So many popular and commercially successful religious organizations had recommended avoiding the transient pleasures of life as a means of securing incessant pleasures beyond death that Lime Barty decided he should give deprivation a chance. Perhaps, he decided, by depriving himself of something he enjoyed while he was still young enough to enjoy it, he might attract the attention of a god or two and receive a salvation rebate good for an eternal T3 connection to heaven.

For weeks Lime Barty experimented with sensory deprivations of all kinds — nose plugs, earplugs, condoms, gloves, boiled chicken — but encountered no epiphany. And now he’d begun closing his eyes. If Beethoven wrote his deepest stuff after he could no longer hear, Lime reasoned, perhaps he, Lime Barty, being a painter, might make better paintings by trying not to see. And so, each Sunday, Lime Barty would close his eyes, tilt his head back and walk as far as he dared. When he began to panic — usually while negotiating an intersection — he‘d open his eyes and reacquaint himself with the visual world, then close them again and continue.

After driving with both eyes open all the way to his usual cafe, Lime Barty walked with his eyes shut all the way to the restroom. Opened his eyes to urinate, closed them to wash his hands, opened them to walk out into the hallway and flatten himself against the pay phone to allow someone of remarkable girth to scrunch past, then he closed them once again and returned, very slowly, to his usual table, where he opened them to some substantial changes: On top of the table sat two stacks of pancakes and two enormous, steaming mugs of adequate coffee, and off to one side sat Carlo “Duke” Stroondooki, mesmerized by the Opinion section. Stroondooki stayed alive by writing and arranging music for television shows, sleeping no more than eight hours a week.

“You’re alive,” said Lime, sitting, searching the table for single-serving microbuckets of nondairy creamer and wholesome tan packets of Sugar in the Raw®.

“I‘m always alive,” said Stroondooki, without looking up. “Story of the day, Lime Barty: A Gallup poll of college seniors in the United States — seniors, right? — one-fourth of them thought that the phrase From each according to his ability, to each according to his need was part of the United States Constitution. And — there’s more! — two-thirds of the same group believe that the United States should take, quote, whatever steps are necessary, including military action, to rid the world of Marxist governments, unquote.”

Stroondooki at last looked up, revealing two permanently varicose eyes set amid a big shaggy black beard and a big shaggy black mane. “Gives you hope, doesn‘t it?”

Lime Barty and Duke Stroondooki doused their table with syrup and dug into their pancakes, avidly and quietly, Stroondooki with his comics, Lime with his classifieds.

“Anything?” said Lime Barty.

“Beetle Bailey,” said Stroondooki. “I used to figure him for a top, but now I’m thinking bottom. Either way, not a pleasant thought. Anything there?”

“There‘s an opening in a photo lab,” said Lime Barty.

“They still have photo labs? Wow!”

Lime Barty read. “Photo Processing Assistant. E-6 Dept. in major Hollywood lab. College degree plus two years’ experience. Full time. Seven bucks an hour.”

“E-6 photochemicals can be lethal,” said Stroondooki. “Don‘t drink, snort or inject them. Say anything about health insurance?”

“Nope,” replied Lime Barty.

“Let’s see,” said Stroondooki, closing his eyes and tilting back his head. “That‘s . . . no health insurance . . . at seven bucks an hour . . . so that should be . . . about . . . six months. You’ll be dead in six months, a year, tops.”

“Six months?” said Lime Barty, raising his eyebrows, frowning and nodding, circling the ad, impressed. “That‘s pretty good. That’d definitely cut down on expenses. Huh.”

Lime Barty took up his pen and began rendering a series of vaguely financial-looking glyphs in the classifieds‘ margins. For about 15 seconds. “Okay,” he finally announced, “here are my monthly expenses. Student loan: plenty. Too much to even think about paying. Gasoline: I don’t know how much. Food: It varies. So that leaves what?”

“Art supplies?”

“Art supplies! Yes! Good! Very expensive! Art supplies.”

“How much?”

“I have no idea. Depends. If I use a lot of reds or yellows, any of the cadmium colors, that can run into some money. Or cobalt blue — that costs even more than the cadmiums.” Lime Barty froze. “Or should that be ‘cadmia’?”

Stroondooki shrugged.

Lime Barty nodded. And brought the pen back to the paper. Made a few more scribbles, offered the results for Stroondooki‘s approval. “Art supplies: $400 a month,” said Lime. “Almost exactly, to the decimal, the same amount I’ll take home from the photo lab, after taxes.”

Stroondooki stared at Lime Barty‘s glyphs for a few seconds, then picked up the pen, scratched everything out, tore the paper in half and in half again, set it all aside, dusted his hands and returned to the Sunday comics. Lime Barty closed his eyes and sipped at his coffee.

After breakfast, Stroondooki followed as Lime Barty walked sightlessly back to his car, head tilted back, face in the sun. The Santanas picked up, billowing the boys’ unwashed, oversize clothing, inflating Stroondooki‘s stupendous mane so that he looked like a small shuffling palm tree, implanting billions of invisible airborne toxins in their pores and sinuses.

“Curb,” Stroondooki cautioned.

“Thank you,” Lime Barty replied.

“The history of Western civilization shows . . . that most social and moral progress has been brought about by persons free from religion. In modern times, the first to speak out for prison reform, for humane treatment of the mentally ill, for abolition of capital punishment, for women’s right to vote, for death with dignity for the terminally ill, and for the right to choose contraception, sterilization and abortion have been freethinkers, just as they were the first to call for an end to slavery.” So states the brochure of the Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc. (www.ffrf.org), champions of church-state separation since 1978. The site‘s thick with well-researched, pleasantly formatted essays and links to adjacent resources. Recommended initiation: Take the StateChurch Quiz (www. ffrf.orgquiz.html), then mainline the online writings by foundation founder and president Anne Nicol Gaylor (www.ffrf.orgbyanne.html), her co-founder and daughter, Annie Laurie Gaylor (www.ffrf.orgbyalg.html), and the foundation’s public-relations director (and former Christian evangelist), Dan Barker (www.ffrf.orgbybarker.html). And act soon, before their skeletal remains are unearthed in the hills near George W. Bush‘s Texas ranch.

LA Weekly