At the Possum Lodge Meeting

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At the Possum Lodge Meeting

A cross possum
Please Help Yourself to Complementary Coffee

…said the sign. Robert Thigpen decided the coffee wouldn't complement his mood this morning, so he left it alone. Besides, he knew the guy who made that coffee, and it was dreadful.

In the lodge hall reception lounge, early arrivals were gathered in groups, shooting the breeze. Hardly any of them had any coffee, Robert noticed. He overheard one conversation, which he figured was a report from the recent hunting season.

'There I was, and this four-point buck was just walking around in front of me, back and forth, pretty as you please. Great antlers, the kind that fork out like this…' fingers extended to show the configuration.

'Oh, wow, like that? Those make great paper towel holders.'

Robert moved on, quickly, lest he be inveigled into a conversation where he could not keep a straight face. Instead, he engaged in banter with the lodge's youngest member, eighteen-year-old Trip Shryeck, who'd just joined. Trip was hiding in the corner so he wouldn't have to answer any more questions about his plans for after graduation. He was going on to college, Robert knew, but Trip was probably thoroughly weary of explaining that to well-wishing but nosy people. He smiled when he saw Robert, though. Robert smiled back.

'Hi, Trip.'

'Hi, Mr Thigpen. Did you have a good Thanksgiving?'

'I did, thanks, you?' Trip nodded. The two of them stood there, staring benevolently at the room, until Robert noticed something odd about the sofa on that side of the lounge, which was covered in a heavy green fabric that sported a lush pattern of leaves. Robert pointed to it.

'Hey, Trip, what do you think of that? I mean, who looked at a cloth-weaving machine and said, this is the perfect pattern?'

Trip grinned. 'What I'm wondering is, who looked at that cloth and said, this needs to be on a sofa?' That's what Robert liked about Trip: the two of them were on the same wavelength. They chatted and made inane jokes until the Principal Prothonotary opened the doors to the assembly hall and let them all in.

'The Esteemed and Venerable Order of the United Possums of North Carolina is now in session,' intoned the Principal Prothonotary, a thin, balding man named Wilbur.

'We hang by our tails from the 'simmon tree,' solemnly responded the assorted professionals, businessmen, and young initiates before seating themselves in the comfortable theatre seats, where two or three of the oldest members promptly feel asleep before the minutes of the previous meeting had been read.

'Are there any additions or corrections? No? Then the minutes stand approved as read. There being no New or Old Business before this assembly, I'll move straight to welcoming today's guest speaker, the Reverend Bill Graeme. Most of you know Bill: he's been the pastor of the Foursquare Gospel Church of Acme for…how long is it now, Bill? 25 years?'

'25 come next March.' Murmurs of appreciation as Brother Graeme took the podium and smiled around at the Tuesday morning assembly.

'You know, I appreciate y'all in the Possum Lodge. You're literally the salt of the earth.'

Robert groaned inwardly, and did not look at Trip so as to avoid temptation. But he thought about literal salt, he couldn't help it.

'Y'all take care of the poor. You visit the sick. You mentor (yes, he said 'men-tore') our fine young men, like Trip over yonder…'

Trip tried unsuccessfully to hide a blush, and Robert threw him a sympathetic glance. Robert had been a Fine Young Man in his day, and knew how it felt.

'Best of all, y'all stand as bulwarks against the Decline of the Age.'

Oh, no, thought Robert. He said 'bulwarks'. Here goes…

The preacher warmed to his subject. 'You know, the times are bad. And when the times are bad, the evil just accelerates. You know, it's like one of those coin-sorting machines in the bank, you know the ones. At first, the coins go around slowly. But then they go around and around, and as they get to the middle, they go faster and faster until they drop down the hole. That's what happens when a civilisation declines like this one is declining. We're seeing it happen before our very eyes.'

Robert grew thoughtful. You know, that was a very weird image…but it wasn't wrong. Not wrong at all. It would stick in your head and make you think. The problem was, he thought, would anybody realise why civilisation was in trouble? Would they wonder what they themselves could do to foster a caring community? Or would they say something banal about the Roman Empire, like they'd been doing for the last 50 years or so? Robert was heartily sick of hearing about the Roman Empire, a period in history he strongly suspected his fellow Possums believed contained both Russell Crowe and Conan the Barbarian.

'The problem,' Reverend Graeme said, 'is that there's all kind of lax morality and indecent behaviour going on. And whose fault is that?' The Reverend was getting a bit wound up, Robert noticed, and forgetting he was not in his own pulpit at the Foursquare Gospel Church. 'Oh, please, don't let him start calling for Amens,' he prayed, with some inappropriateness but complete fervour.

'It's the fault of poor leaders!' he said forcefully. 'We need leaders like Moses! Y'all think Moses was a wimp…'

'He was the meekest man on the face of the earth, says the Bible,' thought Robert.

'…but he was a tough guy, Moses was! He was tougher than Genghis Khan!'

Robert tried to erase from his mind the irrelevant image of John Wayne in a moustache. He tried, but failed.

'He was tougher than Attila the Hun!'

'No, please, no…' thought Robert.

'He was even tougher than Gunga Din!'

That tore it. Robert didn't dare look at Trip – or anybody. Grabbing a handkerchief from his pocket, he clapped it over his nose and mouth and, feigning a coughing fit, fled the assembly room.

'Next meeting,' he thought, 'I'm going to be on a business trip to Cherokee. And hope it snows.'

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