Test of Faith
by Manuel Royal
When I drink alone, I prefer to be by myself. I found a place two blocks from my apartment where they have lager on tap pretty cheap, there's no blaring TV, and best of all it's patronized by other sullen misanthropes, so I can sit at a corner table in the evening and read in peace or just drink things over.
This night the place was more crowded than usual, with tourists in town for some kind of consumer electronics convention, digital vibrators or something. They leaned on the bar, jabbering to each other and into cell phones. I almost turned around and left, but my usual table opened up just then. I got settled in with my book and my beer and blocked out the rest.
After ten pages I felt something like a breeze in what's left of my hair. I looked up and found eyes on me. Two guys, something of an odd couple, were looking over at me, or rather at the table I normally had to myself. There were no other seats left in the house, so I sighed and waved them over.
"Thanks." The younger of the two set a longneck and a full glass on the table and pulled out two chairs. The younger man I pegged him as a grad student, or maybe a senior undergrad. From my viewpoint, a kid.
The older . . . an old man in old gray clothes, I couldn't say how old he was. Skin like a beat-up leather sofa and shaggy white brows like thatch. Old, old. A little glassy-eyed, looking like he already had a load on.
I cracked my book back open, but the kid, as so many people seem to do, took that as a sign I wanted conversation. "I'm Bill Westerman." I grunted something in reply, thinking he'd take the hint if I kept my eyes on what I was reading.
I was trying to figure out why the old man seemed familiar. Abruptly he cleared his throat and said in a surprisingly deep voice "Know, mortal, that I am Parmekotlpelmipekotl." I felt the beginning of a headache stabbing me between the eyes, and took a long drink to drive it away. "Spelled like it sounds," he continued. "Do not forget." He held out his hand, and the kid gave him one of the drinks; it looked like an eight-ounce glass full of scotch.
The old man swallowed it like warm milk, as the kid looked at me with an embarrassed grin. "Hey, don't mind him. He's always like that."
"No ... problem." Something odd was happening in my head; the pain had receded, but the old man's alleged name had spelled itself out in front of my mind's eye in letters of flame. It was worse than a migraine.
The kid was talking; the old man was sliding down the last of his half-pint glass. I focused on the young one and stuck up a finger to make him shut up for a second. "Did you just say you're an alcoholic?"
"Acolyte. Your head feel better? That always happens when he introduces himself." The kid took a pull at his beer.
Usually I don't pry. Partly politeness, partly just don't care. But I looked at the old man, now staring past me at some point far away, and leaned forward to ask the kid, "So, is this your grandfather or something? Do you take care of him?"
He laughed. "Uh, I guess I'd have to say I worship him. I'm his worshipper. The only one. Used to be thousands, according to what he says, but now there's just me, and after I get my Masters I'll probably be moving, so I don't know what the old dude is gonna do." He saw me looking at the old man and shook his head. "Hey, don't try making eye contact with him. You don't want to do that, Dude." He lit up a cigarillo.
The old man kept looking into infinity, but spoke up. "The world is a faded palimpsest. My people all are dust and smoke, their tongue unheard, the very name of their land scraped out and writ over, the temples they raised to me nothing but buried fragments and rubble. Now this boy alone makes the offerings."
Mike, the barman, showed up with a tray with several more glasses, and it suddenly struck me why I remembered seeing the old man; he was the only customer Mike ever served at a table. usually you had to go up to the bar and pick up your drink. Why did he rate special treatment?
"I am a god, damn it!" The old man thumped the table, and for a second I really believed he was answering the question I'd only thought but not spoken. The kid patted his shoulder. "Okay, Parmy, we got it." The old man glared at the kid, who made little calming motions with his hands. "Parmekotlpelmipekotl, I mean."
The old man still glared, and the kid put both hands on the table, palms down, closed his eyes and recited "Wise and potent Parmekotlpelmipekotl, teacher, crafter of lines and rows and spaces to be filled, we who dance about your feet, give this grain offering." He handed over another half pint of whiskey, which disappeared down the old man's throat. "There, that's better."
The kid looked at me. "Got to have your hands on wood, and have something burning. As long as this bar has old-fashioned furniture and allows smoking, we're good. In the old days, he had thousands of believers touching sacred trees, pouring libations on the ground for him, and burning sweet rushes so the smoke would rise up to him, not to mention cutting open some kind of ruminant because apparently gods get off on that, but now that he's walking around like this, y'know, in human form, I think he'd rather just get hammered. Really, in the condition he's in, one worshipper might be all he can handle."
"Hang on." I finished my own beer and held up a hand. Sure enough, Mike was on the way with another lager. There might be advantages to sharing a table with a god. I asked the kid, "So you're the entire congregation? What happens if you quit?"
He spread his hands. "A god is nothing without believers. Fade away like the rest. But he's managed to hang on this long, so I'm sure he'll find somebody else. It's a college town." The old man nodded at that, humming to himself.
My head was hurting again. "So, you keep the libations coming, but what do you get out of it?"
"One sec." He finished his beer and headed to the bar for another. The old man suddenly spoke again. "I provide a bounty of instruction to the young one. I bring forth from darkness the light of knowledge, as I have these ages past." He lapsed again into an eerie, toneless hum.
The kid was back. "Well, like I said I'm close to getting my MBA, and if it wasn't for him, I never would have finished my B.A. Probably be back home working at a drugstore now."
"So he's like a tutor?"
"Better than that." The kid leaned forward and hooked his thumb at the white-haired old man. "This is the guy -- excuse me, the deity -- who brought forth into the world, way before the Greeks got going --" The old man snorted, and the kid continued. "He created the written test. Essay questions, multiple-choice, everything, and he made his people take these tests to see if they had all the religious doctrine down -- when to make what sacrifices, all the special prayers, etc. Civil law, too. That was a little before separation of church and state. The whole idea of those tests was lost to history for a long time because all his people suddenly got wiped out. Ask me why."
I opened my mouth, but the old man cut me off. "I can't be everywhere at once." Then he stuck his nose back in his drink, and I asked the kid, "Why?"
"Because another tribe invaded and the people's god was too busy grading papers -- well, they were clay tablets -- to deal with it. That was back when gods were a lot more hands-on. So all his people were killed or enslaved, but somehow enough of them kept the faith that he was able to survive. But somewhat diminished over the years, and here he is, relying on college students. There you are."
"There you are. Here I am." It was the old man again. He looked no more nor less drunk than he had before drinking about a quart of hard liquor. "Verities."
The kid patted him on the shoulder. "Yep, college students have kept this guy going for the past few centuries. College is all about the tests, and he's the man there. I mean the god. I don't cram, I don't spend all night in the library -- hell, I hardly crack a textbook. Just a little prayer, a little incense and a lot of booze, and just the right words come to mind for the essay tests, I sail through the multiple-choices, and can fake my way through the rest. Not to mention making a few bucks on the side by supplying answers to some of the undergrads."
"So you've got proof of the divine, and you use it to cheat."
He grinned, possibly a little sheepishly. "Call it inspiration. Well worth the whiskey, which he seems to like a lot better than the fermented goat's milk he used to get way back when."
The old man murmured, "Keeps the embers glowing."
Those were the last words I heard from tired old Parmekotlpelmipekotl that night, as I watched him down four more glasses of Johnny Walker before closing time. The kid chattered on, and each time he said the old man's name my headache got worse, although it had to fight against the hops and barley. Finally I called it a night.
I'd see the two occasionally after that, but we didn't talk again. Fine with me, since I got my quiet evenings back. After spring graduation they were gone. The old man must have moved on, seeking the faithful and avoiding dry counties. That talkative kid, having gotten full value for his worship, is probably a junior VP in some godless corporation now. When I thought about that, I poured a little beer on the ground for old Parmekotlpelmipekotl. Then I did the Times crossword in three minutes. Try it some time.
Manuel Royal currently lives in Atlanta, Georgia. After taking several decades off, he has returned to writing, and hopes to improve his skill. 48 years old, he has never graduated from anything. He has an orange-and-white cat and is living in sin (with a woman, not the cat). He is currently working on a screenplay that will expose penguins as the menace they are.