It was a bright, defrosted, pussy-willow day at the onset of spring, and the newlyweds were driving cross-country in a large roast turkey.
The turkey lay upon its back, as roast turkeys will; submissive, agreeable, volunteering its breast to the carving blade, its roly-poly legs cocked in a stiff but jaunty position, as if it might summon the gumption to spring forward onto its feet, but, of course, it had no feet, which made the suggestion seem both empty and ridiculous, and only added to the turkey's aura of goofy vulnerability.
Despite its feetlessness, however, its pathetic podalic privation, this roast turkey–or jumbo facsimile thereof–was moving down the highway at sixty-five miles an hour, traveling faster, farther on its back than many aspiring actresses.
The turkey, gleaming in the callow March sunlight, had been a wedding present from the groom to the bride, although the title remained in the groom's name and he was never, in fact, to relinquish ownership. Actually, it was the fashioning of the turkey, the phenomenon of its existence, that was his gift to the bride. More important, it was the manifestation of the turkey, the squealy, swoony surprise of the creation of the turkey, that had precipitated the marriage: the groom, Boomer Petway, had used the turkey to trick the bride, Ellen Cherry Charles, into marrying him. At least, that was what Ellen Cherry was thinking at that moment, less than a week after the wedding, thinking, as she watched the turkey suck the thawing countryside into its windshield and blow it out its rearview mirror, that she'd been tricked. Less than a week after the wedding, that probably was not an excellent indicator of impending decades of marital bliss.
Some marriages are made in heaven, Ellen Cherry thought. Mine was made in Hong Kong. By the same people who made those little rubber pork chops they sell in the pet department at K mart.
Mockingbirds are the true artists of the bird kingdom. Which is to say, although they're born with a song of their own, an innate riff that happens to be one of the most versatile of all ornithological expressions, mockingbirds aren't content to merely play the hand that is dealt them. Like all artists, they are out to rearrange reality. Innovative, willful, daring, not bound by the rules to which others may blindly adhere, the mockingbird collects snatches of birdsong from this tree and that field, appropriates them, places them in new and unexpected contexts, recreates the world from the world. For example, a mockingbird in South Carolina was heard to blend the songs of thirty-two different kinds of birds into a ten-minute performance, a virtuoso display that served no practical purpose, falling, therefore, into the realm of pure art.
And so it was that in the dogwood branches and lilac bushes on the grounds of the Third Baptist Church of Colonial Pines, mockingbirds were producing art, were "making a joyful noise unto the Lord," while inside the building, a Georgian rectangle of powdery brick and prissy white trim, several hundred freshly scrubbed, well-fed human beings concerned themselves not with creation but destruction. Ultimate destruction.
In east-central Virginia, where Colonial Pines was located, spring was quicker on its feet than it was out in the Far West, through which Boomer and Ellen Cherry's roast turkey was transporting them ever eastward. Pussy willows had already come and gone in Virginia, and sickly faced dogwood blossoms, like constituted elves, strained to take their places. From underground silos, jonquil bulbs fired round after round of butter-tipped stalks, all sorts of buds were swelling and popping, birds (not just mockingbirds) strung ropes of birdsong from treetop to fence post, bees and other insects were waking to the unfamiliar alarm of their own faint buzz; all around, the warming natural world was in the process of rebirth and renewal, almost as if to deliberately cast some doubt upon the accuracy of the sermon being concluded at that moment in the church.
"God gave us this sign," said the preacher from his oak veneer podium. "The Lord gave us a sign! A sign! It was a warming, if you will. A word to the wise. He gave his children a big easy-to-read sign, words in tall black letters, maybe golden letters–maybe it was a neon sign. In any case, there's no mistakin' its message. The Lord shoved this sign before the countenance of his beloved disciple, John, and John, being a righteous man, John bein' a wise man, John didn't blink or scratch his head or ask for details, Saint John didn't call up a lawyer on the phone and ask for a legal interpretation, no, John read this sign and copied it down and passed it on to mankind. To you and I."
The preacher's voice was reminiscent of a saxophone. Not the cool, laconic sax of Lester Young, but the full, lush, volatile sound of, say, Charlie Barnet. There was a marvelous, dark lyricism in his voice, the kind of defiance that is rooted in deep loneliness. His pockmarked face was lean and hungry looking, a beat face poisoned by boils and the runoff from rotting teeth. Yet the voice that rolled out from that face, from underneath the boyish shock of damp, black hair, the voice was fecund and round and gloomily romantic. Females in the congregation, especially, were touched by the preacher's voice, never stopping to consider that it might have been hot pus that fueled its grand combustion.
"What the Almighty Father told John was this: that when the Jews return to their homeland–yea! when the Jew is once again at home in the land of Is-ra-el–the end of the world is at hand!"
The preacher paused. He gazed at the congregation with his starving eyes. Verlin Charles was later to say, "Sometimes when he looks down at us like that, I feel like he wants to eat the flower right outen my buttonhole." "Uh-huh," his wife, Patsy, replied. "Makes me feel like he wants to chew the elastic outta my underpants." Verlin Charles did not appreciate Patsy Charles's interpretation of the preacher's voracious stare, and he told her so.
Off to the left of the altar, a radio engineer raised three fingers. The Reverend Buddy Winkler caught the gesture out of the corner of his eye, immediately thereupon aborting the penetrating scrutiny of his flock and returning to the microphone.
"When the Jew has returned to his homeland, the end of the world is at hand! That is the sign God gave unto us. Why? I want to ask you somethin'. Do you think God just threw out that crumb of information offhand like it was gossip, like it was an interestin' item outen the Reader's Digest? Or did God have a purpose in the showing of this sign to John? Did God have a reason in ordering John to write down this prophecy in his Book of Revelation? Are we intended to act somehow upon this message?"
The engineer raised two fingers. Buddy Winkler nodded and quickened the tempo. Blowing Charlie Parker style, blowing a swift freight of harmonic rhetoric, blowing his sax-voice at about fifty-eight bars per minute, blowing alto now–his usual tenor abandoned at the gates of syncopation–the preacher swung into a dazzling diatribe against Semite and anti-Semite alike: instructed his brethren (with a sputter of grace notes) to turn their attention to Jerusalem, the city of their eternal fate; bade them prepare themselves for physical entry into Jerusalem, where they that were righteous among them were to accept their promised rewards; reminded them that on the following Sunday he would describe to them what conditions they might expect to encounter in the New Jerusalem; and further reminded them that next week's sermon, as each of the sermons in this series concerning the Rapidly Approaching End, would be broadcast over the Southern Baptist Voice of the Sparrow Network, of which WCPV was the local affiliate. He then stitched on a reedy coda of prayer, timing an "amen" to perfectly coincide with the wag of the engineer's single digit.
Sequins of spittle were scattered along his smile as he accepted compliments at the door.
"Powerful sermon, Reverend Winkler."
"God bless you, Roy."
"Reverend Winkler, you are just eloquence itself. You move me, you stir me up inside, you–"
"It's the Lord that speaks through me, Miz Packett." He squeezed her hand. "The Lord does the movin'."
"Right nice, Bud. Frogs are out."
"Don't know if I'll have time for any jiggin' this spring, Verlin."
"You got other frogs to jig, right, Bud?"
His boils waxed a deeper red. "Patsy now."
"As in 'other fish to fry.'"
"Patsy." He said her name laboriously, as if her were coaxing a lone low note from his saxophone bell. It was both censure and plea. Patsy grinned and left him to his flock.
Verlin and Patsy Charles walked to the Buick Regal in the parking lot.
"You hadn't ought to mess with him here, Patsy. In God's house . . ."
"He was out on the steps."
". . . on the Sabbath."
"Bud's Bud, on Sunday or the Fourth of July."
"How about on Judgment Day?"
"We'll see soon enough, I reckon," said Patsy, and Verlin, safely behind the lilac hedge, smiled.
"You know," Verlin said, as he stopped to admire a new Ford pickup that he knew to belong to an acquaintance, "the end of the world is not gonna be coming right away. You know why? Because the fact is, there're more Jews in New York City than in the entire country of Is-ra-el." He tried to pronounce it the way his cousin Buddy did, but Verlin's voice was more kazoo than saxophone.
"So, you wanna deport 'em?"
"No skin off my pecker if New York's more Jewish than Jerusalem. I'm not ready for Armageddon. I got bills to pay."
"You got a daughter fixin' to live in New York City."
A tremendous frown wadded up Verlin's face. It was a pink face, occupied neither on its west bank nor its east by a single whisker. Verlin was one of those men who seemed to shave internally. His build was rangy, as was his kin's, the preacher's, but his face was round, smooth, satiated (which is not quite the same as "content"), and it smelled perpetually of mildewed washrag, no matter what quantities of Old Spice aftershave were tossed at it. "You would have to remind me," he said.
"Millions of people live in New York. It must not be that bad."
"Perverts. Puerto Ricans. Muggers. Terrorists. Whatta ya call 'em: bag ladies."
"Terrorists in New York? Honey, New York is located in the U.S.A., for your information."
"They will have 'em if they don't already. Jews attract terrorism like shit attracts flies. Always have."
"I swear, you sound like Bud. The Jews didn't walk off some boat last Tuesday. New York's been full of Jews since I don't know how long. And they've been returned to Israel since back in the nineteen-forties sometime. I don't know why you two are all of a sudden so worked up about Jews."
"Oh, must be the Middle East on the news." He sighed. "Seems like any more that's all there is."
"Besides, Boomer'll take care of Ellen Cherry. You said so yourself."
"Once upon a time I said it. Not anymore. That damn contraption he drove out to pick her up in! I think she's finally made him as kooky as she is." Verlin spat. "Artists!"
As the couple walked up to their Buick, two mockingbirds flew away from its grill, one of them tweeting in a little-down dialect of the goldfinch, the other mixing a catbird cry with a raspy chord borrowed from a woodpecker. For centuries, mockingbirds had hunted live insects and foraged for seeds, but when motorcars began to appear in numbers on southern roads, they learned that they could dine more easily by simply picking dead bugs off the radiators of parked autos. Mockingbirds. Turning modern technology to their idiosyncratic advantage. Inventing new tricks to subsidize their expression. Artists!
Before static finally fried it to a crisp, a portion of the Reverend Buddy Winkler's Sunday sermon had crackled out of the roast turkey's radio. "Uncle Buddy," sneered Ellen Cherry. Although he was, in fact, what is called by southerners a mere "shirttail relation," she had called him "uncle" since she was a tot. "Ol' Uncle Buddy's gone nationwide."
Boomer was perfectly aware of that. In recent years he had been closer to her father's family than she. Boomer didn't appear to notice when she switched the Motorola to a news broadcast. ("In the Arab quarter of Jerusalem today, Israeli soldiers fired into a group of . . .") Boomer appeared to be counting cows. The cows that were stuck like gnats to the fly strip of the horizon. When he counted up to a certain number, he smiled. Though Ellen Cherry, I will probably never really know how many little faraway cows it takes to make my husband smile.
Strange, but in country such as this–dry, bare, and wide; country given to forage crops, flat rocks, and sidewinders–Buddy Winkler's apocalyptic rant acquired a certain credibility. West of the Cascade Range, back around Seattle, where they had begun their journey, trees were so thick, so robust and tall, that they oozed green gas, sported mossy mustaches, and yelled "Timber, yourself!" at lumberjacks. Those chill forests, quietly throbbing with ancient vitality, seemed to refute the firmest eschatological convictions. Here, however, trees were wizened, drab, and thinly distributed. The road, clear and straight, uncoiled ahead of the turkey, recoiled behind, locking its passengers in a drowsy, lifeless rhythm from which the granulated yellow-brown layer cake to either side afforded scant relief. Distant cow-specks, raisins in the receding frosting, outnumbered pussy willows; and, indeed, the imprint of the hoof was on everything.
In country such as this, Ellen Cherry always rather expected the golden clock to go off. The clock with the alarm that sounded like firestorms and flügelhorns. Followed by the voice of Orson Welles reading from The Book of the Dead. "It'd be just like the world to end," she said, "when we're out here in the boondocks miles from a telephone."
Boomer didn't respond. His attention was fixed on an approaching cattle truck. As it drew nearer, the truck slowed and began to weave. It nearly sideswiped them in passing. The driver was hanging his head out the window in disbelief. Boomer swerved and honked the horn.
"Ignorant cowboy," muttered Boomer. "Nearly took a drumstick off."
Excerpted from Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins. Copyright © 1995 by Tom Robbins. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.