Candide 2020

Illustration/Photo Burman/S. Cuellar

In the suburb of Westphalia in San Bernardino County of Southern California in the mansion of the Senior Pastor of the Cathedral of the Holy Lamb’s Divine Florescence there lived a youth of wholesome disposition and unpretentious simplicity named Candide. He was the offspring of the charismatic preacher’s sister Kimberly and a former maintenance worker at the church named Guillermo who was discharged shortly after Candide’s conception and quietly flown back to his ancestral homeland with a modest compensation package predicated on his promise never to return to the United States.

The pastor was one of the most renowned evangelical ministers in the country, addressed crowds of ten thousand exuberant believers every Sunday and enjoyed a seat on the President of the United States’ Evangelical Advisory Board. His perky wife presided over social events at the mansion and his minister son was every day coming into his own as the heir apparent to his father’s burgeoning congregation. His comely young daughter Cunegonde was vivacious and charming and was the talk of the church social scene. The dynamic youth minister Joel Pangloss had become a virtual fixture in the house since taking an interest in young Candide’s spiritual development, and perhaps more significantly, a relationship with the pastor with an eye to his future career. Pangloss had already published several popular books with titles like Be Even Better Than Your Best Self Now. Pangloss taught Candide that things could not be otherwise than they are, that everyone lived in the best of all possible worlds, and that through the Law of Attraction, one manifested one’s own reality for better or worse based on their positive or negative beliefs.

During one of his study sessions with Pangloss, Candide began applying his understanding of the Law of Attraction to Cunegonde, the pastor’s lovely young daughter. The smitten pupil imagined sharing blissful moments with her in the best of all possible worlds, and soon, his application of the law produced a pretext for the two of them to rendezvous in a dimly lit stairwell on the third floor of the pastor’s mansion. Unfortunately for the young would be lovers, the pastor happened upon them while on his way to a storage room, and Candide’s attempt at using the law of attraction attracted only several kicks to the rear from the outraged pastor, and he was unceremoniously driven out of the mansion.

Candide left the grounds of the estate with his suitcase and stood on the street, casting a melancholy glance back at the mansion where the fairest pastor’s daughter in all the world lived. He had no idea where he would go or what he would do. At that moment a landscaping truck pulled up in front of him and came to an abrupt halt. A middle-aged Hispanic man jumped out and looked intensely at Candide. “Mijo,” the man said emotionally, and suddenly embraced him. “What?” Candide blurted out. “They told me never to come back,” the man said, “but I had to see you.” Candide stepped back. “I don’t understand.” “Eres mi hijo,” the man replied. “You are my son.” Befuddled, the youth could only mumble, “But I thought…”

Just as he spoke those words, two large SUVs with the words Immigration and Customs Enforcement emblazoned on their sides lurched into a blocking position of the man’s truck. Five burly officers sprang out of the vans and grabbed the hapless duo. As they were dragging them each to separate vehicles, Candide shouted, “But this man is my father!” The officers slammed the doors shut without bothering to reply.

After several weeks in a bleak detention center during which Candide was rarely allowed to shower and sometimes only given a wretched sandwich wrapped in plastic to eat for the whole day, Candide was deported to the border town of Hueco Asqueroso, Mexico. The city was one the most dangerous in the country, and the Mexican government pleaded with the United States to stop dumping deportees there in the middle of the night. But the U.S. government’s promise to protect its people from “bad hombres” was such that subjecting immigrants and even U.S. citizens of certain ethnic backgrounds to near certain abduction, extortion, torture, rape and murder was considered a trifle in addition to proving the toughness of certain prominent and flamboyant American political figures.

It followed that armed men stopped the bus that was transporting Candide and other deportees from the airport to a temporary transit station. Candide was dragged from the bus and a hood was placed over his head. When the hood was torn off, he found himself bound and on his knees before a couple of knife-wielding men in a dilapidated cottage. They graciously offered him a cellphone and explained that he should take advantage of this opportunity to contact sympathetic family members and get them to wire two-thousand dollars to them to prevent them from removing his private parts from his body and stuffing them into his mouth after his throat had been cut.

“Oh, Pangloss,” Candide thought. “How is it possible that in the best of all possible worlds I have lost Cunegonde, my home, and now my private parts? I really have to work on that Law of Attraction thing.” A slash to his face brought Candide out of his revery and he frantically punched in the number of the mansion of the Senior Pastor of the Cathedral of the Holy Lamb’s Divine Florescence. To his great astonishment, Cunegonde answered the phone. Her immense relief at hearing his voice was soon transformed to horror as his explanation of his dire situation was punctuated with his shrieks of pain. Cunegonde wired the money to the culprits as instructed without informing the senior pastor, and Candide soon found himself abandoned shoeless and bleeding on a desolate road.

The poor youth wandered for an indefinite period of time, sleeping in clumps of scrub bushes by the roadside, begging for food at isolated farmsteads, and enduring rain and winds. One morning as he was stumbling along, a kindly old man saw his pitiable condition, and gave him several chorizo sausages. With tears in his eyes, Candide clutched the sausages, fell to his knees and began devouring them right by the side of the road as the old man went his way.

Within a couple minutes, Candide was down to his last chorizo, and he stopped to catch his breath. Just as he did, another drifter, one far more scroungy and miserable than he was, hobbled along the road and came to a wheezing stop in front of Candide. The wretch’s eyes locked onto the remaining chorizo with such a hypnotic force that Candide gently handed him the sausage without a word. The creature attacked the sausage with such an animalistic fury that Candide arose and began to depart in disgust.

“Wait, Candide,” the specter cried. “Don’t you recognize me?” Candide whirled around in shock at hearing his name. “Don’t you know your dear Pangloss?” “What? Is it really you, Joel?” Candide inquired, scrutinizing the pitiful being for any sign of his buoyant old youth minister and life coach. “What dreadful misfortune has befallen you that you are no longer able to be better than your best you and are crawling along this desolate and dangerous road in lice-infested rags? Why did you leave the Cathedral of the Holy Lamb’s Divine Florescence? And what has become of my lovely Cunegonde, Nature’s masterpiece?”

“Miss Cunegonde is dead,” Pangloss replied. “Dead?” Candide spat out in horror. “How can that be? I spoke to her on the phone only a few days ago.” “The Cathedral was struck by disaster. The Senior Pastor contracted COVID-19 after defying the state health authorities and holding in-person services with thousands of people, and—” “Cunegonde died from COVID-19?” Candide demanded. “No,” Pangloss replied, “but the Senior Pastor and his wife both did—” “So Cunegonde is alive?” “No, the fire got her.” “The fire?” Candide queried desperately. “All of California is on fire. The El Dorado Fire swept through the Cathedral and reduced it to ashes in a matter of minutes. Cunegonde was asleep in bed when the fire struck. She never had a prayer.”

“Cunegonde dead,” cried Candide. “And how did you manage to escape the apocalypse at the Cathedral of the Holy Lamb’s Divine Florescence and arrive in this deplorable condition?” “Alas, I was obliged to depart the Cathedral some months ago as a result of spurious accusations of sexual harassment from one of my charges in the youth ministry who mistook some innocent displays of affection for something entirely different. Her misconceptions evolved into a rather unfortunate legal matter that unleashed various law enforcement entities on me, and the agreeable climate of Mexico beckoned to me.”

“Do you still think this is the best of all possible worlds now that the Senior Pastor and his wife have been ruthlessly cut down by the Coronavirus, Cunegonde has been roasted alive, and you have been unjustly persecuted and forced to live as a wretched beggar?” “My boy,” Pangloss replied with a shadow of his formerly winsome smile, “it is just such times as these that make my new book so relevant.” And with that, he pulled a filthy, tattered manuscript from his back pocket and held it up for Candide to see. “Never Settle for Your Best Self,” Candide read from the title page. “We must actively visualize the future we want for ourselves, Candide,” Pangloss told the youth with a tepid passion. “There are no accidents. We create our own reality.”

No sooner had the youth minister uttered those words than two coal black Humvees screeched up to the hapless pair in a cloud of dust. Masked men with bullet-proof vests and AK-47s leaped out of the car, flung hoods over the heads of our two philosophers and dragged them into one of the vehicles. They took off as suddenly as they had arrived and Candide, having some idea what was to come, discharged hot liquid terror into his filthy trousers, filling the vehicle with the acrid odor of urine. One of his new custodians slammed his head against the back of the front seat, but the stench lingered anyway.

When the hoods were ripped off the heads of Candide and Pangloss, they found themselves not in a dilapidated cottage, but next to a large swimming pool in the backyard of a colossal villa surrounded by eighty-foot palm trees. The armed men glared at them as they all stood there, apparently waiting for someone or something. Candide glanced over at the pool and noted that it had the seductive shape of a curvy woman’s body. Then a paunchy Mexican gentleman wearing a luxuriant, richly embroidered bathrobe strolled out of the house and approached them with a disarming smile. “Aqui estan los gringos,” said the apparent leader of armed men. “Pensamos que podrian interesarle.”

“Well, Gentlemen, welcome to my home. Mi casa es su casa,” the gentleman said wryly, his smile taking on a slightly sinister aspect. “My name is Miguel Hernandez de Guerrero, although some people around here call me El Carcinero Alegre…I believe that translates as the Cheerful Butcher in English.” Candide and Pangloss shifted uneasily and stared at the ground. “It’s wonderful to have relatives with money, no? My staff will help you contact your loved ones to acquire your repatriation tax. Don’t worry, they almost always come through.”

El Carcinero Alegre paused and looked quizzically at Pangloss. “Wait, do I know you, viejo?” Pangloss fidgeted nervously, and tried to speak, but his throat was too dry. “Yes, si, you are Joel Pangloss, are you not? You’re Joel Pangloss!” he shouted excitedly. Pangloss could only manage a weak smile. “Be Even Better Than Your Best Self Now! That book changed my life! I was reading it just this morning. That’s how I got…well, all this,” he said gesturing to his luxurious surroundings. “Este es el hombre que me hizo lo que soy,” he shouted joyously to his men as he wrapped his arm around Pangloss’ shoulder.

In no time the lucky duo was inside the Carcinero’s dining room, enjoying their first real meal in quite some time with plenty of wine. Pangloss shared his manuscript for Never Settle for Your Best Self, and Hernandez de Guerrero wondered excitedly when it would be published. Pangloss explained that the publication process had been interrupted by his legal difficulties, and that he needed to meet with his publisher in person as he was no longer accepting his phone calls. “Perhaps now the police have stopped looking for me, but I have no way to get to Los Angeles,” Pangloss opined. The Carcinero burst out laughing. “My friend, I have cargo planes making secret deliveries to Los Angeles every week. I can put you on a plane. It won’t be so comfortable, but no snoopy border agents, eh?” Pangloss looked over at Candide sagely. “You see what positive visualization can accomplish now, my boy?”

Within a few days, Candide and Pangloss were stiffly extricating themselves from a large packing crate on the cargo plane after its arrival in Los Angeles. After slipping down the ramp onto the tarmac, they were directed to leave the airport through a small hole in the fence on its outer perimeter. The sky was a nightmarish orange haze straight out of an illustration from The Book of Revelations because of the fires. They caught a cab and were making their way into downtown Los Angeles when a throng of protesters stalled their progress.

People were marching through the streets chanting and carrying placards with the image of a black man on them because a few days earlier the police had shot him dead for the crime of reaching into his pocket to retrieve the keys to enter his own home. Soon, the cab could barely move, so Candide and Pangloss paid the cabbie and stepped out of the vehicle into the crowd. “My publisher’s office is not far from here,” Pangloss told Candide.

But no sooner had they exited the cab than a phalanx of police officers in black uniforms and full riot gear crashed into the demonstrators with clubs flailing. Candide raised his hands to block a baton blow and was immediately tackled by several officers. When Pangloss attempted to intervene, he too was taken to the asphalt, and several peace officers conscientiously applied their nightsticks with a vigor for which the Los Angeles Police Department is renowned.

Bloodied and nearly unconscious, they were handcuffed with plastic zip-ties, and thrown in the back of a patrol car and driven to the police station. “Congratulations, assholes,” said the officer driving them. “You’re going to be charged with assaulting a peace officer. That’s three to five in state prison. All your douchebag comrades will be out tomorrow with Mickey Mouse fines, but you’re facing hard time, and your dirtbag, court-appointed lawyer isn’t going to give two fucks if you wind up on Sodomy Row at San Quentin.”

They were booked into county jail and thrown into a holding cell. They collapsed on a bench exhausted, dispirited and in significant pain. “Well, Pangloss,” Candide ventured. “Do you still contend this is the best of all possible worlds now that the Senior Pastor and his wife have perished from the pandemic, Cunegonde has been roasted alive, you have been unjustly persecuted, I have been thrown out of the only home I ever knew, deported, abducted, tortured, threatened with castration, flown in a packing crate to Los Angeles, beaten by the police and imprisoned for the crime of stepping out of a cab? Is this where your positive visualization has gotten us?” Pangloss smiled and retrieved the tattered manuscript from his back pocket. “My boy, let me share something with you from Never Settle for Your Best Self.” Before he could open it, Candide punched him in the face.

The wretched pair spent a miserable night in the holding cell curled up on either end of the bench and in the morning, they were awakened by a dead-eyed brute of a guard who shouted, “Wake up, scumbags!” He opened the cell door and barked, “Let’s go.” They arose and shuffled down the bleak corridor after him like condemned men. “What new horrors await us?” wondered Candide.

They were led down a series of hallways and they both felt increasingly sick to their stomachs anticipating what was in store for them. At length, the guard opened a door and gestured for the two to go through. “Go!” Candide and Pangloss were shocked when they passed outside of the jail and found themselves in a back alley. When the door slammed behind them, they were utterly bewildered, and they raised their hands over their eyes to shield them from the sun. Suddenly they saw before them the apparition of Cunegonde standing in the street with a wan smile. Candide fainted dead away.

When Candide recovered, he found himself on a park bench with Pangloss and Cunegonde, who he now noticed was wearing a neck brace. “Is it really you? Is it really Miss Cunegonde I see before me, alive? Were you not roasted alive by the El Dorado fire as you lay in bed? “No, my sweet Candide, I was not,” she replied tearfully. “But Pangloss told me—” “After I wired the ransom for you in Mexico, my father found out and we had a huge fight. I ran away from home and—” “But the body they found in the mansion?” Pangloss queried. “My maid. She was so badly burned they couldn’t identify her and they assumed it was me.” Candide embraced her and wept for joy. “But what are you doing here?” he asked her. “Why did they let us go?”

“When I ran away from home, I was having some difficulties…I left home without my medication and—” “Medication?” Candide asked. “I take Xanax for anxiety and depression, and…well, after a couple of days without it, I started to feel really sick. A friend of mine said she knew where to get some without a prescription, and we wound up at a frat party at the university. Her friend gave me some non-prescription Xanax and then…well, things got a little bit blurry. I remember talking to this guy who was on the football team, having a beer…and then nothing…” Cunegonde’s voice trailed off, and a sickly look came over her face.

“I woke up naked, bruised and covered with vomit in a room upstairs at the frat house. The next day my friend warned me that there were several videos circulating online of three or four football players raping me as I lay unconscious. Not realizing that football players filming themselves violating drugged girls and sharing it widely over social media was customary rite of passage for them, I became quite upset. That’s when I tried to hang myself.”

“Oh, my sweet Cunegonde,” Candide said as he embraced her again. “Fortunately, the light fixture I attached the rope to collapsed, and I only strained my neck. My friend convinced me to go to the police so I told them the whole story and we showed them the videos. The police were very concerned about how this would impact the future of the fine young men who had raped me. The team was ranked number 14 in the nation, but a videotaped gang rape would certainly end any bowl hopes it was entertaining or at least consign them to one of the less prestigious bowl games like the Lubriderm Bowl.

The police repeatedly told me that the videos were somewhat blurry, and that prosecuting the popular gridiron stars would certainly be a traumatic experience for me. And then one day I was watching the news and I saw footage of you two being beaten and arrested by the police. I immediately went back to the police station, and I told them that their heroes would find themselves in the Lubriderm Bowl in January if you two weren’t released.

“Thank you for saving us!” Pangloss blurted out. “Is this your best of all possible worlds, Pangloss?” Candide demanded harshly. “Where rapists go free so they don’t have to play in the Lubriderm Bowl ?” The formerly winsome youth minister shrugged and replied, “It is what it is.” Just as he said that, a policeman came rushing out of the exit toward them. He barked, “You’re Pangloss?” at the startled philosopher. “Well, yes, I am, but—” “I have a warrant for your arrest,” the officer snapped. Cunegonde arose and stepped between Pangloss and the officer. “We had a deal,“ she said. “On the assaulting a police officer charge. My warrant is for the sexual assault of a Miss Cecily Wilkinson on May 31st at the Cathedral of the Holy Lamb’s Divine Florescence. Get up, Pangloss.”

Pangloss stood up abruptly, inadvertently knocking Cunegonde into the officer. The officer shoved Cunegonde roughly out of the way, and Candide jumped up, pushing the policeman back. Enraged, the cop charged Candide but Cunegonde punched him hard in the side of the head, sending him hurtling to the ground. The officer hit his head on the cement when he fell and remained motionless on the sidewalk as the stunned trio looked on. Just then some other policemen stepped out of the exit, and spotting their colleague unconscious on the deck, they pulled their revolvers out and started racing toward the three of them. They sprinted off in terror, just managing to round a corner before their pursuers caught up to them.

Rounding the corner, Candide saw with horror that they had turned into a dead end. But parked on one side of the street was a long tractor trailer attached to some kind of vehicle. The trailer had a door slightly ajar near its rear. “Come on,” Candide shouted to them, gesturing toward the trailer. They threw themselves through the door and Candide slammed it shut just as the police came around the corner. The cops frantically ran past the trailer and continued down the street. It was dark and cold in the trailer, and they couldn’t see much. Suddenly, they heard the roar of the vehicle’s mighty engine, and the trailer lurched into motion. “Yes!” Candide shouted, as the lucky three were transported out of immediate danger.

But as the trailer moved along the road, a faint light turned on, and as they shivered in the cold, they beheld a horrifying sight. Lining either side of the trailer all the way up to the front of the compartment, there were shelves rising up to the top, stacked four high with large, dark lumps. More careful examination of one of the closest lumps revealed a black, plastic body bag clearly containing an occupant. Cunegonde gasped. “It’s a morgue truck,” she whispered. “A what?” Pangloss shot back. “A FEMA morgue truck. They ran out of room in the hospitals and morgues for COVID victims.” “Listen,” Pangloss said, but Candide cut him off and seized him by the collar. “If you tell us one more word from Never Settle for Your Best Self, you’re going to wind up in one of those body bags!” Freeing himself from Candide’s grasp, he choked and replied,” I was just going to say we’re probably on our way to pick some more stiffs.” “We got to get out of here!” Candide cried.

But fate had already chosen their method of escape. As the thirty-foot trailer rode along the highway behind the FEMA vehicle, it attracted the attention of a number of people driving the same direction. A convoy of trucks and SUVs with huge blue “TRUMP” flags fluttering from behind their cabs and out their windows was rolling down the road and crept up on the rear of the trailer.

The red-capped drivers and passengers began feverishly communicating with cellphones and walkie talkies about the odd vehicle and its enormous trailer. It was clear to them that since the coronavirus was a government-inspired hoax or alternately a bio-weapon devised in a Chinese laboratory that produced a virus far less deadly than the common flu, the vehicle must be part of Deep State operation to instill fear in the local population and perpetuate the tyranny that had compelled freedom-loving Americans to wear face masks and practice social distancing.

As stalwart patriots, they were compelled to act. Accordingly, several of the lead trucks worked in tandem to run the vehicle and its trailer off the road. The vehicle and trailer rolled down a precipitous embankment, flipping over several times and finally bursting open like a pinata against a huge cement pillar that supported an overpass, spilling bodies, medical equipment and wreckage all over the side of the highway.

When Candide regained consciousness, he found himself buried under a mound of bodies, some of which had escaped the stifling confinement of their body bags in the crash and now were draping their pale, frightful appendages over his body. He screamed and jumped up, wiping some blood and other unidentifiable bodily fluids off his face. Not far off, he saw Pangloss freeing himself from another Twister pile of cadavers. “Where’s Cunegonde?” He shouted in a panic. They ran madly across the grisly crash site scattered with corpses, some still bagged and others sprawled out on the ground halfway out of theirs like zombie butterflies squirming out of their cocoons.

Finally, they caught sight of Cunegonde, lying on the ground near the body of an old woman and weeping. They raced up to her. “Cunegonde, are you all right?” Candide asked gently kneeling down next to her. “It’s my Aunt Gertrude,” she snuffled, nodding toward the old woman. “I didn’t even know she was sick.” “I’m so sorry, my sweet Cunegonde.” Candide and Pangloss glanced at each other, and as the formerly winsome youth minister was preparing to say something, Candide shot him a warning look. “Let’s go,” Cunegonde said resolutely as she arose abruptly. “Where?” Candide asked. “Gertie lived in a cottage out in the country. She gave me a key and invited me to stay with her whenever I wanted. We can stay there.”

The bloodied survivors cleaned themselves up as best they could at a nearby gas station restroom and caught a bus out to the country. Exhausted, they stumbled up the country road to Aunt Gertrude’s neglected but still charming cottage. Candide was delighted to see that it had a vegetable garden in the front yard. They entered and the three of them collapsed and slept like the dead for nearly a full day afterward.

After they all had recovered somewhat, Candide began tending to the vegetable garden. Cunegonde ordered some sourdough starter online and began baking savory, warm loaves of bread. Pangloss managed to buy some free range chicken from a local farmer and they had a celebratory dinner. “Everything has happened for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” Pangloss mused, raising his glass of Cabernet. “After all, if you had not been kicked out for the love of Ms. Cunegonde, had not been deported, kidnapped, tortured, threatened with castration, flown to Los Angeles in a packing crate, beaten and arrested by the police, forced to hide in a morgue truck and nearly killed in a horrific freeway accident, then you wouldn’t be here now eating free range chicken, fresh brussels sprouts and home-baked sourdough.” “Excellently observed,” answered Candide. “But we must cultivate our garden.” And then he punched Pangloss in the face.

Copyright, Bill Burman 2020