Christian fundamentalists have borrowed a term once confined to cultural and legal studies to further a worldview inconsistent with Christ’s teachings. That term—the Judeo-Christian Ethic—is often defined by the Ten Commandments, which are guidelines unworthy of those concerned with the great query: What manner of person ought I be? The New Christian Ethic acknowledges that the laws of Leviticus are obsolete, callings are highly individualized and faith is impossible without uncertainty.
I wrote this story a while back when thinking of how some people claim to be looking for love when they're really seeking something else entirely. I hope you enjoy it.
The folks at Northern Hunk magazine sent Benny Tookalook to Chicago for five days and nights. They checked him into a Motel 6—classy, he thought, for its miniature bottle of shampoo and its toilet sanitized for his protection. Every minute of his stay was scheduled, and since it was his second trip to the Midwest, Benny played the part of a seasoned hand. He was spontaneous during the modeling sessions, relaxed as the TV talk shows were taped.
And why not? The camera loved his wavy shoulder-length hair, his olive skin, and dark feral eyes. Producers for the Talk with Tina Show suggested he emerge on stage with his felt shirt unbuttoned and the waistband on his boxers showing. When he did so, women in the audience greeted him with whistles and catcalls.
“Do you get this response everywhere?”
Tina Carmichael had asked the question while the applause sign flashed: Ooh…Let’s give him a hand…Ah. She stood among the audience—leggy and beak nosed, dressed in a pink miniskirt. If not for the microphone in her hand, she might have passed for a flamingo.
Benny only shrugged and lowered his gaze. He knew it was best not to speak too much. His reserve would be judged as boyish modesty, a trait that drove women crazy—at least that’s what Roscoe, his best friend and employer often told him. Besides, what could he say? Back home in Flat Busted, Alaska, no one paid him a second look, but he didn’t want the whole world to know that.
“Now, Benny,” Tina said. “You’re Northern Hunk magazine’s Hunk of the Year for the second time in a row. When will you give up your title?”
Benny knew the answer to that question. Roscoe had supplied him with a list of likely queries and the answers hot babes would love to hear. “I’ll hang it up once I find the girl of my dreams.”
More catcalls and whistles followed, and Benny thought: Damn, that Roscoe never fails me.
“Sounds like a few ladies in the audience would apply for the job. Have you met anyone nice in Chicago?”
“I haven’t left Illinois, yet.”
An uneasy silence filled the studio until Tina replied gently, “Chicago is in Illinois,” which led to an equally nervous twitter.
Benny looked down at the floor again, then he raised his face and grinned. It was a response he’d practiced over the years, one that suggested he’d only been joking. “Just pulling your chain, Tina.”
Another round of cheers and applause erupted and Benny chuckled in a way that belied the thought roaming about in his head: Do I look like a damn roadmap, Lady?
That evening a radio interview didn’t pan out and Benny received some well-earned time off. Eager to sample Chicago’s fine cuisine and entertainment, he bought a hotdog from a street vendor—swallowed it in five easy bites—and waved down a passing cab.
“Take me to the nearest strip joint,” he said.
Within minutes Benny was standing in a promising sprawl of neon signs and ramshackle buildings, a place where he could compare g-strings and pole dances until the cows came home, but he didn’t have that kind of time. He spun on his heels with eyes covered and a finger pointed straight ahead, letting chance select his destination. His eyes opened to a turn-of-the-century theater that was lit up like a Christmas tree, the letters N-U-D-E doing the can-can across its marquee. Tasteful, Benny thought, as he entered through its double doors.
A young woman in a halter top and hotpants met him just inside and before he could say, “Wet my whistle,” she was leading him to a table up front and taking his drink order.
“Say,” she said. “Didn’t I see you on TV?”
“Maybe,” Benny replied. “I am a celebrity.”
The girl’s name, he learned, was Sally. She had puppy dog brown eyes and a boundless curiosity. Each trip to his table, she quizzed him without pause: What’s Tina Carmichael like? Have you ever met Tom Cruise? If the camera really adds ten pounds, how do you keep from getting fat? Before the evening was over she was asking for his autograph.
“Sure,” Benny said, “if you drive me home when your shift is over.”
From then the night lost its focus, like a drive through dense fog. Benny got the gist of direction, but lost track of all but the biggest bumps and turns. In short the girl accompanied him to his room, where they engaged in a combination medical exam and game of Twister. Then morning came and Benny woke. He called out to Sally, but she was gone. The only reminder of their time together was the double twist in his sheets.
Damn, Benny thought, she forgot my autograph.
A day after Benny’s return home, he and Roscoe began to prioritize the letters and e-mails already pouring in. Ladies from all over the country seemed hell-bent to offer themselves as playthings and brides. The correspondence included photos: a pictorial smorgasbord of blondes, brunettes, and redheads (not to mention augmented breasts, thongs, and come-on leers).
“Holy Smoke,” Roscoe said, as he studied a particularly explicit Polaroid from one angle, then another. “I knew there was a reason I kept you employed.”
Roscoe was a giant of a man with a laugh like a bullhorn and a single black eyebrow that stretched across his forehead like a caterpillar. He owned the hardware store where Northern Hunk’s two-time Hunk of the Year kept the bins filled with fuses, couplers, and ten-penny nails. They sat in Benny’s kitchen, at a fold-up card table that was covered with dirty plates and empty beer cans.
“Thanks for your help,” Benny said. “But why are you so interested, anyway?”
“Are you kidding? I’m a married man. I got kids.”
Benny sought a connection between his question and his friend’s answer. “And you want the same for me? Marriage and kids?”
“Hell no. You don’t need that.”
“I don’t?” Suddenly Benny was confused. Hadn’t he told Tina Carmichael—motivated, in part, by Roscoe’s advice—that he wanted a true love, a partnership to last until the end of time?
“Variety’s the spice of life," Roscoe said, "and the truth is: I wouldn’t mind planting a camera in your bedroom. If it’s okay with you, of course.”
Benny nixed his friend’s camera idea and resolved to check the light fixture above his bed from time to time. Then to insure Roscoe’s continued support, he promised to kiss and tell—to hold nothing back about his love life. It was a wonder to him how a respected man with a pretty wife and tons of life experience could gain so much pleasure in tales of seduction. Yet in exchange for full disclosure, his boss agreed to edit the correspondence they would send to women who showed special promise.
“Now look here,” Roscoe said, waving a sheet of paper. “You can’t just jump in and ask: ‘Do you want to do the fandango?’ That isn’t good form—especially when you put it in the first sentence.” He was reading the original draft of a letter Benny had written to a college gymnast named Danielle. She’d sent a picture of herself taken during a balance beam performance. Both Benny and Roscoe agreed she looked plenty limber.
“Then what should I say?” Benny asked.
“You got to be sly and sneak up on her. You got to work up to questions like that.”
In the end they put their heads together and wrote what seemed to them a true masterpiece. It read:
I like your picture. You sure are flexible. How did you ever learn to bend over like that? It would hurt my nut sack to even try.
Speaking of nut sacks, do you like to fandango? I do. Let me know.
Danielle never wrote again, but Marla, a motorcycle cop from Las Vegas did—a couple of times. She offered to bring her collection of handcuffs and leather undergarments. The notion made Benny dizzy with desire and put a dream in his head of being strip-searched by a sandy-blond Amazon. A week later, while he and his boss were watching from inside Flat Busted’s air terminal, Marla stepped out of his dreams and onto the tarmac.
“Holy sweet knockers,” Roscoe said.
Benny was already smitten by the long legs and lanky torso waltzing across the pavement to the terminal. He liked what was riding in her sweater, too, but he didn’t need his friend’s admiration focused in the same direction. “Don’t be ignorant,” he said. “I just might marry the girl.”
Roscoe turned to him and rolled his eyes. “I got things to do,” he said and added before leaving, “You owe me stories. Don’t be early for work tomorrow.”
Marla entered the waiting area with a look that suggested she was smitten, too, a sentiment she affirmed by raising her top in greeting. Benny—as well as two bearded oil workers, a lady at the car rental counter, and three huskies in their travel crates—were granted a view to a smiley face drawn on each breast. During the ride home Marla babbled at the speed of light. The mountains reminded her of lovers holding hands. The trees looked like lovers kissing. The ocean was a restless bed of lovers. She saw the world in ways that were unique and unsettling to Benny. Damn, he thought, this here is a sophisticated woman.
Only fifteen minutes through the door of his fifth-wheel trailer, the level of sophistication reached new heights. Marla flashed her patrol badge and read Benny his rights, giving him a wedgie to emphasize each point.
“You have the right to play doctor,” she said, while putting another twist in his shorts.
“Ooowee,” Benny replied and he assumed the position with legs spread wide and palms against the wall.
True to her word Marla broke out her collection of handcuffs, yet nothing was as stimulating as the billy club she brandished like a foil. The seduction progressed and gained urgency, but Benny had become too aroused to progress very far.
“I’m sorry,” he said, after a moment of awkward silence.
“Don’t be. It was the best twelve seconds of my life.”
The next morning Benny arrived five minutes early for work and waited at the front counter. A half-hour later Roscoe strolled in and stopped at the cash register, frowning. “Didn’t I tell you to sleep in?” he said.
Benny didn’t know how to break the news. His friend had invested time and emotional support to the task of finding a love match and Roscoe wouldn’t take kindly to the prior evening’s events. In the end, Benny came clean in the same way he might rip off a bandage—quick, so as not to prolong the agony. “I broke it off. It wasn’t going to work between Marla and me.”
Roscoe shook his head sadly. “What happened? Wouldn’t she put out?”
“No problem there. It's something she said--the worst possible thing.”
“She wanted to get hitched?”
“No, not that. She said, ‘You’re really into missionary, aren’t you?’ And that’s when I knew we were over.”
Roscoe scratched his head and winced. “Why, for heck’s sake?”
Benny exhaled in a manner that sounded like a balloon deflating. For all his friend’s smarts, sometimes the man was just plain dense—sometimes he needed things spelled out to him. “Come on Roscoe,” he said. “You know me better than that. I won’t have anything to do with missionaries. Religion and me don’t mix.”
After Roscoe explained the nature of Benny’s error, Mr. Hunk-of-the-Year rushed to the airport and caught Marla before she boarded her plane to Anchorage. He asked the woman to stay—begged her even—but she was inconsolable. “I can’t see loving a can of worms,” she said. “And that’s just about how dumb you are.”
The words stung, but he’d already decided Marla was too cultured and clever for him anyway. How many women, after all, owned a collection of handcuffs, or could see trees as lovers? Putting that episode of his life behind him, Benny looked forward to the rest of summer and hoped for a deeper and truer love connection.
Now, this is what happened: Candice was too skinny, Jennifer too tanned. Heather didn’t like to fish. Beatrice was a teetotaler. Billy Jean had big feet and Nell complained about the length of Alaska’s summer days. One by one each girl who passed through his door turned out to be flawed in some vital way. Benny was bummed, but Roscoe took joy in the variety of new faces.
September came and so did cold weather. Benny drove Rachel, his most recent attempt at love, to the airport and thought of the long nights he would have to endure with no warm body to cuddle beside him. He was home before the six o’clock news and the sky was already black. His trailer was as quiet as a sigh. Suddenly he wished Marla was there to flash her badge and read him his rights, but in the midst of this despair he found hope in an e-mail message from someone new, a woman who appeared to be some kind of foreigner. It read:
I from Japanese. You know Japanese? I see you picture Northern Hunk magazine. I like you. Here my picture. I want go Alaska for to see a northern lights. Maybe I see each other.
At first Benny wondered how to reply. He thought of calling Roscoe for help, until a sudden realization struck him broadside: Their joint efforts had earned him little more than an empty bed and a heart full of longing. What might have happened if he’d relied on instinct, rather than the opinion of others? Maybe he’d be with a woman right now, enjoying a romantic evening complete with bowls of popcorn, bottles of brew, and a carefully selected sporting event on television. Besides, Benny thought, he’d learned a thing or two by watching Roscoe edit letter after letter.
After a moment of consideration he wrote:
I like the northern lights, too. They are bright and colorful. They come out during winter. It is almost winter now. Winter is a good time to stay in bed out of the cold.
Speaking of staying in bed, do you like to fandango? I do. Let me know.
Now that, Benny thought as he clicked the send button, was a masterpiece worthy of true love.