The following is an adapted excerpt from The Church of Exemptions: A Farce with Footnotes by Luis Granados (Humanist Press, February 25, 2019). The story follows Nick Fratelli, a young, underachieving government lawyer with an interest in the foibles of religion.
LITTLE GOOD NEWS ever arrived in Nick’s email. Mostly it was ads, or pesky work items—questions he’d already answered once, and if they didn’t understand what he meant, that was their fault. This message was entirely different. An invitation to a reception at the prestigious K Street law firm of Guilder & Hersh, in honor of their newly added partners, former Senators Rosalynn Fenter and Jake Miller. “Former,” Nick knew, as a euphemism for “defeated.” The food and booze would be top drawer, but what froze Nick’s eye was the sender of the message: Natalie Parks.
So she wasn’t married yet. Maybe she was, and hadn’t changed her name. But at the very least, there was no evidence that she was married, which meant there was hope. Besides, he kept telling himself, she had gone out of her way to invite him.
Nick had asked Natalie out several times back in law school. She had only accepted once, to a movie, the night before a spring break. Nick couldn’t remember what movie it was—he’d been absorbed in the thrill of sitting next to Natalie, sneaking peeks at her shining black hair and fierce cheekbones, dreaming about what lay beneath her baggy sweatshirt. After that, nothing. She was a very busy girl. The truth was, Nick convinced himself, that she really was busy. She didn’t have the top grades in class, but she put in more hours than anyone else, by a wide margin. As far as Nick could tell—and he spied on her closely—he didn’t have a serious rival, other than Williston on Contracts, but that was enough.
Then came recruiting season, and graduation. Natalie had landed at Guilder & Hersh, a firm with a reputation as a high-end sweatshop that could make its partners millions if they could survive the pace. Nick had wound up at the General Services Administration, bored out of his gourd.
And now this. Natalie, anxious to see him. The possibilities were endless.
Nick was the second guest to arrive. He thought he was the eighth, but six of the people he saw were firm lawyers on meet-and-greet duty. Natalie was not among them.
Nick made his way to the buffet, which did not disappoint. Were those really shrimp? They looked more the size of lobsters. To wash them down, Nick headed over to one of the three bars. “Nice and full!” he said to the bartender, stuffing a dollar into the tip jar, in the hope that his refill might be even larger.
Senator Fenter strode into the lobby, entourage in tow. What were you supposed to call her? Still Senator? Roz? Ex-Senator? Loser? Enough of a crowd was surrounding her by now that it didn’t really matter, because Nick would never get close enough to talk to her anyway. Even if he could think of anything to say to her, which he couldn’t. He doubted she had any interest in fantasy baseball.
No Natalie yet. His glass, which had seemed so full, was empty now, so he headed back to the bar. The bartender didn’t recognize him and gave him a portion at least a half-inch shorter than his first, according to Nick’s well-trained eye. There was a dollar he’d never get back.
Elbowing his way back through the growing crowd in front of the bar, Nick overheard a young lawyer wearing a Guilder & Hersh name tag ask another, “So how many did you invite?”
“Three hundred and forty-two. Everybody I’ve ever heard of, and his dog. I had to Google half of them to find their addresses—took me all night. And I only got six RSVPs.”
“Spillman’s going to be pissed. He’s keeping count, you know.”
A small cloud darkened Nick’s sun. If that clown had sent out 342 invites, then Natalie would have sent 500. At least.
Nick stood quietly on the outer edge of a conversation about research tax credits. He moved from there to the outer edge of a conversation about the best places to stay near Machu Picchu. He carefully calculated the length of the line at the bar on the far side of the room, concluding that if he started now he’d be finishing glass number two right when he reached the front. This was one of the things Nick knew he was good at.
Halfway through glass number four—the portions were definitely superior on this side of the room—Nick found himself on the edge of another largely incomprehensible conversation, but at least this one was animated, with a tone less “oh-so-in-the-know” than Nick had found so nauseating elsewhere. “They’re killing me,” the man kept repeating. “You can’t reason with these people. You can’t even talk to them. All you get to do is listen. These damn EPA punks, they already know everything, so they don’t need to listen.”
The speaker wore a nametag that said “Earl,” in big bold letters. He was sixty or so, Nick guessed. The string tie told you right away he wasn’t from Washington, and didn’t want to be mistaken for someone who was. Seventies-style aviator glasses sat on a pug nose in a round, brick-red face. Nick couldn’t tell if it was red from anger, booze, or the sun. Probably all three.
At “These kids don’t know a drill bit from a dildo,” Nick saw Earl’s listener purse her lips. She did not approve. In fact, Nick thought, she didn’t seem to approve of much of anything Earl was saying. She gave a dutiful nod and an “Uh-huh” now and then, but didn’t seem to mean it. Probably a tree-hugger, Nick thought. Bikes to work.
Tree-huggers ranked low on Earl’s list. “And a lot of ‘em are Muslim-lovers,” he growled. “That’s their plan, see—kill off the American producer, so we keep buying more and more oil from the Arabs, so they can run the whole damn world.”
“Don’t get me wrong, ma’am. I love the land. I would never hurt the land, least not in a way I didn’t patch up later. But damn it, there’s oil down there. Oceans of it! Just trapped in them rocks. All we got to do is squeeze it out.” Those ham-sized fists Earl was clenching to make his point could squeeze out quite a bit of oil, Nick suspected. “But we can’t do it when every time we turn around, some pointy-head thinks up a new rule to stop us. Do they get some kind of bonus for this?”
“Uh-huh. Well, no. Oh wait—there’s Senator Miller. Could you excuse me just one minute?” Her relief at escaping was palpable. This left Earl staring at Nick, who had been measuring out the line for glass number five, weighing that prospect against the possibility that too much more might not leave him at his tippy-top best if Natalie ever did turn up. But he now knew she wasn’t going to, so what the hell. Still, Earl was expecting some sort of response from someone, and Nick was the only person standing there.
“Those regs must be tough, man,” Nick said.
“Sure as hell. We don’t even know what we’re dealing with—they change every day. We spend ten million bucks complying with one, then they turn around and say no, you gotta do it different.”
“Wow. Ten million bucksh—I mean bucks—sorry.” Nick dug a fingernail into his thumb, embarrassed at his slurred speech.
Earl leaned in. “You should see what we spend on senators. Then Jake here can’t keep his zipper shut, so that money’s gone.”
There was a short pause. Nick later thought of it in terms of the three times the Trojan horse had bumped against the threshold while being drawn inside the city walls, but it really wasn’t like that. Just a break in conversation, which a polite fellow like Nick should try to fill somehow.
“You know, there are ways around some of these rules,” Nick said, concentrating hard on steadying his speech. “Ways that haven’t even been tried yet. Creative ways.”
“Well, you know. Exemptions. Special rules.”
“That’s why I’m here, son. Ol’ Jake, he says this law firm has plenty of brains, they can fix things for me. So whatcha got?”
At least it was a chance to talk, about something Nick knew a little about. “Well, you know. Like, Hobby Lobby. They got an exemption for being religious, so they don’t have to do the same health care everybody else does.”
“Health care! Don’t get me started! That’s another racket. But that’s not where the money is, son. It’s in the ground. I got to get it out. Ain’t no religion in that.”
“Not right now, maybe. But there are new religions popping up all the time.”
Nick couldn’t completely read Earl’s look. Maybe 90 percent skeptical, 10 percent curious. He glanced down, trying to see the oil, even though they were ten stories up. “Ok,” he finally said. “Who put the oil down there?”
“Nobody ‘put’ the oil there, son.” Earl seemed exasperated. “You’re like one of these EPA brats. There was an ocean, see, with millions of little plants, and they—”
“No-no,” Nick interrupted. “I know all that. But that’s not the answer. The answer is, God put the oil there. And who told you the oil was down there?”
“I got the most expensive geologists in America. They know what they’re doing. Trust me.”
Nick shut his eyes and shook his head vigorously, clearing away a few cobwebs in the process. “No no no no no. God told you where the oil is. Maybe God worked through a geologist, but it was God who did it. Do you believe that? Could you believe that?”
Earl squinted, but Nick didn’t notice him. Nick saw only one thing: the most beautiful woman God had ever placed on the planet, approaching Earl and smiling as broadly as she had when Nick snapped her picture with her parents back on graduation day.
“Mr. Matteson!” she cooed, holding out an exquisite, slender hand. “Natalie Parks. I work with Peter Spillman. We met at the convention in Denver.”
“Hey,” Earl grunted, then turned back to Nick. “So what if I believe that?”
Nick heard nothing. “Natalie!” He had worked out other, wittier openers, but this was all he could come up with right at the moment. He was a little too loud.
“Oh, hello, Nick. So delighted you could attend. You’ve met Mr. Matteson, I see.”
Earl bent over to look at Nick’s name badge, which he’d written in tiny letters, because he already knew who he was and didn’t think anyone else would care. “Nick … Fraternity?”
“No—‘Fratelli.’ Nick Fratelli.”
“Mr. Fratellity here says you folks can get me out from under the EPA with religion.”
“Oh,” Natalie nodded. “Does he, now?” She shot Nick a quick look.
“How have you been?” Nick asked Natalie, ignoring Earl entirely. “It’s so great to see you again. What’s it been—three years?” Not suave. Have to start doing better, fast.
“What have you got, son?” said Earl. “I’m all ears.”
Natalie tittered warmly at Matteson, then turned expectantly to Nick, saying nothing at all about how she had been for the past three years. This narrowed Nick’s alternatives. He wanted only to talk to Natalie, but her interest was entirely in Matteson. So Nick turned back to him.
“The thing is,” he said, “that just like you say EPA changes its rules all the time, the rules on religious legal exemptions change all the time, too. They keep getting bigger. Now even corporations can have their own religion, like Hobby Lobby. Not just people. And if you pay attention to how the rules work, and you’re careful, you can exempt yourself from almost anything. This ‘God put the oil there, God told me to get it out’ deal should be a natural—and I haven’t even thought it through yet.”
“Jake never told me about this,” said Matteson. “You folks done this before?”
“Oh, Nick doesn’t work here,” said Natalie quickly.
“But we could work together,” said Nick. “You’d need a big firm like this to pull it off. Natalie here, she’s amazing.”
It was Earl’s turn to speak. He sipped his bourbon instead. Then a booming voice from the corner: “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for coming. I want to welcome you all …” “Blah, blah, blah” was all Nick heard for the next thirty minutes.
Nick’s plan was to lose Earl, fortify himself at the bar, then close back in on Natalie. He’d given her a plug; she should at least appreciate that. The first two parts of the plan worked fine, but Natalie had disappeared again. Twenty minutes, crisscrossing the room methodically, with no Natalie in sight. The same damn movie as law school, Nick thought bitterly. He stuffed some freshly baked chocolate chip cookies in his pocket when he thought no one was looking, then headed home.
One more beer at his apartment and Nick nodded off, long before the ballgame he was watching ended. He woke with a headache, and barely made it to the office on time. Myers didn’t like it when people were late. He didn’t care a whole lot about what you actually did between nine and five, but he wanted you there. Nick’s voicemail light was on, which was odd because he knew there were no messages when he’d left at 5:01 yesterday.
The message had been left at 7:16 a.m. “Nick, we’ve got to talk.” He thrilled at the sound of Natalie’s voice. “I don’t know what you told Mr. Matteson, but he wants the two of us out there. In North Dakota. Tomorrow.”