I was so tired that I couldn't keep my eyes open. It was eight in the morning and I was sitting, hair still wet from my early morning shower, on a cold wooden pew in church. It had taken me until 2 a.m. to get the skinny, squinty-eyed girl I had invited over "to watch television" into bed with me, and it took me over two hours to get her out of the house once we were finished. I had managed to get three hours of sleep that night, and I didn't feel very cheery.
I was tired, I didn't like the feeling of my wet hair, and church is not my favorite place in the whole world. My mother and father were sitting on my right, and my little sister was in my mom's lap. Andi was asleep -- mom is a more comfortable backrest than these horrible Methodist pews.
When we moved to Clarkesburg, I figured that my life would be pretty much like it had always been. But instead, my parents had decided to transform their lives into something straight out of the fifties. That was appropriate for my new hometown of Clarkesburg, Pennsylvania, which was also straight out of the fifties. Maybe even the eighteen-fifties. The whole town was either Baptist or Methodist. Half the town was sitting on the same hard pews that I sat on.
A little man with a wrinkled face sat on my left, evidently unconcerned about the time of day and the pain caused by those awful pews. Old Wrinkly was wearing a plaid shirt and a bow tie, and sat with his hands folded together in what I assumed was a praying position. A good supposition, I think, considering that we were in church.
I assume he saw me staring at him, because his tiny eyes popped open and he turned to look at me.
"What's your name, boy?" he whispered to me.
I straightened up and looked straight ahead at the minister.
"Jim," I said out of the corner of my mouth.
"Talk to you after the sermon," the man said.
A wrinkly old Methodist wanted to talk to me after the boring service. It was just what I wanted to hear. At that moment, there was no place that I would have rather been than back home in bed -- except maybe back in California. No such luck.
After the service, my parents and I stood outside of the church. Before we could move toward our car, the wrinkly old man sauntered up and began talking to us.
"Hello there," he said to my father, and held out his hand. "Name's Mr. Wilt. Pleased to meet you."
My father shook Wilt's hand and smiled. Yeah, my dad had fallen for this down-home Pennsylvania bullshit. He loved the hard pews, the boring church services (we're from California, for pete's sake -- we're not supposed to go to church!), and especially the crazy people who lived in this town. Wilt was just another nutty old Methodist. I was sure of it.
"I was talking to your boy in church earlier," Wilt said, and pointed at me. "I don't recognize you folks. Guess you're new to Clarkesburg, aren't you?"
"Yes, we are," my father said.
"Wonder if you might like to come over to my place for Sunday brunch? My wife, she's a Baptist, but she's still one hell of a cook." He chuckled at his joke. I didn't. "Seeing as though you're new here, I thought it would be hospitable of me to invite you all over."
My father's face lit up. Of course, nobody was this nice in California, but dad didn't have to actually accept the guy's offer. "Thanks for asking, have a nice day" would be acceptable enough, right?
Wrong. Like I said, my dad is completely enchanted with the "quaint old-fashioned charm" of the people of Clarkesburg. He accepted Wilt's offer.
Any hope of my getting back to sleep was gone. I could only pray (it was Sunday, so why not pray?) that Mrs. Wilt's food was edible.
Wilt's joke was right -- even though she was a Baptist, Erma Wilt made a wonderful breakfast. The tiny gray-haired woman cooked and served us bacon, eggs, pancakes, and orange juice all by herself, and managed to keep a smile the entire time. It didn't taste that bad, and just the fact that we were being served authentic Pennsylvanian hospitality cuisine made my father very happy.
I really wanted to be home in bed, asleep, or at least propped up and watching a football game or something. Then I remembered: football doesn't start until one in the afternoon out here. What kind of place was this?
"So," Mr. Wilt asked as we finished our brunch, "how did you folks end up here in Clarkesburg?"
"Well, I got tired of the hectic lifestyle in Los Angeles, and decided that my family and I needed a change. My parents grew up just few miles down the road, in Bucks County, and so I figured we'd come back here."
My father is a writer. He bought a computer and a modem, and suddenly living in a big city near his agent became pointless. Using new technology is all well and good, but dad didn't have to move us all to an area with nothing but bearded men driving wagons, old Civil War battle sites, and wrinkly Methodists.
"It's so nice here," my mother said, and smiled. She had bought into dad's fantasy. She was entranced by the Wilts' old-fashioned charm.
I, however, felt extremely ill.
"Can I go outside, mom? I need some air." I didn't need to hear my parents rave about the virtues of eastern Pennsylvanian life again.
"Jamie, that's very--"
Mr. Wilt cut her off in mid-sentence.
"Sounds like a good idea," he said. "Let's go get some air, boy."
Wilt led me outside into his backyard, and showed me an old wooden shed, overrun by moss.
"This shed was my workshop years ago," he said. "Back then, I wasn't a God-fearing man. I just did my work and figured that everything else would take care of itself."
Then Wilt's eyes opened wide, he turned around to see if anyone was nearby, and began to speak in a whisper.
"Turns out, I have to be a God-fearing man. If there aren't enough God-fearing men, then Satan wins."
Maybe Pennsylvanians weren't as dull as I had thought.
"Satan's out there, boy, and he's working against all of us. Doesn't matter if you're a Methodist or a Baptist or a hedonist or anything. He's still out to get us. You've got to fear God if you're going to survive. Understand, Jim?"
I nodded. I figured that if I said the wrong thing, he might try to exorcise me.
"Fearing God's not enough, though. You've got to know the secret. My wife, she's a Baptist. She can't know the secret. Your parents, they're from California. They can't know the secret. Your sister, she's too young. She can't understand the secret. But you, Jim-boy, you can understand. It's not too late for you."
He was speaking quickly, but his voice was so soft that I could barely hear what he was saying. Still, it was hard to miss his general point.
"This is the secret, Jim. Don't tell anyone unless they can be trusted. They've got to pass the test! You understand?"
I nodded again. Sure, Wilt, sure. Whatever you say.
"When people are eating their food, that's when you've got them. Check to see how many times they bite into the food, boy. Five, ten, those are fine numbers. Twenty's even fine. Up to twenty-two, you've got no problems. But if that person sinks their teeth into the food one more time, twenty-three, and then swallows, they're in on it. They chew their food twenty-three times, then down it goes. Those are the people who work for Satan. Got it, Jim?"
"Twenty-three times," I said, and nodded yet again.
"Good, good boy. Now, you've got to be careful -- all sorts of people are in on it. I remember seeing one of those state dinners on TV, and Gerald Ford was eating sirloin steak. Sure enough, twenty- three bites. Not even Clarkesburg's safe. My wife made chicken for the mayor one night last year, and like clockwork, he chewed on each piece of that bird twenty-three times."
There was a knock from the house at this point. Mrs. Wilt had opened a window from the kitchen and was looking out at us.
"Don't scare the boy, dear," she said. "Come on back inside."
He waved, nodded, and started back in. Why did I have the feeling that Mrs. Wilt had seen her husband behave like this before?
"Not a word, Jim," he said. "Not a word."
It turns out that I chew my food about eight times before I swallow it. I counted. Wilt probably counted my chewing too -- before he took me out to the old shed, he made sure I didn't swallow after my 23rd bite of Erma's bacon, eggs, and pancakes and swallow.
After 23 bites, all food is reduced to nothing but a disgusting wet paste, made more of spit than of food.
I guess that's how Satan likes it.
Jason Snell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor of InterText and TeeVee. He's the Features editor at Macworld magazine.
InterText stories written by Jason Snell: "Mr. Wilt" (v1n1), "Haircuts $20" (v1n2), "Peoplesurfing" (v1n3), "Gravity" (v2n1), "The Tired Man and The Hoop" (v2n6), "The Watcher" (v4n3).
A screenplay based on this story is also available.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 1, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1991 Jason Snell.