the girl who makes your jockey shorts.”
She didn’t see Mark roll his eyes like right-wing pundit William F. Buckley on Crossfire.
“Interconnectedness — that’s the idea behind my Green Machine.”
Juanito’s unexpected fascination trumped a cynicism about environmentalism that he learned from his born-again role model in Congress, Tom DeLay, who called the Environmental Protection Agency the “Gestapo.”
Norma paused to gauge her success. Mark was the sole holdout.
“It’s no longer a question of how we explain our inaction to our grandchildren. Forget it! — our children will ask us! We have to revolutionize the world’s transportation system in the next decade for our own survival. For the survival of large cities below sea level like New Orleans.
“The weather is going crazy, our resources are running low, and we’re not spending enough to control population. Our generation faces a hell on earth in the coming quarter century. Can you imagine peering out from a fortress America, watching the world descend into a Mad Max orgy of looting, murder, and rape? Would we be safe? Even a Berlin Wall with sniper towers couldn’t guarantee our safety.”
Mark tuned out and stared out the window. He transformed her vibrant words into the stale clichés that Rush Limbaugh ridiculed over Shepherd’s Vale’s morning school bus loudspeakers from WGOD in Culo Raton.
Norma tried to reach him. “We’ll all be lucky to grow old and die before the planet self-destructs—unless products like my Green Machine receive funding for production, marketing, and sales.”
The clock ticked. Norma saw she still had several minutes to milk Grandpa Albert’s humanism as she had done in Paris, but she also had to appeal to Mark’s patriotism.
“Mark, we’re both Americans. This is my personal pledge to you. My product will be one hundred percent ‘Made in the USA.’ Albert Einstein had a special fondness for America and the philosophy of our Founding Fathers. This country offered him sanctuary from Nazi Germany after Hitler confiscated his property in 1934.
“The great scientist lived, studied, and taught at Princeton University in complete freedom in the greatest country in the world. It is my personal responsibility to preserve—”
“Get to the point,” Mark demanded. The phrases, confiscated property and complete freedom, snapped him out of his trance, but he was far from impressed.
“You’re running out of time,” Luke advised softly, crossing a ‘t’ with his pen.
Undaunted by the interruption, Norma’s eyes searched the room. A blackboard and pointer were resting in a corner. Without hesitating, she circled the table in her stocking feet and wheeled the panel in front of her judges.
Three boys swiveled in their chairs. Juanito stood up, eager to see.
With bold chalk strokes, Norma sketched a sleek moped. With Dr. Godley’s silver pointer she identified the parts of her Green Machine.
“The tires are one hundred percent recycled rubber, the cushions come from used soda bottles, and the metal comes from retired missiles, decommissioned bombers, and—”
“How often do you have to fill it with gas?” Mark asked.
“How many liters does the tank hold?” Matt asked.
“It’s totally operated by batteries,” Norma replied with a triumphant grin.
They’re asking easy questions. This isn’t France. No long-winded tirades on neo-liberal trade policy or post-modern epistemology.
“You recharge the battery by plugging into the washer-dryer outlet in your garage. It’s the big female electric socket for a plug with three prongs.”
“Is there an air conditioner?” asked an impish Juanito, loosening the button under his songster’s bow tie.
Sour-faced Mark’s ugly glare knocked the twinkle from his eye.
“No,” said Norma,” but if you look at the photo and the green case—”
Gracefully, Norma slipped around the table behind Juanito and picked up the photo. As she touched his shoulder, the romantic energy was tangible. She circled from boy to boy, holding the photo under each one’s eyes.
Norma never stopped speaking.
“Look at the suitcase I was holding in my arms. Look at my diagram on the board. The empty suitcase rolls up and slides into the chassis between the compressed air can and all-purpose tool kit. When you arrive at your destination, the motorbike can be quickly disassembled. The entire vehicle fits inside that canvas case.”
“Time!” said Mark.
“Stand!” Godley ordered. “You can’t pitch on your posterior.”
Once on his feet, Mark panned his audience like a TV reporter. A savvy Godley handed his oak gavel to the speaker. The aspiring businessman caught it like a portable mike and held it to his lips.
“Hi people,” he announced. He made sure his eyes avoided Norma’s. Instead he faced the instructor, as if Godley were a combination camera and field monitor.
“Here’s another live telecast from the site of the future Armageddon Theme Park,” he reported. “In a few minutes the Christian Sabbath will be breaking here at Mt. Megiddo. Follow with me our roving camera over the misty plains of the Jezreel valley below. Armageddon from the Book of Revelation is a corrupted version of Har Megiddo. That’s Hebrew for Mount Megiddo.
“Our camera reveals Megiddo’s ruins sprawled along a hillside overlooking fallow fields. From where I stand, a cinder footpath twists between scrub bushes and rocky outcroppings. Mark Twain noted Megiddo’s desolation in his 1867 book The Innocent Abroad.
“Follow the camera. The ground you see has been soaked with the blood of a dozen civilizations. Pharaoh Thutmose III conquered the Hittite-Canaanite armies at Megiddo in 1469 BC. Napoleon Bonaparte marched 13,000 men into this valley in 1799 and slaughtered the Turks. Lord Allenby defeated the Ottoman Empire here in 1917, giving England the Holy Land to hold in trust for the Jews under the blessed Balfour Declaration.
“Investors! Look at all those tourists! ‘But,’ I hear you object, ‘there’s nothing here!’ That just proves the unlimited commercial potential! For three decades, Megiddo has been a magnet for Christian fundamentalist pilgrims, who read passages from Revelation, but had to imagine the exhilarating last days’ bloodbath that’s going to take place on these empty plains.
“Why should these tourists have to imagine? Why should good Christians have to wait for the Rapture to witness the gore and feel the thrill? Folks, this will be so much more than just Armageddon. This is Tribulation! The full Monty! The sword, famine, and pestilence! The actual battle of Armageddon!
“We’ll shoot the event with a cast of 200 million for Luke’s film, and then create a three-thousand-acre theme park from the mess that’s left. Plagues? Famine? We’ll bring in genuine sick and starving people from third world countries, in exchange for small considerations to their families at home. In conclusion, put your money where your faith is. There’s a promising future in the destruction of the world. Thank you! Over and out.”
Norma’s hand shot up. Trying to ignore her, Godley barked, “Comments, boys? Don’t be shy. Mark will face harsh critics from some of those Hollywood types.”
Norma’s hand remained the only one in the air.
She challenged, “Aren’t you guys preying on people’s fears instead of trying to make their lives better? What happened to Jesus in your films and theme park?”
“Good point,” Mark shot back. Until he met Norma he could never have imagined such an articulate and sophisticated fourteen-year-old. It was still a mystery where Godley found her. Mark imagined her a super successful Jewish movie mogul grilling him.
“Jesus is front and center,” he boasted. “The inciting incident in Luke’s series is the crucifixion. Matt plans to supply a chain of actors from his prisons. The agonizing death of our Lord drives the series to the inevitable climax when the raging Christ returns to earth looking for bloody revenge.”
Norma was puzzled. “What’s wrong with a regular actor?”
“Tell her Matt,” the mischievous Juanito prodded.
Matt stumbled over his words. “Like I was explaining, that’s part of the bonus system. We’ll do auditions to discover fresh talent — death row prisoners who resemble Jesus. Mark, you explain. You know the details.”
Norma couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
Mark cleared his throat and cast Matt a look of contempt for his cowardice. He realized a guy like Matt needed the federal government. He’d never survive in the business world.
“Well — “ he paused, shuffling his cards. “ — we’re planning a live crucifixion for the film. If it catches on, we’ll repeat it. We’ll stage an annual pageant at the park to draw the Easter crowd.”
Norma’s eyes widened and her mouth opened.
“Volunteers only,” said Mark defensively. “We’ll pay good money.”
Norma was incredulous. “You’re not really going to crucify some poor guy?”
“Absolutely,” Luke declared. “It’s the inciting incident. I’ve taken Robert McKee’s screenwriting seminar. Sound cinematic structure requires that the inciting incident be proportional to the climax. Seven years of Tribulation has got to be revenge for something more than pique over wearing a crown of thorns.
“Jesus has to be really angry! The audience has to hear the bones splinter and see the blood spurt, or they’ll condemn the sequel as typically gratuitous Hollywood violence. The audience must demand that Christ returns to the big screen with Dolby sound and slaughters billions of men, women, and children. This isn’t a stupid sci fi movie, it’s a powerful documentary!”
“You’re going to film a man’s execution?” Norma asked in a shocked whisper.
“Why not?” Mark snapped. “The guy’s going to die anyway. Most men on death row never considered their future portfolios before they sinned. Few take out life insurance for their loved ones. We’re talking $1,000 for one day’s work! You’ve read Ayn Rand. Our deal is voluntary and a fair exchange. Actually we expect a lively competition for the part.
“Let’s face it, this will probably be the coolest thing the guy has ever done. He gets world recognition and the right to designate the beneficiaries. We’re a Christian enterprise with the interests of our employees at heart. We’ll write the check after he’s dead—so it’s tax free!”
“It’s not a real crucifixion,” said Luke, responding to the horror on Norma’s face. “I mean it’s real, but we’re not pounding spikes into some guy’s hands and feet without injecting a powerful local anesthesia. And he’ll get a general anesthesia for the sword in the side at a moment when he’s supposed to look dopey anyway. It looks worse than an appendectomy incision, but it’s not that different—just faster and deeper.”
“Look,” Luke said, reassuringly, “there’s no sex in our films.”
Mark said, “We’re not like Hollywood. We’re Christians. Viewers will have no idea what Mary Magdalene did for a living.”