Before dawn Juanito Gonzales bounced into the elegant high school boardroom with his magical laptop computer clutched in his hand. He was the smallest senior and the tenor in Shepherd’s Vale School’s Gospel Quartet, whose performances had made Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Juanito famous throughout south Florida.
Juanito had a slender Mexican’s body, a smiling moon face, skin the color of milk chocolate, and sparkling, intelligent eyes.
“I finished Friday’s special assignment, sir,” Juanito said in a soothing musical voice.
The lad’s everlasting cheerfulness and unflagging optimism tempered school principal Moriah Godley’s mercurial moods like the balm in Gilead. Reverend Godley’s bull neck protruded from a starched clerical collar draped with a gold necklace bearing a 24-karat cross. His tailored business suit bulged with a giant ex-wrestler’s well-toned muscles. Dr. Godley’s shiny pink pate was fringed like a hilltop with snowy wisps of hair.
Among Godley’s twelve disciples, little Juanito could instantly lift the big man’s spirits. The lad wasn’t a native Floridian. The seventeen-year-old from Sugar Land, Texas, had transferred to Shepherd’s Vale for his junior year. His classic 1949 Studebaker’s upkeep and credit cards were covered by his hometown patron’s political connections. Only Godley knew that the same powerful Congressman, Tom DeLay, had arranged the boy’s parents’ documented immigrant status. The principal understood that Juanito’s charm flowed from an ambition to lift his family out of poverty.
“Sit in my chair and boot up your computer, son,” he said. “I’ll watch the video over your shoulder.”
Juanito was dwarfed in the chair, but he perched on the edge so his fingers could dance on the keyboard. Godley was the marketing genius behind Shepherd’s Vale School’s phenomenal success. In the 1920’s, the Florida estate had been a sanitarium for ailing and demented relatives of wealthy Miamians. Now, thanks to a unique charter from Republican Governor Jeb Bush, the elegant facility thrived as a public school overflowing with money from Christian donors eager for Godley’s ambitious “Ten Commandments model” to sweep the nation under an eagerly anticipated, faith-based George W. Bush Administration.
The letters jumped from Juanito’s flickering monitor.
THOU SHALT NOT COVET THY NEIGHBOR’S HOUSE, THOU SHALT NOT COVET THY NEIGHBOR’S WIFE, NOR HIS MANSERVANT, NOR HIS MAIDSERVANT, NOR HIS OX, NOR HIS ASS, NOR ANY THING THAT IS THY NEIGHBOR’S.
“A different commandment boots with every school library computer session, sir,” he explained.
Godley watched as the monitor exploded with a colored comic strip title:
ANGRY JESUS POPS SADDAM HUSSEIN!
An animated head filled the screen. A grinning caricature of then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein gave a silent, sinister wink.
“Hate Israel!” popped up in a word bubble.
“Ping!” flashed on the screen.
A bullet slug tore soundlessly through the Iraqi’s olive-toned forehead, producing a gusher of blood.
Hussein’s head disappeared, and up popped the head of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader in 2000.
JESUS SMOKES YASSER ARAFAT!
The Palestinian flashed a loathsome smirk. His word bubble read, “Israel Sucks!”
Shrapnel split Arafat’s skull into bone fragments, raw chunks of flesh, and flying yellow teeth. Blood oozed from a stubble-bearded neck stump before the screen drowned in blood.
A stunning white stallion, with legs as thick as birch trunks, appeared over a rainbow. The rider was a blue-eyed, longhaired, bearded Jesus in a shining white robe. The galloping Jesus caricature snapped in a fresh M-16 clip, slipped his smoking assault rifle into a saddle holster, and drew a gigantic sword from its scabbard.
Steel glittered in the sun as the furious horseman chopped off brown-skinned heads like a celestial threshing machine. The skulls with Arab headdresses scattered and bounced along the ground like basketballs released from an overhead gym net. A muscular Jesus caught a Qur’an in midair and, with swift strokes, shredded the book into neat rolls of toilet tissue.
After the rider and steed disappeared over the horizon, a troop of cleverly animated Shepherd’s Vale seniors marched into view. Football players, Hunk, Meat, and Moose, in their full-dress ROTC uniforms, followed Dr. Godley and Juanito, who held aloft golden crosses like conquering crusader priests. Fanning out among the corpses, the boys shot the weeping and pleading survivors. Candy, Honey, Taffy, and seven spunky cheerleaders tossed Qur’ans on a school bonfire. They performed air splits in the cherry glow, shaking their bright crimson pompoms and chanting.
Go Jesus, Go!
Juanito explained, “Any high school can program the bodies and faces of its own kids. I’ve already prepared the software.”
In the blink of an eye, an American flag snapped in a stiff wind behind the final caption.
THOU SHALT HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME!
The monitor filled with Shepherd’s Vale silver banner depicting Glory, its snorting red heifer mascot. Icon folders dotted this desktop wallpaper with smiling photos of the school’s teachers. Inside each folder were the week’s assignments and corresponding web addresses.
“Do you like it, sir?”
“Fine work and good timing, son.” Godley smiled. “This is going to be a momentous day for Shepherd’s Vale. I’ll announce the details at the special senior class briefing before morning prayers. Protocol requires I inform the appropriate faculty members first.
“I can hear them outside in the hallway now, sir.”
He expected the principal’s command to leave.
Godley wasn’t finished with him. The faculty could wait.
“Put this little number on all the library computers immediately, boy,” the principal ordered. “I’ll announce it during school prayers. It will keep Miss Bowdler’s computer counter from gathering dust. What’s happening with the broader Ten Commandments campaign, Juanito?”
“Matt, Mark, Luke, and I used our disciple pass keys to work all day Saturday in the empty school. It’s full of surprises, sir, especially the bathrooms where the word of God is so often forgotten.”
Godley started to pull back the chair so Juanito could stand to leave.
The lad hesitated. “If you’ve got a minute, sir, I’m working on some other videos.”
“I don’t have time to watch any more videos, son. Why don’t you quickly run down the topics? I’ve got time to listen to them. Evil Osama bin Laden? The sinister Iranian ayatollahs?”
“A little more upbeat, sir,” Juanito replied. “I can animate Jesus feeding the poor with the miracle of bread and fishes. Curing the lepers. Healing the lame. Preventing the prostitute from being stoned to death.”
Juanito was surprised by the principal’s instant loss of interest. Godley’s black alligator boots clicked. His golden cross sparkled as he moved toward the door.
“I’m full of ideas, sir,” Juanito insisted, trying to hold the principal’s waning attention. “How about Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the temple? I’ve got a comic animation about a fat, rich guy in a three-piece suit trying to straddle a camel and squeeze through the eye of a needle. If you like blood, how about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane replacing the guard’s ear after the disciple Peter sliced it off? It can be a new series after the Ten Commandments. Maybe the Golden Rule–”
Godley placed his firm hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“The stories are all true, sir. They’re in the Gospels.”
“My boy, Scripture isn’t just a collection of words, phrases, verses, chapters, and books. The Bible isn’t a bowl of fruit that you pick over to suit your mood. I’m trying to turn you men into rigorous theological dispensationalists and powerful Christian Zionists. There’s a plan in the Bible, and Shepherd’s Vale is its vanguard. Dispensationalism is about priorities. Good Christians privilege some passages over others. And, for the last few minutes, Juanito, your priorities have been severely skewed!”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“Now, off with you to the library. I want you back in a half hour. After the faculty meeting, I have an urgent assignment for the Gospel Quartet.”
* * *
Principal Godley relished the obvious anxiety among the four faculty members scattered around his elegant boardroom table. Why had he summoned his eccentric psychologist, timid sixth grade teacher, spinster librarian, and the staff’s closeted homosexual to a surprise predawn meeting before school prayers? A thin file folder and a thick reference Bible rested on the table under his sausage-sized fingers.
Finally the great man broke the uncomfortable silence. “Shepherd’s Vale Christian School will welcome three new students this morning.”
Peter Barnum, the school psychologist, had chosen the opposite end of the mahogany table from the imperial principal’s leather throne. From that distance his perpetual runny nose and enlarged pupils were less noticeable. Dr. Barnum recognized the combative glow in Godley’s granite gray eyes. The staff privately called this competitive blaze his “warrior’s glint.” What about the new students stimulated such unwholesome interest? Why had the principal sent a school bus out early on a Monday morning to bring the senior class to a special hush-hush briefing?
Mr. Cassandra, a lean bachelor with an aging boyish face, had chosen a spot across the table from the dusty smelling school librarian Ruth Bowdler and a safe distance from the fearsome Reverend Godley. Young Mrs. Waters, the new sixth grade teacher, had positioned herself strategically on the far side of Cassandra and his potent aftershave lotion, where she could hide from the principal’s icy glare.
She had never been inside Godley’s cavernous boardroom and had worried herself sick all weekend. Why had he invited her? She watched pickle-faced Miss Bowdler’s jaw drop at Godley’s announcement. The old-timer knew that Godley had never accepted a new student after the first week in September. Why this exception?
The librarian, with her hair in a bun, high-starched collar, stiff sleeves, and an old-lady dress straight from a Salvation Army thrift shop, had been the first arrival to the meeting. Godley nudged her with his iron elbow.
“Carry the Einstein sisters’ file down to Dr. Barnum, Miss Bowdler. Pass around the new students’ photographs.”
Barnum skimmed the sparse file. On the way back to her seat, Miss Bowdler thumbed through three color photocopies. Godley addressed Cassandra and Waters.
“Maxine, Norma, and Tina Einstein are our new charges.”
“No family has moved into Shepherd’s Vale this year that I know of,” Miss Bowdler commented. “The migration is always in the opposite direction.”
The principal explained that the Einstein family lived miles away in Eternal Memory Beach, a retirement community with no school.
Mr. Cassandra chimed in with a seductively melodious voice. “Eternal Memory Beach is Jewish. Dozens of elderly Holocaust survivors live there.”
“The sisters will be our first Jewish students,” Godley replied matter-of-factly. “Their parents faxed applications directly to Jeb Bush’s education office in Tallahassee.”
“The oldest girl is the only one who looks Jewish,” Miss Bowdler sniped, passing the pictures on.
Mrs. Waters couldn’t restrain her surprise at the photo in Mr. Cassandra’s hands. The three sisters were dressed in pink ballet costumes, holding parchment scrolls, and curtsying to another girl wearing Judy Garland pigtails and a blue-checkered dress.
“All our students are Evangelical Christians,” she said, “as are the teachers.”
Godley said, “I’m placing Tina, the youngest, in your sixth-grade class.”
Mrs. Waters exclaimed, “The child doesn’t look a day over four.”
“The photo was taken in 1997,” Dr. Barnum informed her, looking up from the file. “She’s seven now. Norma is fourteen; and Maxine is two years older.”
Cassandra’s eyes lit up when he recognized the tutus. The costumes were perfect replicas of those worn by the Lullaby League ballerinas who welcomed Dorothy Gale to Munchkinland in the 1939 M-G-M film, The Wizard of Oz.
“How precious,” he declared without thinking. “I love The Wizard of Oz!”
“It was before my time,” Mrs. Waters muttered cautiously.
Miss Bowdler scowled and winced just like Margaret Hamilton, who played the dual roles of Almira Gulch and the Wicked Witch in the classic movie.
“The Wizard of Oz glorifies wizards, witches, and flying monkeys. It’s a vile pagan tract!” she exclaimed. “We’re a Christian school. It’s in Governor Bush’s faith-based charter. Jews reject Jesus and don’t accept the Bible as the literal word of God.”
Mrs. Waters said, “They don’t believe in original sin, the Rapture, or Armageddon.” Her comments lacked Miss Bowdler’s spite, but revealed deep apprehension about an unknown addition to an already challenging sixth-grade Bible studies class.
“Fortunately,” Godley replied, “this is a Ten Commandments school. We know God’s plan for every student. Shepherd’s Vale is not a godless school like every other public and parochial school in Florida, so we can enforce God’s plan.”
* * *
“We’re orphans!” Tina exclaimed.
The Einstein sisters were standing on the curb at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac waiting for their first school bus. Their Tudor stucco house looked deserted, and the lawn was due for a mowing. One would never guess the three girls were siblings from their wildly different choices of school clothing.
“Norma, last night weren’t you surprised,” Maxine asked, “when you arrived home from the airport and Mama and Papa were gone?”
Slender, blonde Maxine, the oldest child, had thrown on wrinkled blue jeans, a faded T-shirt, threadbare denim jacket, dusty book bag, and scuffed sneakers. She looked more like a kid returning from summer camp than a 16-year-old on her first day at a new school.
“They were here,” Norma replied. “Mama waved goodbye from the taxi window as my airport limousine pulled into our street.”
Athletic 14-year-old Norma struggled to retain the Continental glow despite the depressing atmosphere in the Einstein house upon her return. She wore a chic, professional, clover-green pants suit she’d purchased in a Parisian shop. Norma’s pixie face, full lips, intense hazel eyes and pageboy brunette haircut contrasted sharply with dingy blonde Maxine’s frail awkwardness, hollow cheeks, pale blue eyes, and sallow skin.
“Mama and Papa left their airline flights scribbled on a notepad by the telephone,” little Tina said, trying to sound grown up.
The delicate seven-year-old, with alabaster cheeks and brown button eyes, looked like the cover girl for an upscale back-to-school catalog—featuring the latest baggy blue cotton pants, matching sneakers and book bag. Her raven tresses showered over her favorite Wizard of Oz T-shirt: Toto pulling open the phony Wizard’s curtain.
Norma said, “You were snoring, Maxine. I was shot from jet lag.” She recounted that she’d opened her suitcase on the dining room table, thrown on her pajamas, and gone right to bed.
She’d parked her invention, the famous Green Machine, in her workshop. The miniature motor scooter was initially a home-school science project. The engineering prodigy had assembled the prototype in a corner of the garage with the enthusiastic support of her parents.
“You called me in Paris, so I knew we started a new school today.”
“Why didn’t you return my call?” Maxine demanded. “Didn’t it bother you that our parents ran off without making any provisions for anything—including our schooling?”
“Maxine, don’t you dare pick a fight now! If you must know, I was heartbroken because I had expected a call from Mama and Papa to congratulate me. We child inventors were in the middle of a press conference. Then they rushed us off to a reception hosted by the president of France.”
“Sorry, Norma,” Maxine said snidely, “you were too busy to talk to your big sister stuck in the middle of a humongous family crisis.”
“Cut the melodrama, Maxine. I didn’t have time for your hysteria over our parents becoming Republicans. What’s wrong with that anyway?”
“They’re not just Republicans. They’re radical. They even listen to a Bible-thumping redneck radio station in Culo Raton.”
Norma checked her watch and rested her book bag on the sidewalk. It was decorated with the Green Machine logo. She changed the subject.
“What kind of school is it?”
“I don’t have a clue.” Maxine said. Norma’s chronic indifference to politics and religion infuriated her.
* * *
“Shouldn’t a seven-year-old be placed in second grade rather than sixth?” Mrs. Waters asked.
The principal looked at the white skinned dormouse at his little tea party. In her modest Wal-Mart dress she looked younger than a Shepherd’s Vale cheerleader, and she was married to a soldier stationed in Kuwait. The probationary teacher had already borrowed two months’ rent from the school credit union. Godley eagerly anticipated Waters’ next five days. Her new pupil would strip away her doe-eyed innocence and drive her closer to the Lord.
“Not Tina,” Dr. Barnum answered. “These girls are prodigies. They’re Albert Einstein’s great-great granddaughters. It’s written here in French.”
Dr. Godley waited impatiently for Cassandra, Waters, Barnum, and Bowdler to absorb the startling information. The giant at the head of the table was framed by the breaking dawn outside the boardroom’s magnificent bay window.
“Some say Einstein was the smartest man of the twentieth century,” Barnum mused, dazzled by the ethereal glow from the gorgeous courtyard silhouetting Godley’s massive bulk .
“The children’s parents both have two PhDs,” Barnum said, as his finger ran down the open file.
The responsibility gave Mrs. Waters the shivers.
“Oh my Lord!” she exclaimed. “What about Friday’s ceremony christening the new chapel? You assigned my students to carry silver crosses and burning candles, and to lead Glory in the procession. What am I supposed to do with a Jewish child?”
The arrival of three new students was not the week’s only unusual event.
Psychologist Barnum recalled the principal’s aggressive burst of energy when the student body president announced Reverend Hal Lindsey’s imminent visit. Lindsey was expecting a gushing acclamation as the honored speaker at next Friday’s school assembly. But Godley planned something far different for the best-selling author of the prophetic Christian Late Great Planet Earth. He planned to rub Lindsey’s face in the celebrity’s poisonous Scriptural distortions.
The wrinkled sycophant, Miss Bowdler, had taken the chair at Godley’s right hand in order to remind everyone that the principal had chosen her to edit his first book. He was confident that his magnum opus would outsell Rev. Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, Rev. John Hagee’s Beginning of the End, and Rev. Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series.
Now the ruthless library disciplinarian was shocked by her idol’s strange reversal of policy, especially considering Hal Lindsey was speaking at a memorial assembly for the local sailor killed in the Persian Gulf USS Cole terrorist bombing ten days earlier. Godley had already used the suicide attack to condemn all Muslims as terrorists, especially the “Satanic” Palestinians who were obstructing Israel’s divine right to all of its promised land from the Nile to the Euphrates.
Frenzied students and faculty were still putting the finishing touches on the conversion of the old sanitarium’s movie theater into a school chapel for Friday’s ceremony. Godley’s four assembled staff secretly agreed that the disruption of three new Jewish youngsters was the last thing Shepherd’s Vale needed.
* * *
Maxine prodded Norma, “Aren’t you upset Mama and Papa just left like that?”
“Why?” Norma asked. “They’ve always been high-strung. Age makes people more conservative. They started getting freaky a month ago after the Arab riots started in Israel.”
“Arab riots!” Maxine snapped. “The Al Aksa Intifada was an uprising, and it was provoked. The Palestinians have been waiting peacefully for seven years for Israel to end the military occupation of their homeland. Last month Israeli General Ariel Sharon desecrated the Muslim mosques on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.”
Tina nudged Maxine. “I hope my friend is okay. I haven’t received any email from Bethlehem in weeks. I’m eager to hear what she thinks about my T-shirt. She loves The Wizard of Oz.”
Tina knew how the Palestinians felt — not just from her cyber-pal’s reports, but also from reading several grownup books. Maxine and Norma tended to treat the youngest Einstein like a non-person. However, at the mention of Fatima Said’s name, they exchanged worried looks.
Maxine diverted the conversation. “We only received one call from the new school. Tina took it.”
Norma caught Maxine’s hint. Fatima’s family tragedy could wait until Tina had adjusted to public school. “Tina, what did you find out when the school called?” she asked.
“I asked if they served Coca-Cola in the lunch room,” Tina replied with an angelic eager-to-please smile.
“You didn’t ask the school’s name?” Norma prodded.
“No,” Tina replied. “We’ll find out when the yellow bus arrives. The name will be printed on the side. I’m really excited! I’m sick of home school and V8 juice!”
Seven years ago Tina had been her forty-six year-old mother’s “mistake.” A new school had the allure of a fresh family.
* * *
The principal’s powerful fingers and mighty hands wrestled on the polished table. He ignored flunky Ruth Bowdler’s moans and flaky Mr. Cassandra’s rolling eyes. First-year teacher Cassandra wore an appropriately conservative coat and tie over a stylish silk shirt. The principal suspected it was a gift from a wealthy admirer before the Lord set the new ethics teacher free from sin and after Principal Godley offered him a redemptive assignment at Shepherd’s Vale.
Cassandra wondered, Who are the two oldest children’s teachers?
The campy Wizard of Oz photo had flooded his mind with sensual images tainted with shame: the rustle of pink crinoline, the scent of sweaty leather, and the rush of pure cocaine. Mr. Cassandra’s students were seventeen and eighteen. The oldest Einstein kid would be a sophomore.
Godley knew Cassandra’s flamboyant past and recalled the secret pact they’d signed. The reverend cringed when Cassandra smiled with his sensual lips. Godley could only imagine the gross netherworld those lips had traversed. No one could now imagine that one of the new students would tempt gentle Cassandra and force him to choose between the unorthodox personal advice from Jesus of Nazareth and Godley's homophobic benevolence.
The principal caught the thick spectacled eyes of his rotund psychologist at the end of the table. He sensed graying Barnum’s disappointment that he’d not been consulted about the new enrollees. Godley’s experimental school charter from Gov. Bush allowed him to hire Dr. Barnum despite a glaring lack of professional credentials. Barnum held a theology doctorate from Moody Bible Institute, but had impressed Godley with his pioneering work in Levitical psychology, based on the clinical premise good discipline requires great fear.
Under Dr. Barnum’s guidance, each youngster was taught to believe in the righteousness of Godley’s divine plan of which all were a part. Each student was trained to trust that Shepherd’s Vale’s policies were based on supernatural inspiration. Every child was told to know that obedience ultimately would bring true understanding. And the weak of spirit were indoctrinated to fear Godley’s wrath, and to strive to prevent a fate worse than death: expulsion from the Shepherd’s Vale family—inevitably accompanied by the cosmic deprivation of eternal life.
“Any questions?” Godley asked.
* * *
“Well, Maxine, what does School X know about us?” Norma inquired with growing apprehension.
Maxine felt the return of the self-esteem she’d lost in the last ghastly battle before her parents washed their hands of home and children. The Einstein sisters’ brainy genes had been nurtured in a pressure cooker to excel in the sciences, arts, and letters. Long departed Grandpa Einstein’s royalties and investments had already enabled teenage Maxine and Norma to rush through lifetimes of extraordinary experiences and stellar achievements.
I hope I don’t look too Jewish, Maxine thought.
She ignored Tina’s future when she said, “I faxed what I thought would guarantee the two of us the advanced placement we deserve. I should graduate in June and be on my own.”
She said she’d sent the state office a Newsweek clipping about the Prodigy Game Show, the Park Slope, Brooklyn, report card from the year before last, and her 1998 yearbook photo.
Norma sneered. “You looked like the daughter of Dracula.”
“Thanks, Prince Valiant,” Maxine retorted. “I wrote Tallahassee that both of us had emergency medical training and belts in karate. I faxed your 1998 report card and the picture from last week’s Oui! magazine so they could see what an arrogant little snot you are.”
“The Park Slope elementary kids didn’t get pictures in the yearbook,” Tina complained.
“I sent the Lullaby League photo,” Maxine said.
“I was in pre-school,” sniffled Tina. “The new school will put me in kindergarten.”
The Einstein sisters had performed the Lullaby League ballet scene three years earlier in a Reform Judaism synagogue play. Maxine especially loved to express herself through dance. The Munchkinland routine had bonded the siblings, until home school and family politics drove the threesome apart.
“Bug off, Tina,” Maxine snapped. “You were no help last week. The parents went crazy when Papa’s cousin was sent to the hospital after his car was stoned by a Palestinian protestor in Tel Aviv. Miss Tina holed up in her closet, and Miss Norma ran off to party in Paris. After the parents disowned us, I got stuck with finding us a public school! I could be arrested for forging their names!”
Norma shot back, “You had your chance three years ago to party in Israel with Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon. Besides, Paris was hard work. I’m young. I want fame and fortune! I went looking for venture capital. I came back with fame but no fortune. I can’t launch production and marketing of the Green Machine with the measly $25,000 the parents said they’d put up. I need ten times that amount. I want to take business classes, so my tax lawyer doesn’t take advantage of me.”
Suddenly Norma caught herself. “Why are we arguing? The three of us are going to be alone in a strange school. We need to stick together.”
“Until we make new friends just like at Park Slope,” Tina added.
“I want secular friends with political consciousness!” Maxine declared. “There will be plenty of Jewish kids. Florida is full of Jewish people.”
The Einstein sisters listened for the sound of the approaching bus on Eternal Memory Beach’s sleepy morning streets and shared their hopes and fears for the mystery school.
“Maybe all the classes show stupid videotapes, and no one reads books,” Tina fretted.
“Jews all read books,” said Maxine. After generations of curious secular ancestors, the girls knew as much about Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam as Judaism.
“I’ll bet the cafeteria even serves kosher food,” she added.
Norma shuffled in her stylish shoes. “Kosher schmosher! I’m eager to overcome Brooklyn’s narrow ethnicity, especially after visiting the Continent. Just being away from provincial America opened my eyes! My roommate was a Muslim inventor from Lebanon. I insisted we speak Arabic. I asked her about the similarity between the End-Times scenarios in the Qur’an and the Christian Book of Revelation. She said that only fundamentalists take seriously that part of their holy book. If there are any Christian fundamentalists at the new school, I hope they don’t Jew-bait us.”
Maxine snapped, “A week in Europe and you’re ashamed of being Jewish?”
“Come on, Maxine! What is Jewish anyway? Even Jews can’t agree who is a Jew.”
“We have our own values,” Maxine asserted.
“Jewish values?” Norma replied. “What does that mean? How can a people hold common values when they disagree on everything from the existence of God to the justification for an exclusively Jewish state in Israel? Look at the fights between you and the parents.”
“Me and the parents?” Maxine was stung. “How about you and me, Norma? Did Paris make you forget about our ‘Einstein Sisters’ Theory of Responsibility’?”
“I still believe in that,” Norma insisted, “but Grandpa Albert included everyone in his moral philosophy, not just Jews—and so do we. I’m completely comfortable with Gentile kids. I want to be popular with everyone. I want to show off my gymnastic skills.”
Oh no! Maxine thought, Norma wants to be a cheerleader again! Arrggghhhh!
“What if some of the Christian kids dispute evolution?” Maxine challenged. “Global warming is your hook to sell the Green Machine.”
“Maybe the teachers will post the Ten Commandments in their rooms,” Tina suggested. “What if they try to convert us, like the Evil Jelly Claws in Park Slope? That’s why Mama and Papa moved to Florida and started home-schooling us.”
Maxine winced. “Don’t talk like that, Tina! The word is Evangelicals!”
Norma laughed. “Posting the Ten Commandments! I’d love it! What a hoot!”
“Norma, this is a question of principles!” Maxine snapped. “You’ll be around a few kids who believe in original sin, virgin births, and people rising from the dead.”
Norma replied, “Judaism has some crazy ideas too. Like Jews from Brooklyn claiming 4,000-year-old deeds to Arab peoples’ land.”
“What if there are compulsory Christian prayers?” Maxine challenged.
Norma chuckled. “I’ll bow my head and think of the most sacrilegious Jesus joke I’ve ever heard.”
“No way!” Maxine exclaimed. “We’ll have to make a giant stink.”
A cause! Maxine’s combative spirit was being stoked by the welcome absence of oppressive parents and by the prospect of intellectual battles like the ones she sparked during her glorious ten weeks of grandstanding on the national Prodigy Game Show.
“Maxine,” Norma warned, shaking her finger, “don’t even think about making waves. I want to try out for the cheerleading team.”
Maxine jibed, “You don’t even know the name of the school, and you’re ready to trade your cherished principles for cheap popularity.”
“Cool it, Maxine,” Norma retorted. “We both agree that religion has no place in public school. Anyway, the administration can’t allow prayers or they’ll lose their state certification. You did connect with this school though the Department of Education in Tallahassee?”
“I told you that in the phone message you ignored.”
Norma asked wryly, “What if Mama and Papa come home and discover you forged their names on the enrollment forms?”
“I had to! What if they never come home?” Maxine snapped.
“Shh,” Norma whispered, pulling Maxine aside. “Be careful what you say in front of Tina. She’s such a suck-up, that she’s liable to tip off the school that the three of us are completely on our own.”
“What if Mama and Papa don’t come home?” Tina asked. “I don’t want to stay an orphan forever. Mama told me she has family living nearby. Maybe we can move in with relatives.”
Norma and Maxine rolled their eyes, suddenly united.
“How about Mama’s brother in Culo Raton and sister in Corral Gerbils?” Tina asked, her cheeks brightening.
“Coral Gables, Tina,” Norma corrected. “Just because you’re rattled, don’t play the speech impediment game with us! You’re too young to have met Uncle Irving or Aunt Katty. She owns more Florida real estate than Katherine Harris. Say! She might invest in the Green Machine.”
Maxine laughed. “Be serious! Aunt Katty took one of Hal Lindsey’s guided tours of the Holy Land and became an evangelical Christian. She’s so un-Jewish she even changed her name from Klutzgolem. She welcomes global warming as a confirmation of Biblical prophecy.”
“How about Uncle Irving?” Tina asked.
“Sure, Tina,” scoffed Norma. “We can move into Uncle Irving’s gaming parlor. He’ll put you to work passing out bingo cards to geezers in wheelchairs.”
Maxine taunted Tina, “You want to make money for Uncle Irving to send to the messianic Israeli settlers to drive Palestinian farmers off their land and shoot little Arab kids the same age as Fatim — I mean you — are?”
Norma objected. “Uncle Irving isn’t a monster. He has religious reasons for his philanthropy.”
Maxine retorted, “It’s his ‘religious reasons’ that make him a monster. Just because Uncle Irving thinks little Norma can do no wrong!”
Norma had been Irving’s favorite before the seismic political and religious rifts in the family. When she was Tina’s age, Norma had found a screwdriver, reversed the privacy doorknob on the bathroom door, and locked her uncle in the john. Even after an hour inside, Irving was so impressed with the mechanical prodigy that he let her get away with anything and still remain his favorite niece.
“If he knew about your little business,” Maxine said, “he would be proud of you. He always predicted you’d be a successful capitalist.”
Tears welled in little Tina’s eyes. “Maxine, if the police find out you are a forger, they will lock us up in an orphanage!”
“Tina,” Norma advised. “You need to calm down. Mama and Papa are going to come back. Why don’t you pick the palm fronds off the lawn? That will make them happy when they return.”
* * *
Outside the boardroom window, the shadow of the school’s majestic dome receded as the first rays of sunshine fell on the arched wooden chapel door across a primeval garden shaded by sugarberry, gumbo-limbo, and paradise trees. The four staff members could hear the small school band rehearsing in the garden. Why had Godley called them to school early to practice marching numbers?
Mrs. Waters couldn’t admit that she was already over her head teaching sixth-grade world history with the Old Testament as the sole textbook.
Of course she was a born-again Evangelical. But the intricacies of Dr. Godley’s peculiar fundamentalism had never trickled down to her Baptist church on a barren corner of downtown Shepherd’s Vale. She’d never seen a Scofield Reference Bible or heard the words “dispensationalism” or “Christian Zionism” before coming to Godley’s school. How could he expect her to handle a child genius who rejected the fundamentals of the dispensationalist interpretation of Scripture?
“Aren’t you up to it, Mrs. Waters,” Godley demanded.
She gulped down her fear. “I can do it, sir. I just don’t want to let you down, especially Friday in front of Rev. Lindsey.”
She was really thinking, I couldn’t live off an unemployment check.
Godley sought to assure her. “I’ve already briefed Mercy, your brightest student. She knows the divine plan for Tina. Don’t worry. I’ll visit your class every day.”
Oh my God! Mrs. Waters thought.
* * *
A few blocks away from the waiting Einstein sisters, a yellow minibus was navigating the curved streets and tidy lanes of Eternal Memory Beach. Elderly Jews stared out of curtained windows and paused before stooping to pick up their morning papers to stare at the stocky silver haired African-American woman behind the wheel. An old couple walking their dog let him squirt in a lavender morning glory flowerbed as they craned to read the letters on the side panel of the strange vehicle in their retirement community:
SHEPHERD’S VALE SCHOOL
Angela Jordan watched the gas gauge, irked that the school hadn’t filled the tank since her Friday trip to the West Palm Beach county voters office for Dr. Godley.
Angela Jordan hewed to a narrow, Bible-based notion of Jews. She knew almost as much about the Einstein sisters as Dr. Godley, but knew nothing about their parents except that they had just re-registered in the county as Republicans. She’d learned that the family moved from New York over a year ago. The two Dr. Einsteins were college professors with a wall full of degrees. They’d been home-schooling the girls. Why would they enroll them in public school two months into the year?
Angela, like many Floridians in their sixties, could not afford to retire. So she jumped at an opportunity to drive a school bus for Shepherd’s Vale, an ideal job for a grand-mom with inexhaustible patience and a deep love for children. Most drivers’ jobs had a built-in dead spot in the middle of the day, but the principal liked her office work for the new girls. Just this morning Dr. Godley had hinted about part-time library work between picking up and dropping off her three daily passengers.
Angela lowered her voice and reported into her cell phone that she had located Yad Vashem Circle and had spotted the girls.
* * *
Mr. Cassandra hated himself for his risky confession about his love for The Wizard of Oz. He’d faithfully trod the righteous path until the moment he glimpsed the Einstein sisters’ Lullaby League costumes.
Cassandra had been referred to Shepherd’s Vale School after he responded to a drizzly Sunday morning street sermon by a preacher who claimed to have helped George W. Bush find Jesus. The timing seemed miraculous after a night of debauchery prompted by the ultimate tragedy. Mr. Cassandra had been dumped for a younger partner by the first man he had really loved.
The preacher had brutally persuaded the sinner that Bush’s America would be no Palm Beach toga party for an aging gay man. The challenge of teaching high school Christian ethics had a cleansing appeal. After weeks of struggle at Shepherd’s Vale, Cassandra had finally established rapport with a small class of seniors dominated by wholesome Christian cheerleaders and macho football players. Now a new crisis! He could almost guarantee this clique would use the hallways and lunchroom to harass mercilessly brainy young Jewish girls.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said hesitantly, choosing words with care, “isn’t Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity as subversive of our Old Testament physics as Darwin’s theory of evolution is subversive of our Old Testament biology? I’ve been teaching here eight weeks and haven’t observed the slightest hint of relativity. Everything at Shepherd’s Vale is absolute. You even condemn ‘intelligent design’ as a sinister liberal plot.”
“Albert Einstein was a socialist!” Miss Bowdler declared. She certainly didn’t need a trio of uppity Jews in her one-woman library second-guessing Shepherd’s Vale’s tightly limited book selection or highly restrictive Internet filters.
“Most Jews are left-wing liberals,” she added. “Everyone in Eternal Memory Beach will vote Democratic next month, especially with Joseph Lieberman running for vice president. Didn’t you remind us during prayers, sir, that Bush’s election is critical for the success of the Ten Commandments Charter School movement?”
“What difference does it make to you?” snapped Cassandra peevishly. “You’re just the librarian. My students are almost old enough to vote!”
“Well Cassandra,” Godley said with a wry smile. “Fortunately Maxine Einstein doesn’t vote yet. You can shape her thinking, because I’m placing her in your senior values class.”
Cassandra felt a suppressed yearning for a drink, hit, or snort. Godley had already stuck him with three spacey cheerleaders, three boneheaded athletes, and three obnoxious nerds.
“I’ve enough on my hands,” he said, “with Candy, Honey, Taffy, Hunk, Meat, Moose, Jonah, Joshua, and Jeremiah. I’ve finally earned a modicum of respect. The football team is enjoying a winning season. The cheerleading team is expected to win statewide honors. This is no time to introduce a brilliant kid with subversive ideas about evolution, global warming, abortion, and homosexuality into a values class!”
“Remedial values,” Miss Bowdler corrected.
“Exactly!” Cassandra snapped. “Look, Miss Bowdler, this is none of your business. You don’t have to teach one of these kids.”
“Maxine participated in the Prodigy Game Show when she was thirteen,” said Dr. Barnum. “She’ll be surprised to find herself in Cassandra’s class.”
“Surprised!” Cassandra exclaimed. “She’ll be rebellious.”
“That’s enough!” Godley said, raising his voice for the first time. “Miss Bowdler and Dr. Barnum, you two will also face new responsibilities.”
Miss Bowdler glowered. Dr. Barnum turned pale.
“You’re bickering like children!” Godley yelled, “and you’re acting just as stupid! God is sending us the Einstein sisters, and not one of you has figured out why!”
The principal turned to Cassandra. Why was he shouting? He could exploit the former sinner’s vulnerability, needs, and their secret pact. If Cassandra’s students passed Dr. Godley’s final values examination, the influential reverend had promised to recommend Cassandra as the poster boy for an experimental Christian 12-step recovery program, to be fully funded by Republican federal dollars. It would be called Abomination Anonymous. The Jewish girl was simply a shaky Christian’s additional obligation.
The reverend shoved his Scofield Bible across the table and barked at Cassandra, “Read Zechariah 13:8-9 out loud.”
In a nervous voice, Maxine’s reluctant new teacher quoted the passage.
“In the whole land,” declares the LORD, “two-thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one-third will be left in it. This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold.
“They will call on my name and I will answer them;
“I will say, “They are my people, and they will say, ‘The LORD is our God.’ ”
Even Mrs. Waters understood the significance of the verses because this Old Testament passage was integral to the well-known dispensationalist End-Times scenario. The doctrine was preached by hundreds of popular televangelists and believed, without question, by tens of millions of evangelical Christians, many of whom had never thought of themselves as “Christian Zionists”.
Godley nodded to her. “Well, Mrs. Waters?”
“During the seven years of Tribulation,” she whispered, “two-thirds of the world’s Jews will perish in the bloodshed. Only 144,000 will survive. Every one of those will convert to Christianity so that their ministry can offer a second chance to the billions of other folks left behind after we born-again Christians are Raptured.”
Of course, Miss Bowdler was the first to catch on. “You’re sending two of the Einstein sisters to Israel to die in the Battle of Armageddon.”
Godley smiled. “I’ve already made the arrangements — a full college scholarship and a lucrative business opportunity. Before prayers I’ll brief the seniors. Of course, the girls must never know about the Lord’s plans. Everyone at Shepherd’s Vale is responsible to help the two girls make the decision to emigrate. And each must think that it is her own idea.”
Which two? Everyone wondered, but no one dared to ask.
* * *
“Cool it,” said Maxine. “Here comes our bus. No more kidding around. We’ve got to stick together.”
“The driver is an African-American!” Tina shouted, as she ran from the lawn to the curb with something prickly cupped in her palms.
“Good job, Maxine,” Norma exclaimed. “You signed us up for a school full of basketball players and gang-bangers cruising the hallways with boom boxes on their shoulders. The cheerleaders will be jive-talking home girls I can’t even understand. They’ll Jew-bait us from Jump Street.”
Maxine jibbed, “You like dark-skinned boys, Norma. Did you pick up one in Paris? Or are you still a virgin?”
“I hate you, Maxine. Just because you like girls!”
“That’s a lie. I just hung out with the gay and Lesbian kids in Park Slope. We’d watch cool movies like Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The girls were more interesting than your airhead cheerleaders, and the gay boys were more sensitive than the jocks you used to drool over.”
“Just because I’m wholesome and you’re degenerate!”
Tina joined them, singing John Lennon’s ballad, Imagine.
“Look what I found under the oak tree,” she said. “It’s an empty nest. I’m going to take it to school for show-and-tell.”
“Tina, its full of shit,” said Maxine with disgust. “Throw it away.”
“Don’t you have enough show-and-tell in your bag?” Norma asked.
“Just printouts of Fatima’s emails from Bethlehem,” Tina replied.
Angela reversed her compact bus and backed into the empty driveway. She was thinking, First day of school, and their parents don’t even stick their heads out of a window to see them off. I could be a kidnapper!
She folded open the side door and hopped onto the blacktop. Her smile exuded confidence and compassion and revealed a glittering gold tooth.
“I just called the school to report that I found you,” she explained, pointing to the bulge of a cell phone in her crisp gray uniform with crimson stripes.
She tapped the freshly embossed name above the pen pocket on her ample bosom:
“Kids just call me Angela,” she said warmly, driving her hand into Norma’s outstretched fingers and clasping Tina’s shoulder.
She examined Maxine’s gaunt appearance and wondered if the girls were eating properly. Maxine’s pigtails were braided like raw hemp.
What kind of mother do these young ones have? she wondered.
Angela addressed Norma. “Well aren’t you dressed nice? I love that T-shirt, miss,” she said to Tina.
“We love The Wizard of Oz,” Tina testified. “And ballet.”
“Well,” Angela said soberly, “I’m sorry, but you girls can’t wear street clothes to Shepherd’s Vale School. Our students all wear uniforms.”
Maxine balked. “No way! I’m not wearing a uniform. We’ll stay home, thank you.”
Tina moved toward the driver. “Not me. I want to go. Where do you live, Angela?”
“Sugar Point, hon.”
Tina said, “I never heard of that. Is it near Corral Gerbils? We have an aunt in Corral Gerbils. She’s an Evil Jelly Claw.”
Norma recoiled. Her eyes shot Maxine a message that said, “We better shut her up fast!”
Maxine said, “Give us the uniforms. We’ll change in the bus.”
Angela said, “I’m afraid your new principal wouldn’t allow such immodesty! Let me fetch your wardrobe.”
She climbed up the steps and rolled down a large Samsonite suitcase.
“You’ll have to change in your house. I’ll wheel this inside and help out. There are dozens of blouses, skirts, and stockings and as many pairs of shoes. We’ll find uniforms that fit you all.”
Maxine and Norma exchanged panicked looks.
“I can rightly say hello to your folks,” Angela offered.
“Oh no!” Norma exclaimed.
“Our parents wouldn’t like that,” Maxine protested.
Tina smiled. “Look at the bird’s nest I just found in the front yard. The mama and papa birds flew away and left it empty.”
“Tina!” Norma and Maxine shouted in unison.
Norma rolled the suitcase up the yellow brick walkway between bottlebrush trees and hibiscus plants to the front porch. Maxine grabbed Tina’s hand and dragged her along. Angela climbed back into her seat, shook her head, and muttered.
“Lord, have mercy! I’m the first black bus driver at Shepherd’s Vale, but I’m unwelcome here. I thought Jewish people were open-minded and supported civil rights.”