Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Kook, The Thief, The Tyrant, The Skeptic and The Believer.

“Three truths I will tell you, and one lie,” said Plouton Clark taking another drink of ale.  “You may ask any four questions you like, but only four.”

It was three years ago and we were sitting on the porch outside the Free State Brewery in Lawrence, Kansas.  Clark had just started his Church of New Life, and I was working on the first national story about the new religion for World News Magazine.

“Only four questions?” I asked.

“If I give you carte-blanche,” said Clark, “you will find something to discredit me. Ask enough questions, and you can find the flaw in any argument.  Even well-established science looks flimsy under enough scrutiny and I’ve got to give myself a fighting chance.”

“Why the lie?” I asked.

Clark twisted pieces of his long beard around his finger.  He had one of those beards I had only seen in cartoons usually worn characters who had suddenly grown comically old.  “You’re a skeptic and that’s what you’ll be looking for.  A believer clings to a singular truth among lies.  Skepticism is just the opposite.”

It was the end of the first day I spent with Plouton Clark.  We spent the first half of the day touring the refurbished strip mall in downtown Lawrence that was now the Church headquarters.  The second half was spent at the bar.  Clark swilled beer and talked so fast about his strange  philosophies that I could barely get a word into the conversation, much less a whole question.  I had to admit that he looked the part of a modern prophet.  The cargo shorts and the old, stained T-shirt and flip-flops were probably the modern equivalent of a robe and sandals.

“He’s a crackpot!” my editor told me as I was leaving the office to catch my flight.  “Or a con-artist or some guy who gets his rocks off with power.  Just find out which one it is, and write the story.”

 He was one of those editors that insisted on writing your story for you, and honestly I kind of let him.  It was easier then arguing.  So the entire time I spent with Clark, my editor’s words were floating in my brain. Was Clark a kook, a thief or a tyrant? 

“Well, how about it then?” said Clark after a fresh sip of beer, “Care to give it a go?”

“Okay,” I said flipping through my notebook and forming a strategy.  I would ask him questions, force a lie out of him on the last one and do some fact checking later.  Then, I would have my story or my editor’s story at least.

“First question, why did God contact you to start this church?  Are you somehow special?”

I figured a tyrant would claim that there was nothing special about him.

“I am special,” said Clark.  “Clearly I am, or God wouldn’t have contacted me.  He did, you know.  I was sitting in my house watching TV, and He appeared on the screen and gave me instructions.  How many prophets do you know got a message from God through a 32-inch flat screen?”

He laughed and I wrote down his answer and marked it with a letter ‘T’.  “Second question, I said,  “To join the church, you say people have to give up their excess wealth.  Where does it all go?”   Surely a thief would hide the money.

“I keep it,” said Clark drinking the last of his beer, “I suspect I may be the richest man in the country in five years, give or take a couple.”

I winced as I wrote his answer and put another ‘T’ next to it.  “Third question, I have it in my notes that you were admitted to a mental hospital and were released against the wishes of the staff.  Can you talk about that?”

“Oh, I was completely bonkers,” said Clark smiling at the waitress bringing him another beer, “Still am, I should think.  You may have also noticed that this is my fifth pint.  The great thing about drinking  is it helps keep me from bottling up the crazy.  A thought hits my brain and, bam!, it’s out in the world.  Probably makes be a better preacher.”

I felt  like an idiot asking my final question, “What is your name?”

Clark smiled, “Pluton Clark.”

I met with Clark again three years later at the same brewery. I had long since resigned from the magazine and I was working on a book about the Church of New Life. In recent years, it had a growth rate faster than any religion on the planet.

“I read your article,” said Clark taking a long drink of a stout.

“What did  you think?” I asked.

“A bit disjointed.  It’s like you couldn’t decide what to write about.  It’s something I would write if anyone was stupid enough to let me.”

I nodded, but said nothing.  He was right.

“Just as well,” said Clark taking a drink from his beer, “Who knows what damage a well-written article would have done.  Could have brought down my whole operation.”

I put down my pen and looked at Clark, “Did you do something to sabotage the story?”

Clark shook his head, “Nothing that you weren’t already doing.  You are a believer, not a skeptic.  You like the truth among lies, not the other way around.”

“You didn’t tell any lies, that was the problem with my article.” I said. 

“I said my name was Plouton Clark.  I was born Andy Stevenson which you knew since you had my mental health history.”

“You were born Andy Stevenson, but that doesn’t mean your name isn’t Plouton Clark now.” I said.

Clark smiled, “The truth among lies. That’s just how your brain works.”

“Okay,” I said flipping to a clean sheet, “Let’s start over.”

“Okay then.  Three lies I will tell you, and one truth.”

1 comment: