Art by Emily King,
Art by Emily King, "Preventative Measures II"

Ascetic

by Jonathon Penny

For Jana Reiss, who paved the way

It happened for the first time in the spring of 2004: Jared Powell, his brother’s confesseur du jour, learned that said brother was an alcoholic, and out of one of love’s many rash and regrettable impulses, vowed that he would forego all alcoholic beverages in a show of support and solidarity with his brother, whom he really did love.

This was not a problematic oath in and of itself: Jared was a teetotaler, appropriate to his religion, and had never touched the stuff: “lips that touch wine, etc.” A compromise was struck: since he did not imbibe alcohol, he offered to give up his cola habit,  a moderate but developing problem for a young father and graduate student struggling to write, teach, work, serve, and change diapers. Before grad school, he had only ever been what might, in Mormon terms, be tenuously called a social drinker, although in his case the appellative was not tenuous at all, but refreshingly apt—he indulged only at social occasions, and only if one insisted, and only one glass of whatever was making the rounds.

The real problem developed in the ensuing months on the heels of two emergent facts: 1) the vow was effective—Jared’s brother felt encouraged and emboldened by his solidarity, and remained decidedly on the wagon without a single fall, not even trailing a foot in the dirt now and then; 2) word got out.

At first, the attention was quite flattering: people would remark how wonderfully caring and supportive Jared must be, what a nourishing personality he must have, how they wished they had a brother/lover/friend like him, etc. Of course, many of the first circle of people to know of the oath and its beneficent outcome were friends, and LDS friends at that, none of whom had any seriously troubling addictions, and this was fine, as were the results: Jared found himself swearing off a variety of easily-Lenten foods and bad habits he had never acquired in support of friends and family members desperate to shed their addictions: dolphin tuna, farfalla pasta, 2% milk, chocolate, periwinkle dress socks, Woody Allen movies.

But then word really got out, and Jared would find himself accosted on the street by near and then by distant strangers, all of them pressuring him to join them in transformational schemes benign and radical, and within a year, Jared was no longer eating after 7:00 in the evening, was exercising 6 days a week for 90 minutes at a pop—a variety of pilates, plyometrics, cardio, and weightlifting—, had boycotted Persian rugs and Arizonan handicrafts, had foresworn cheese-toast, lying, cheating on his taxes, gas-powered engines, and speeding. And somehow he kept it all straight, a rolodex and a flowchart and a calendar saved in the memory center like a flash drive he carried around inside him; like stigmata, like a curse.

But he bore up, and lost the right amount of weight, and his skin and hair and nails were exemplary in their health and vibrancy, and he found himself without even the merest addiction of any sort. The Stake President began eyeing him with interest, and his wife was positively thrilled by the results, for truth be told Jared had been rather dowdy when they met, courted, and married—one of those marginal-looking fellows. Now, by dint of the discipline with which he helped his clients, he would have given Brad Pitt a run for his money.

But what mattered more was that none of his co-abstainers were any longer trapped by their proper vices, weaknesses, or temptations. His powers were talismanic, legendary, apotheotic. He had become famosissimo: a professional, a designated, a chronic disabler. There were t-shirts and tv interviews and a website called “Powell Power.” It became, in short, a career.

This was all very good for Jared, hitherto a shy and retired frump of a fellow, bookish and a touch nerdy. But there were consequences of the attention that took an unfavorable turn. The Stake President, worried about the potential for priestcraft, and a little alarmed about Jared’s accidental and accruing charisma, stopped eyeing him for anything at all. He needn’t have worried. Jared reflected in his limited private moments that no one had asked for help becoming a 100% home teacher, or a more attentive less-video-game-obsessed father, or a more consistent scripture-reader, or a more patient primary teacher. He was proud of the reformed addicts, of course, but remarked to himself that the bulk of his commitments were to superficial matters. This both relieved and saddened him.

And then one day the wheels really came off: Jared had a phone call from a disgraced pop star whom the tabloids reported struggled with sex addiction, who had tried every known therapy, cloister, and boot camp to kick it, but couldn’t or wouldn’t, and the third failed marriage was too much and he got a whiff of Jared’s power and called him and, well, the star would not negotiate for monogamy (a strong suit of Jared’s), because despite his narcissism, he was apperceptive, and he had realized that in order for the mojo to jojo, man, it hadda be something Jared wasn’t already, ya know, whaddo the Catholics say? observing. So I’m desperate here, and monogamy won’t cut it cuz I know you’re already living that way: you’re not sick like me, so the only thing for it is that we gotta, you know, chuck it all, together. There’s a fat check innit for ya, Jared. And another and another, so long as it keeps, ya know, working.

So here he is, all monked out, stable, clean as a whistle, lithe, buff, permanently employed, vibrating with discipline, holy and sacrosanct and pure, incorruptible, a veritable Buddha, bereft of connections, divorced, childless, and terminally unhappy.

 

Jonathon Penny lives in Al Ain, UAE, where he teaches literature and runs errands. He is also contributing editor at WIZ. In his spare time, he is founding, with Jenny Webb, Peas Porridge Press, which will soon publish the work of Percival P. Pennywhistle, which is brilliant.

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