8-1 fiction

The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.

 

P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

8.1 (Winter 2008)

 

short story

prae-202

courtesy of artrenewal.org

 

Converse Experience  

J. S. Moseby

     “There are days when I could be a martyr, smiling as the flames melt my feet from under me.  And other days when I could probably be a mass-murderer.  With a little shove in the right direction.  Or maybe not.  The thought of killing innocents… besides being morally repugnant, it would ruin the aesthetics of the thing, if you know what I mean.  Not only wrong, but ugly.  What I dream of, sometimes, is the wrong but sublime.  If several people who richly deserved it could all be assembled in one place… you know, powerful people.  People who had used their power to make other people squirm, make them cry out in pain.  People who enjoyed nothing in life so much as that sensation of making others writhe.  If I could have a dozen or so of those—the more the better—assembled in one room for some kind of conference—a Conference of Bastards—then, yeah, I could see myself, on certain days, blowing us all to smithereens.  Or taking them all out one by one, seeing if they would collect the guts in time to rise up against me en masse… which they wouldn’t.  But then I would take myself out, too.  The whole thing would be an elaborate kind of hara-kiri.  It wouldn’t make sense any other way.  Why kill the bastards and keep living yourself—because you actually expect life to be a little better after that?  Come on!  It wouldn’t be a progressivist gesture.  It would be an honorable suicide.  And killing the bastards would be part of what would confer honor upon it.  Killing oneself would be the other part… to make it clear, you know, that one had not taken them out in expectation of a selfish profit.”

“Are you talking about the wrath of God?”

“I wouldn’t have used those terms… but maybe.  God is so distant, and his wrath is all-embracing.  But I’m rambling, you understand—I’m talking about daydreams.  Pipedreams.  No, I wouldn’t ever do any such thing.  But I think about such things on my bad days.  Days when I wake up with a splitting headache because I haven’t slept enough, one or two hours… when I spent most of the night worrying.  My wife used to say that there was no point to worrying—that it didn’t help anything.  I could never seem to explain to her—and yet, it seems so obvious, doesn’t it?—that that’s exactly why you worry!  Because you can’t do anything.  The powerful can pose you the choice between licking their shoe soles clean or starving, and watching your wife and kids starve—oh, I know, nobody starves today, but you know what I mean.  Seeing all those eyes at home looking at you, watching you, wondering why you can’t hold a job… that’s worse than starving, maybe.  And so you worry like hell over whether you can sign off on all the lies and laugh at all the asshole jokes and go grab a late drink with all the right buddies—can you do all that, can you annihilate your soul sufficiently to make them want to keep you on?  But why should they keep you on, once they discover that you’re made of cardboard?  They can have another thousand just like you interviewing for your job tomorrow.  And you can’t control any of it.  It’s all out of control.  And that, in a nutshell, is why you worry.”

“Women, in my experience, are more likely to… you know, to be formally religious.  To believe that everything really will be okay.  I don’t think they understand the point of view you describe—they’re not made that way.  They have less control over their environment than we do, yet they… they believe that things are under control.  Or will be… or can be.  Maybe that’s why… I mean, because they are so used to being controlled by others.”

“And when you fail them in that capacity, it hits them very hard.  They expect you, as a man, to know how to pull things together.  And when you can’t… and it doesn’t seem to matter to them, most of them, that things are most often pulled together by offering or taking bribes, or forging documents, or writing fake prescriptions, or… or doctoring the facts to make an editor or a wealthy donor happy.  Or stuffing a fake gas tank with marijuana.  That’s how you get ahead in this pile-of-shit world—if you’ll pardon my French, Padre.  I never used to be foul-mouthed.  God, I used to be so… such a little babe in the woods.  A lamb.  People said that I should choose a life of the cloth.  Some people, one or two.  Now, why would they say that?  Because the lamb would be slaughtered if he were not artificially screened from reality?  And what good would a spiritual advisor do anyone who hadn’t an inkling that the world was a slaughterhouse—that he himself had only escaped slaughter by being herded into a special holding pen?  Who would want to be such a pathetic creature?  No offense.”

“You said that your wife used to tell you not to worry.  What… what happened to her?”

“She finally had enough, of course.”

“You mean…”

“I mean she finally had enough.  I don’t blame her.  Never should have married me.  I warned her, in my own way.  She was a secretary in my department when I was slaving away on my doctorate.  She was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.  We frequently talked when I checked my mailbox.  Sometimes we ran into each other on campus.    I would go out of my way to be exiting the library just as she entered the parking lot.  She must have noticed.  Eventually she started dropping me off at my apartment on her way home.  I was always on foot in those days, and she claimed that we were going the same way.  Then I started asking her up for a drink while the rush-hour traffic thinned out—iced tea, lemonade.  Strict virtue observed.  Then we started talking more and more up in my apartment, and she started staying later and later.  I made her supper one evening.  When everything was finished, as we watched the twilight dim from my eighth-story window, she asked me why I never tried to kiss her—was it because she was part black.  I hadn’t actually known, to be honest: she might have been part Arabic—she had those amber eyes, and rather fair hair though kind of wavy… I’d never seen anyone so beautiful.  And that was basically what I told her—that she was far too good for me, too perfect for such a leper.  And then she kissed me, and I married her.  The racial thing probably had something to do with why it didn’t work out.  My mother hated her, as she would have hated a Jew or an Arab or a Thai or a Japanese.  My mother thought I should have married Aryan purity—which you will find odd, considering my dark eyes and hair.  But no odder than I.  Maybe our darkness was why she wanted a blonde—I mean, as you say about women believing in a controlled universe because they are always being controlled, maybe my mother was confident that fair was better than dark because we were always on the receiving end of it in the power struggle.  Too Mediterranean.  Does that make sense?”

“Well… I suppose.”

“Blonde hair and blue eyes.  I always hated them, you know.  In a woman, I mean.  But I think I always hated them precisely because I knew they were too good for me—above my class, you know, above my race.”

“But… that’s ridiculous!”

“Why?  Because I’m white?  Because white is white?  But it really isn’t… have you really not found that out?  Any more than a man of average size like me and with a mild, slightly tremulous voice… wouldn’t you call my voice kind of thin, maybe a bit too high?… any more than that kind of man has the same shake at success as a six-foot-three guy with a booming baritone.  No, I always felt like… well, a bit dirty.  Around blondes.  Tall, blue-eyed blondes.  And that’s what my mom wanted me to marry, because that would make me better.  It would be better for the family—it would improve us.  Sure, it would!  I can’t believe you find this all so surprising.  And I don’t deny for a minute that my hatred of blondness was just an extension of my mother’s prejudice—the reverse of it, but the same thing.  No, no, I was aware of that from the start.  Even as an adolescent, I was painfully aware of how beautiful the fair people were around me, and how much beyond my reach.  But Lilah… she was completely within my reach, in that regard.  Coloring, I mean.  She was just too absolutely beautiful.  It never even occurred to me for a second that she might be part African.  All I knew was that she was beautiful and somehow… dusky, you know.  A little shadowy—just enough to be within my reach, to be like me.  My God, that’s why I fell so hard for her right from the first time I saw her.  She was so beautiful, and she was so not blonde!”

“And what did your father say through all this?”

“Whatever Mom thought was alright with Dad.  If she had accepted Lilah, that would have been alright with Dad.  If she had poisoned Lilah, that would have been alright with Dad, too.  As long as he could rebuild old cars in the back lot, whatever went on in the rest of the world was none of his business.  Office flunkey by day, artist with wrench and grease-gun by evening.  I doubt that Dad could have given you the names of his two grandchildren on his death bed.”

“You mean this went on even… even after you had children?”

“But there was really nothing much to go on.  Silence can be self-sustaining.  Once you become accustomed to living entirely without someone, never mentioning his name or thinking about him, then it is the attempt to remember him which would require a great investment of energy.  We formed our different orbits, and they never crossed.”

“How… how perfectly horrible.”

“You think so?  But it is also perfectly normal.  The normal horror.  Men have accustomed themselves to many an atrocity, from mutilating prisoners to beating their children unconscious to cutting the hearts out of sacrificial virgins.  Our family dysfunction was not an atrocity, of course… and I really don’t even think a horror.  Not really, not as things go.  No more a horror than giving a sports car to a teenager for graduating from high school… why not just send him out with a spear to kill a lion, like the Zulus?  His chances would be better.  We’re pretty much of an age, you and I, Padre—at least, I would have said so when I could still see you clearly.  But we don’t seem to have lived the same sort of life at all.  Or what I mean is—since that’s an absurd thing to say—we don’t seem to have seen the same things.  But that’s absurd, too.  It’s all absurd.  Horrible.  Well, call it horrible, then.  Personally, I thought it was rather peaceful not to have my parents in my life any more.  I could devote myself to Lilah.  Just she and I.  She was all I needed.  I’d never been so happy.”

“Then what went wrong?”

“Just… the usual.  Couldn’t keep a job.  No, the usual would have been for her to walk out on me for that alone—and I can never praise Lilah enough for how she stuck by me.  It was myself.  I started rotting inside.  I could feel it, smell it.  I became impossible to live with… I became what I am now.  I really didn’t want to, you know—not in the least.  On the contrary, I was so upbeat and obliging in all of my early positions—so much of a “team player”—that I became something of a toxic waste dump.  I took all the assignments that no one else wanted.  I started out in academe, as I may have told you before.  A raw, green Ph.D.  No experience, no publications.  I would understand later that that was precisely why I was hired for my two first jobs.  They knew that I would do anything, since I had no expectations about what I should and shouldn’t do and, besides, had absolutely no bargaining power.  In the unlikely event that I raised an objection, I was eminently fire-able.  I was tolerated… I was there on sufferance.  They like people like that, in academe.  Permanent Latrine Orderlies, as they say in that old movie about boot camp.  Well, that was me.  I taught all of the eight a.m. classes along with all of the evening classes.  Not all of them, of course… but fifty percent of both, in a department of a dozen members.  I never had a stable schedule, I always had half again as many students as anyone else since I always taught large freshman sections, I always had more papers to grade, and I always got poorer evaluations since my students were less student-like and were all taking required courses while turning their primary attention to the freshman party scene… oh, God, I would have been as easy to fire at any moment as a dodo would have been for a marksman to pick off.  And they all knew it.  Everyone knew it except for me.  I was actually proud of having a job.  I actually believed that all my hard work could not pass unnoticed and unrewarded.  A lamb, Padre… a lamb in the deep woods at nightfall, as the wolves begin to howl.  A lamb who merely thought the wind was whistling through the trees.  There’s horror for you.”

“Yes.  It is horrible.”

“The normal horror, though.  Strictly normal.  But I wasn’t stupid.  After only one or two evaluations, I saw that I was slated for the block—that my impossible situation wasn’t going to be considered in my favor, but that I was being judged on the same level as everyone else.  I doubt that I fully realized, even then, that this had been intended from the start.  I didn’t see how well it worked for them.  I didn’t see that a series of hirings and firings of raw, green Ph.D.s in perpetuum would keep them supplied in slaves forever, whereas if they actually promoted one here and there, some of them might actually have to move over, to get up and do a little work.  The only drone in my situation who got rave reviews from them was a young feminist with flowing brown hair down to her waist—all on one side, you know, like that fox from the academy who became Al Gore’s consultant during his run… another name I’ve forgotten.  As I live and breathe, I think her name was Wolf!  But this particular fox’s tail had been sniffed over by half the tenured male kennel.  That’s how things are done, Padre.  You surely know that, don’t you?”

“If you say so.”

“Well, don’t sulk.  It apparently took me one more position to generalize my conclusions properly.  I thought maybe I’d just drawn one bad card—I didn’t know that the game was always played this way.  I was really going to school for the first time, and I was having to catch up, to do remedial work.  My life had been so sheltered before.  In my second position, I somehow found the time to write and publish three or four articles—which was far above the average even for a ten-year period where I was working, let alone for just a couple of years.  This in addition to all the other crap—the early classes, the late classes, the large sections, the courses that weren’t in my area of expertise or anyone else’s—that shouldn’t even have been taught in our department… that always produces good evaluations, you know, when you’re teaching a subject that you don’t understand!  I love that!  Tailor-made.  The ultimate no-win situation.  And we now had an infant at home, after a difficult pregnancy for Lilah, since the worst months overlapped with those of our getting relocated from the previous job.  All the heavy lifting she did when we unpacked… I thought she would miscarry for sure.  Now, that would really have made me mad—if, I mean, I had had to sacrifice my baby on the altar of that shit profession so that those shit professors could continue to dribble snot ex cathedra.  That might have made me lose it.  I thought about that in the waiting room, when she began to bleed one time and I had to rush her in.  I thought to myself, ‘If this costs my baby her life because these shit-asses have to have some slave around to clean up their messes and then want him gone because he expects to be paid… if this is how it plays out, I’m going to notch some bullets and pop a few skulls.  Then I’ll go do myself and leave Lilah a free woman.’”

“Oh… oh for the love of Christ, man!”

“What do you want, the watered down version?”

“No, I didn’t mean it that way.  I meant… what a black abyss for you!  And… you never thought to pray?”

“I could say that I had learned by now not to pray—that every time I prayed, things were sure to get worse.  But that wouldn’t be true.  In several respects.  I really never did learn that in just those words.  What I learned, eventually, was that praying had no effect either way, good or bad.  It was just a crap shoot.  Sometimes sevens, sometimes snake eyes.  But I hadn’t even learned that much just that early.  Oh, I prayed, I’m sure I must have prayed.  That was one of the thoughts I had between prayers.”

“I… I see.”

“But my second job, to return to my career… now that I was a published scholar—all rise, all hail—I discovered that I elicited more animosity than ever.  For they had been deprived of the more obvious means of executing me.  Not only that, but my energy showed up their laziness.  So they had to think of something else.  I remember one time when my chair wrote on an evaluation that I sometimes skipped departmental meetings, although she knew perfectly well that I was racing home before my evening classes to see my wife and baby and grab a bite to eat.  That kind of crap.  And when and if I ever found out that such things had crept into my record, it was only months after the fact, and the impression had already been made higher up.  Can you… can you tell me why such people deserve to live?”

“I… no, I don’t really think I have a short answer to that.”

“Well, good for you!  At least you didn’t tell me that we are all sinners, and that something in my own life is just as bad as what I’m accusing them of.  I’ve heard that lie so often… it was lies like that, in fact, that made me stop praying, stop going to church.  They infuriated me.  We are all sinners: so be it.  But not all sins are the same.  Maybe my language is foul.  That’s not good.  I have already confessed that I could have been a mass-murderer under the right circumstances.  Yeah, and I probably would have enjoyed it.  I can imagine enjoying it.  That’s bad, really bad.  But it is not doing the things that drive people to murder.  It isn’t leaving women without a home when they’re about to have a baby.  Or it isn’t taking away someone’s job and home with stopped ears and covered eyes, so that you don’t notice if there’s a pregnant woman being evicted or not.  No, I’ve never done anything like that.  Nothing.  Not even close.  And no, I never would.  And neither would you—and you know it, so don’t lie.  There are those who enjoy making us suffer.  They live for it—it’s what they get up for in the morning.  Power.  The assertion of the ego.  I.  My foot is on your throat.  Power.  And some of them—many of them, even—say prayers every morning and evening, and go to church every Sunday, and heap the collection plate with a pittance raked from their spoils.  Some of them, even—perhaps many… they rise to the leadership of religious orders.  Or maybe you think…”

“No.  I take your point.”

“Oh.  Well, good.  I’ve probably already said more than enough.  About everything.”

“Just because people in my situation take a vow of obedience doesn’t mean that you’ve said more than enough.  In fact, it’s absurd.  Did you imagine that I supposed my life to be perfect?”

“No.  But the terms of this whole discussion are beginning to… to make me suspicious.  The street’s one-way.  I spill my guts like some drunkard at a bar, and you just sort of float aloof from it all.  Why is that, Padre?  Is it because you already know everything I could possibly say about anything—because you’ve heard it all, and dealt with it personally in a terminal way, with your vows?  No, I don’t believe that.  I can already tell enough about you, even though I can’t see you and you don’t say much beyond ‘yes’ and ‘no’—I can already tell that you’re the same lamb being led to the slaughter as I was.  Or the same lamb after the slaughter.  You don’t know anything more than I do about it all.  And since I’m not of your persuasion, anyway, and since you were the one who began with the questions…”

“Come on, now!  You’re being a little… touchy, don’t you think?  All I said was that I took your point.  I apologize if… if… I’m not trying to condescend to you, or to… to parasitize off your life.  I don’t need that.  I promise you I don’t.  Believe me, I get far, far more of the voyeuristic thing than I care for—and I care for none of it at all.  You want to help people, to give them a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on… but they abuse the opportunity.  All the time—routinely.  Say, fifty percent.  What they really want—a good half of them—is a chance to brag about their tawdry misdeeds without being told on, or… or something even worse.  Like some beggar who lovingly rubs dirt into his scabs to make sure that they get re-infected.  I can’t tell you how it all sickens me… sometimes.  Because I am much the kind of person you describe.  I’m… I am, perhaps, too innocent for this work.  I would be a far better monastic.  It’s really what I always wanted.  Except that, even there… especially there…”

“The power.  That’s where the power is really asserted, in those introverted communities.  And you have to tell yourself that your suffering is penance for some secret sin, or healthy mortification of your arrogant will…”

“Please…”

“Yeah, okay.  But there’s nothing different about that and the way the outside world is.  Nothing.  Just the surfaces.  It all comes down to the same thing, even when you get married and have children.  Perhaps then more than ever.  Because then, when someone tightens the screws on you, it isn’t just yourself.  You can always strike some kind of a peace for yourself, even if it’s just jumping off a bridge.  But when other people are depending on you… all those pairs of eyes looking up at you, expecting answers… no.  No, not answers—what do they care about answers?  Just results.  Expecting bread on the table, a stable home, a chance to make friends and settle down, new clothes and a vacation once in a while.  They don’t even reproach you.  They just look at you as if to say, ‘What happened?  Was there an accident?  Was there a fire?  When will everything be back to normal?’”

“What… what was your next job, after academe?  If you don’t mind my asking…”

“So you figure that I changed professions…. Yes, I left that job.  But not for an entirely different environment.  I… for some strange reason, I love to teach.  I love books—reading and studying and learning.  Always have.  I’d actually taught some high school before going to earn my doctorate—or before facing the fact, to be honest, that the discipline problems were too much for me.  Book-lovers, you know, don’t make good high-school teachers.  The kind of guys who got C’s and D’s themselves as kids—and then maybe did a year or two at the reformatory—they’re the best suited for that job.”

“That’s… a bit overstated, don’t you think?”

“Maybe in Buenavista, Missouri… but not in any town of any size.  Not today.  The drugs, the guns and knives and gangs… anyway, I kind of backed into what I thought was just the job for me.  My older girl was starting kindergarten.  We wanted her in a private school, but… the usual problem with finances, you know.  Only a very small number of options open to us.  And now I was leaving my appointment at the university.  But one of the newest, smallest schools needed a headmaster.  Guess they couldn’t draw any applicants because of the salary they were offering.  I applied, and… and I was right—it was tailor-made for me.  I really enjoyed it, for a while.  We had the kids doing a little Latin even in grade school, and we really pushed music and art.  Science… science was always our Achilles heel, because we didn’t have the money for equipment.  But we did what we could, and supplemented by being strong in math.  It was… it was a good couple of years.”

“Only a couple of years?  What on earth happened?”

“Football.  We had actually grown in those two years from a tiny enrollment of under two hundred, K through twelve—I taught several classes myself, and the third and fourth grades were largely merged for one year… we’d grown from that to over three hundred.  My God, I’d actually succeeded at something!  I could hardly pay our bills on what I took as a salary, but…”

“But there are other kinds of reward.”

“Yes.  Yes.  You understand that, of course.  So we became just big enough that we were poised to take a really big step forward.  I… it’s not something I really care to talk about.  Some of the parents with deeper pockets expressed a willingness to bankroll a growth spurt if we could have a boys’ football team.  It didn’t make sense to me at any level—my God, they could have built a space shuttle for what they were willing to lavish on that stupid team, yet they wouldn’t give a penny for pipettes or Bunsen burners unless there were a team.  But beyond that, I had memories of a kid I grew up with spending a year on a respirator before they finally pulled the plug on his brain-dead corpse.  Football.  There were words said, and those that came from me probably weren’t as diplomatic as they could have been.  But in the final analysis, I realized that the people I’d counted on—the ones who’d supported the Latin and the music, the little recorders we issued to all the second-graders… they would commiserate with me privately, but in meetings they allowed themselves to be bullied.  I thought that I had discovered a gift for leading.  I had only discovered that it was possible to find a very small group of people with whom one shared a few opinions, and to collaborate very briefly with those people on a few simple projects.  In the long run, it degenerates.  It always does.  The pushers and the shouters come to the fore and take over.  Football.  You know, maybe they were right.  Maybe that’s the most important lesson we could possibly teach a kid, after all: to push, to shout, to trample down.  And when you get a group of tramplers with you who outnumber the other side or are bigger than the other side, you call it teamwork.  The survival of the fittest to trample—the most willing to bully, the least inhibited by finer qualities, like a sense of charity or pity or humanity or conscience… doesn’t work.”

“What… what doesn’t work?”

“The vision, the thing I wrote up once to try to get us accreditation with a state agency.  I used a lot of big words that actually meant something to me.  A single big name in the community would have worked a lot better.  In fact, I think it was my brush with those large government bodies that made me think of working for one of them.  How much could you get rousted around in a setting like that, where they had rules on top of rules preventing inappropriate pressure?  Grievances, lawsuits, appeals… wow, wouldn’t it be nice to have all that armor on your shoulders every time you walked down the hall?  And think of the pay, and the benefits—it would be nice to buy my children some of the things their playmates had, just for once!”

“So… now came the big career change.”

“Yeah.  The big change.”

“That’s a shame.  I mean, you loved the other job so much… and it’s clear to me that you had a real talent for it, whatever you say.  A genuine calling.”

“As they say, Padre, that and two bits will get you a cup of coffee.  But I didn’t exactly turn my back on everything I’d worked for, either.  In a way, I was simply getting back into my proper field.  Or so I thought.  Yeah, so I thought.  With my training in Russian and my facility with several other European languages… it was when things were heating up in Bosnia.  I didn’t have too much trouble finding employment in the government.  I had visions of decoding messages, or at least translating hotheaded manifestos or foreign news stories.  I was willing to be posted abroad, if need be.  Even in harm’s way.  I didn’t see myself as James Bond—our second child was on the way!  But I did see myself as a very hard-working, reliable employee who did a superior job and would be fairly acknowledged.  To make a long story short… I visited water treatment plants.”

“Water… what?”

“Well, I’m not really making a long story short, you know, so much as leaping across the enormous chunks that I don’t understand and never will, and so can’t tell in story-like manner.  Long afterward—long after I’d quit that job, too, I mean—I ran into a colleague who told me that it was another case of jealousy in management.  ‘Another’ is my word, of course: this guy certainly didn’t know about my experiences as a professor.  But he did seem to know that my supervisor was very annoyed about my hire—about my placement in his department.  He was the resident linguist.  He didn’t need anyone looking over his shoulder.  Naturally, the truth was that he was grossly incompetent and was afraid of having somebody notice it.  So calls were made, papers were signed and passed along… and when the last file cabinet shut and the last hyperlink was clicked, I was jetting around the country or trucking long hours in a government Buick to visit water treatment plants.  God, it was just like old times!  I knew absolutely nothing about what I was doing or why I was doing it.  Eventually, of course, I was sure that this would show up on my reviews.  I was now just experienced enough to know that that was the game within the game—that I was being set up for a fall.  How can you possibly do a good job when you don’t know what you’re doing?  The plants I visited would have some low-level public relations officer greet me, with a really puzzled look behind his handshake, and give me the same tour he gave to all the local Cub Scouts.  And you should have seen their faces, these poor sods, when I didn’t ask any questions—because none of it made any sense to them, either.  Why would an officer from the State Department be visiting water treatment plants?  An officer who didn’t even ask any questions… what was he really looking at, or looking for?  Was it a security issue?  Something like an OSHA visit, maybe, intruding into the public sector?  Was I counting heads, or looking for chain-link fences without barbed wire?  And, you know, it got to where I sort of acted like I was doing all of the above, just to give myself a… a front.  A part to play.  A part which I really hated, because it got to be all about power before I realized it.  I was absolutely terrifying people… and the closer to the vest I played it, trying not to put on any act at all, the more convincing I was in my part.  I thought one guy was even going to cry when he asked me at the end of the tour if I was sure there wasn’t anything else he could show me.  God, he started babbling something about his wife and two kids!  He had two daughters, too, just like me.  I didn’t tell him that—about my daughters.  I don’t know why.  It would have put him at ease, but it was all… that word you used.  Tawdry.  Too tawdry.”

“Something tells me that you didn’t stay in that job very long.”

“I did, actually.  Or it seemed long.  Depends on how you define ‘length’, I suppose.  The pay was good—excellent, even.  Enormous.  I was able to save a little… because I was aware almost from the start that things weren’t going quite right, and I wanted to have something to fall back on.  But the worst of it was being away from Lilah all the time.  It actually made me feel much better about quitting that she wanted me to—that she didn’t think it was right for me to be away from her and the girls for days and weeks at a time.  I don’t think she ever really understood what had gone wrong with my teaching jobs—and probably not with this one, either.  I hadn’t understood what went wrong with this one!  But my absences were a blunt fact, and they were unacceptable.”

“So you weren’t, after all… fired.”

“No!  Maybe I just didn’t give them the time to do it, or maybe… hell, maybe I was doing a good job!  Maybe I really was being sent around to puzzle and terrorize people.  Maybe I was an expense in some department’s budget that helped to cover up some skimming off the top.  Or maybe it was all just an initiation… maybe they were just trying to see how much crap I could eat before they decided to move me up.  It was that last thought that bothered me a little, that stuck with me.  I had the vague feeling that I should have made them fire me—that I should have hung with it to the bitter end just to find out what was really going on.  But then… but then I would think that it didn’t really matter, in any case.  That what I was doing was simply wrong, on several levels—probably more than I could imagine.  I was helping to fleece the taxpayer to no good end, I was widowing my wife, I was making these poor flunkeys cringe with my unexplained visits… and even if this was how people got promoted to something better, I was perpetuating a rotten, stupid system.  I had principles, you see.  I had principles and I lived by them.  Maybe I still do, for all my own rottenness.  There are still certain things I won’t do—all kinds of things, maybe more than ever.  Maybe that’s precisely what I call my own inner rot: the paralysis of not even being able to move, to lift a finger, because you’re obsessed—almost driven mad—by the thought of all the cheating and corruption above you and all the exploited gullibility beneath you.  You have to bow and fawn before people who should be gelded, boiled in oil, and quartered, and then you have to pick the pocket or wave your fist in the face of defenseless women and children and… and…”

“And pathetic sheep.  Like me.”

“Well, I… I decided, what the hell, I’m not going to flip burgers, but there must surely be something I can do behind a store front on Main Street.  Surely I can just become a good, honest businessman.  I’ll get cheated by wholesalers and stiffed by the occasional deadbeat—but on the whole, my clientele will recognize and appreciate my honesty.  I didn’t exactly walk into Home Depot and fill out an application.  Maybe I should have… but I felt that, with all my years of training and the incidental fact that I was actually good at what I did, I ought to employ my linguistic skills somehow.  My God-given talent, you know… it seemed wrong just to ignore it, to throw it back in the face of Mother Nature.”

“A matter of principle.  I entirely agree.”

“Well, yes, I suppose it was.”

“Everything you’ve told me about so far was guided in some way by principle.”

“Mm… maybe.  Well, anyway, I had frequently been nudged toward the Internet.  It was supposed to be the wave of the future, the key to independence.  The Second Coming, the City of God.  I didn’t have many skills in that direction, but I could see that the Web was going to become more and more international.  I did a lot of phoning of very small outfits, simply working my way through the Yellow Pages.  I finally found a couple of guys who were interested in what I might be able to bring to their operation.  To be able to offer a multi-lingual website to vendors of a certain kind, especially when so much was going on in the disbanded Soviet Union… well, I made a good pitch, and I flatter myself that its merits were self-evident.”

“So you became a dot-com person…”

“No, not exactly.  Not really.  You have to understand that most of what we did was still local—building networks within offices, that sort of thing.  I carried a lot of monitors and did a lot of very elementary formatting.  We were supposed to get to my part of the vision later on—the international clientele, and so forth.  Frankly, one of the partners was a lot more sold on my ideas than the other.  The other was the guy whose work I ended up doing, more often than not, since he discovered a God-given talent for spending money and became pretty unreliable when we started to expand.  I did what I was told, even when I didn’t understand it—I was a hard worker—and my staunch ally let me know that he foresaw the day when just the two of us would be blazing trails.  He didn’t hold out much hope for his playboy friend’s staying the course.  I was working longer hours than ever by now, and the pay was very uneven… but I had never loved any job so much in my life.  Lilah and I even talked about having another child.”

“Yes… and?”

“Oh… a lawsuit.  It was a ridiculous suit, and it would have been thrown out of court if the judge hadn’t slept through crucial evidence.  But as things turned out, we had legal fees to cover, we couldn’t secure a loan, and the money to appeal the ruling—which would have been very well spent—just wasn’t anywhere to be found.  I almost caved in and asked my father for it… but there are things a man just can’t do.  And then, too, he died at about that time.  Stretched out under a car, just the way he would have wanted it.  I found out from my brother.  Almost too late to make the funeral.  Went alone… and the damn ticket wasn’t cheap.  When I got back, our business was formally in bankruptcy.  All because a couple of stupid technicians were too stupid to keep from overloading the system.  A college—wouldn’t you know!  If you’re too stupid to work for private industry, apply at a college.  Though my partner always maintained that the system had been sabotaged.  Deliberately sabotaged.  One of these guys, these technicians, was the nephew of the owner of our chief rival in town.  It worked out rather well for him when we went under.  My partner dreamed of hauling them both into court, of hitting them up for millions in damages, destroying their reputations forever, even sending them to prison.  The trouble was, he got more and more of those dreams from the bottom of a bottle.  It just ate him up… ate him alive.”

“Did he…”

“Ah, he wrapped himself around a tree one night.  They said he didn’t make the turn, but I’ll always suspect that he hit just what he was aiming at.  At least he didn’t have any kids.”

“I… that’s… it’s just horrible.”

“The horror of it all… it gets you, doesn’t it?  And our competitor—the one with the crooked or incompetent nephew—had this little fish in the corner of his office window, and on his van.  You know… ichthys.  The sign of the Christians meeting in the catacombs.  He was a deacon at his church.  Which was good for business, I’m sure, in our neck of the woods.”

“A man’s actions show his faith—you know that.  Not a bumper-sticker or a bracelet.”

“Yeah.  Yeah, I agree.  In fact, it’s almost an inverse proportion.  The more you have to show off your faith in advertisements, the less of it you have.  But the reason I really mentioned that detail is because… well, certainly not to rub your face in it.  Why would I?  You’ve actually given something up, but people like this are always taking—nothing but taking.  What I wanted to show you was… well, you mentioned something about praying a while back.  This is why I don’t pray.  It’s why I don’t go to church.  I cannot pray—I will not—in the company of people like that.  I refuse.  I’d die first.”

“I’ll bet the people who shafted you in your academic employment were not Christians of any sort, at any level.”

“Granted.  But that’s… come on, that response isn’t worthy of your others.  That’s one of those canned, pre-packaged comebacks.  It doesn’t matter that many wicked people are not professing Christians.  What matters is that some wicked people are.  I’m not talking about sinners.  I’m talking about destroyers—people who knowingly, willingly ruin other people’s lives.  And they say they have to survive, or that they just didn’t know: they certainly didn’t enjoy it!  Or that they meant well, and you were the one who botched it.  I’ve heard all the excuses.  There was one operation… I didn’t even mention them in passing, because nothing ever came of it and I was pursuing other employment at the same time.  Frankly, I can’t even remember right now just what chronological crack in my résumé this little interlude would have fallen into.  They called themselves Christian Businesses Something Something, Inc.  I was supposed to get set up with everything I needed to process insurance claims for doctors’ offices, or something of the sort.  I got set up, alright!  Five grand for a few computer discs—all I had to do was go out and recruit my own clients in a field where I had no experience and no training.  When I tried to get a little of the promised support from Christian Businesses Something Something, I learned that they had filed for bankruptcy (but they soon reappeared as Christian Something Something Businesses).  A con game.  A racket, pure and simple.  And I was stupid to fall for it—no argument.  But desperate people do stupid things.  And these bumper-sticker Christians knew that—they know that.  They exploit people’s despair, and they exploit their turning to a creed of charity and service and humanity.  And they are… no, they’re not true Christians.  But they are not fake Christians—not in the sense that they rub their hands together after a good haul, the night before they declare bankruptcy and move on, and chortle, ‘We sure put it over on those morons, didn’t we!’  They believe their own act.  I can tell.  They believe it implicitly—you can meet them in church on any Sunday.  That’s what makes it the church’s problem—that they can be members in good standing.  That they suffer no cognitive dissonance, no attack of conscience.  For Christ’s sake, what good’s a church that doesn’t give people like that an attack of conscience?  I’m sorry, but it comes down to hard fact.  You know when you’re screwing someone over.  The only shred of decency you can preserve at that moment is to admit to yourself that you’re doing it.  Just shoot the guy in the back, and spare the apologies before you pull the trigger, or the little prayer over his corpse to send his soul along its way.  Don’t tithe from the money you lifted out of his pocket and praise the God of forgiveness, for God’s sake!”

“But isn’t the depraved killer who enjoys his work more wicked than the disgusting back-shooter who’s terrified of his deed?”

“No.  Actually, no.  Because the killer is insane—beyond understanding the difference between right and wrong.  Now, he may be the one who should get the lethal injection… but those are legalities, social calculations, not moral facts.  Your quivering salamander of an accountant who needs to dispose of a witness to his cooked books is worse because he is terrified.  He knows he is about to step over to the point of no return, but he chooses personal profit over moral law.  He’s terrified that he will get caught—and when he isn’t caught, he begins to enjoy the sensation of having got off scot-free.  The ruthless hypocrite’s pride in his sin, not the lunatic’s triumph… that’s the enjoyment I was talking about before.”

“So… did your marriage fall apart soon after this?”

“Yeah.  Soon after.  You know, you can try steering me off the main point all you want—but you’re just kidding yourself, not me.”

“Your marriage isn’t the main point?”

“No.  The animals are the main point.  My marriage… I could have died after my second daughter was born—before she was born.  I could have wrapped my car around a tree, like Larue.  My marriage would be over then, along with everything else in my life… but it wouldn’t mean my daughters were growing up in a jungle.  That’s the point.  Animals.  I’m not a good man myself—I’ve admitted that from the start…”

“Maybe better than you think…”

“No, now you’re trying to twist me off course again.  This isn’t about my… my having principles, my being a cut above the others.  I’ve done plenty of things wrong, more than the average.  But I wouldn’t even begin to create falsehoods around people in a kind of snare that they’d never see coming.  I’ve never done that, and I’d never even think of doing it.  I might think seriously about killing someone, but I’d never think about sending a forged letter to his boss or planting phony evidence in his car.  Neither would you.  It’s not even on our map—and you know it.  Yet we’re surrounded by people… I can’t even call them people.  I can’t even think of an animal so lacking in nobility or courage that it deserves to have its name penned to them.  What are they?  Where do they come from?  They’re not sinners!  I’m a sinner.  You’re  a sinner.  But they… what are they?  And they fill the damn churches up, along with the schools and the malls and the courthouses!  You can’t even go pray for strength somewhere—because you look around, and there they are!”

“Do you think they really fill the churches up… or do you think they may only number one or two?  Or perhaps a dozen?”

“It’s already… I can’t handle it, even at that.  One or two is already too many.  They shouldn’t be there at all.  How can they claim to believe in a law above themselves, and then take a job away from a man with a new baby because they want a more slavish servant?  Nobody makes them go to church—it’s their choice.  That they can make that choice freely after treating people the way they do throughout the week… no, it has to be the church itself that has failed, then.  The very idea of church should drive them crazy after what they’ve done… and instead, it gives them comfort.  Throw a few coins in the plate, press some flesh, sing some hymns… that shouldn’t happen.  They should be turning their faces away every time they pass before a cross.  Instead, they run toward it with a smile.”

“I…”

“I know you won’t be so disappointing as to talk about forgiveness.  Even if they were to say they were sorry—and they don’t, you know, and they won’t—Larue won’t hear them from the other side of the grave.  That miscarried fetus whose mother had to move all of her belongings at once won’t hear them.  The poor, pitiful, bottom-rung bureaucrat whose heart stops one night because he’s too worried about saying too much, or not enough, or not the right thing… you can’t pile up these poor slobs like old magazines at the curb for the garbage man, and then announce grandly that you’re sorry!  And they don’t even do that—they never do!  The most you get out of them is an admission that they are sinners… like you and me.”

“You can at least pray in your closet, can’t you?  That’s what Jesus recommends, above all other kinds of prayer.”

“I try that sometimes… but it has no words.  There are no possible words for any prayer, any real prayer.  Every time you choose a few words, you find yourself asking for something.  A new favor… or just a favor.  Like rubbing a rabbit’s foot.  ‘Please give me a break, give me a little luck.’  That’s all the words ever amount to.”

“You have been unlucky.  Extraordinarily.”

“No.  No—see, that’s where you’re wrong again.  A man who has three sons in the Marines… say that thirty percent of the troops will die storming up a beach, like D-Day somewhere.  Well, he could count on losing one son, though it would not be statistically shocking if he lost none.  Say that he lost all three.  Would you call that bad luck?  You could, and most people would… but you’d all be wrong.  It wasn’t bad luck that planted mines all along the beach, and it wasn’t bad luck that mounted machine-guns in bunkers.  Wickedness.  Power.  Animals.  Getting hit by a meteorite—that’s bad luck.  Having everything you’ve worked for taken away from you because the judge was too in love with prestige to admit that he needed to retire… that’s not bad luck, Padre.  That’s the way it is… and it’s a slaughterhouse.  The poor dumb beasts in the slaughterhouse are not suffering from bad luck.”

“All right.  I’ll grant you all that.  In fact…”

“In fact, what?”

“In fact, if I weren’t afraid of vexing you further, I would point out that…”

“That…”

“I hardly know how to say it.  That you’re lucky that you haven’t been unlucky.  That you’re lucky that you can point to specific acts of weakness, vice, and wickedness behind your personal misery.  At least you’ve reduced the causes to… to something squalid, but something coherent.”

“As opposed to…”

“To… to bad luck.  To… well, imagine—God forbid—that one of your daughters was struck down.  Imagine that your wife had miscarried on that occasion you mentioned.  But even that—you were prepared to ascribe even that to your life’s moral saboteurs.  Imagine that you had lost your beloved wife, but that she had left you with a beautiful little boy.  And then… then the little boy was taken from you.  A rare disease.  Nothing anyone could do.  And very suddenly.  I had a parish once… the man’s sister would call me all hours of the day and night.  ‘It’s happened again,’ she’d say.  ‘He’s slipped again.’  That’s how she would refer to it—that he had ‘slipped’.  She was always very apologetic, but she was convinced that I was the only one who could get him back out.  Out of that dark hole.  He would say that he had entered a room or turned a corner and seen the boy, but that the boy wouldn’t speak to him.  And then the boy would be gone, and he would collapse on the spot, and he would be seized by… there are no words, no words to describe that man’s grief.  Only very dull, very stale words.  And there were no words to answer him as he stared up at the ceiling and addressed the most… the most absurd, the most child-like questions to God in heaven about where his boy had gone.  And why.  And I… I didn’t even try.  I didn’t say anything at all… I got to where I said nothing at all..  There was no sense to it, you see.  There would be s sense, of course—one has faith that there is a sense.  But the sense is not such that the human mind can grasp it, and… and to pretend otherwise would have been the grossest of impostures.  So the two of us would sit for hours brooding over the senselessness of it all.”

“It is a kind of insanity, isn’t it?  I mean, faith.  True faith.  It could drive you insane.”

“Or keep you from going insane.”

“That’s… that’s more like what I meant.  I meant… I mean, if you could actually ask and receive, then it would all make sense.  Maybe not ultimate sense… but whoever is making good on your requests from behind whatever screen, it would be working, and that would make sense.  And it occurs to me that that’s another reason why I can’t stand the church crowd.  They can’t simply admit that they’ve been lucky.  No, it’s God’s gift.  Their children are still alive, their jobs still intact—but it’s not good luck, it’s because God is doing them special favors for being his true believers.  And it seems to me that that amounts to believing in nothing at all.  Who wouldn’t sing hymns to the Tooth Fairy if she left six-figure bank drafts under your pillow on demand?  What kind of belief is that?  The only real faith is what you have in the utter senselessness of things to be made sensible at some… at some indefinitely distant point.”

“I am very close to endorsing… most of what you’ve just said.  But I still will not grant that every prayer is merely a rub of the rabbit’s foot.  What about the Lord’s Prayer?  Why don’t you simply recite that?”

“Alright, take me through it.  Say it literally—say it in Latin.  You know what I’m going to show you, Padre?  That nobody ever even listens to the Lord’s Prayer—nobody hears in it what I do, and what I maintain is plainly there to be heard.  No one ever thinks even the least little bit about what he’s reciting after our father.  If he did, he would realize that the world is just as I’ve described it—a cage full of ravening animals—and that the struggle to have faith is a struggle to resist being a ravening animal.  Nothing more.  Not even a struggle to die… but to live a slow death.”

Pater noster qui es in caelis, sanctificetur nomen tuum.

“’Be thy name sanctified’… what can that mean, other than, ‘Let me worship your goodness… don’t let me be like them’?  It’s a turning away from all of these… these horrors, as you call them.”

“But that already is more than a prayer for good luck—more, and other.  To ask for the concentrated courage not to hold dear what the world holds dear… that’s not asking to win the lottery.”

“No.  No.  These are different words.  Not the ones people make up when they lie awake at night.  They may say these words during a service, but they don’t hear them.”

Adveniat regnum tuum.  Fiat voluntas tua, sicut in caelo et in terra.

“More of the same.  ‘May thy kingdom come’… it is not here, not now.  ‘May they will be done on earth, as it is already done in heaven’… that great gap again.  To live in this place as if it were not an overstocked primate cage in a zoo… to live by principles that make no sense with reference to anything here-and-now.  The longing to be gone, to be elsewhere… to be here, but for here to be elsewhere.  It really is like asking for death, almost.”

“Or for life—like asking for true life in a life that turns out to be death.”

“Yes.  Yes.”

Panem nostrum cotidianum da nobis hodie.”

“You will say, perhaps, that the request for bread is asking a favor, a worldly favor.  A bit of luck.  ‘Make us lucky enough that we don’t starve.’”

I wouldn’t say it.  The question is, would you?”

“But the favor is minimal.  Just enough to show that this isn’t a prayer for death.  Because you can’t pray for death and ask for breakfast.  The prayer, because of that line, is as much as asking, ‘Please don’t let me pray for death.’”

“Yes.  Yes.   Mm… Demitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos demittimus debitoribus nostris.

“Maybe the most interesting line of all.  It asks that our debts be cancelled to the extent and in the proportion that we forgive our debtors.  But by and large, Padre, we don’t forgive anyone.  Why ask for a nullity?  Why ask to fly tomorrow as far as we have flown today?  Because people don’t fly.  Neither do they forgive.  They forget sometimes… depressingly often, in fact.  They’re too stupid or too lazy to remember: it clouds their day too much.  And so they forget about the teacher who shook his fist at their child, because other parents like that teacher, and maybe the child exaggerated, and just think what a lot of time it would take to follow through all the way… and so another child gets bullied, and another.  Because people forgive a dangerous man in a dangerous position and continue on after their pleasure.”

“But I don’t think that’s at all what is intended by forgiveness…”

“No, of course not.  That’s my point—it couldn’t possibly be.  It wouldn’t make any sense.  The request cannot be for a nullity.  What, then, is the forgiveness that we dare to ask for in the same measure as we dish it out?  It could only be… it could only be a very solid thing, like a real debt in the ancient world—dismiss our debts.  Money owed, possible loss of freedom until it is paid… but sometimes lenders would simply enter a zero in the books when they knew that the debtor could never pay up.  You don’t have to haul your debtor to court and reduce him to a slave.  That’s what I’ve been saying.  It would take a saint to forgive the abuse of a child… a saint, or a despicable narcissist.  But anyone can abstain from hurling another human being into slavery.  You must abstain, the words say, or you yourself will have no return gift of freedom.  You have to do the merely decent thing.  Otherwise, the shackles go on, and you work off every penny of your debt, just like the man in the parable.”

Et ne nos inducas in temptationem, sed libera nos a malo.

“Temptation.  Yes.  The seduction of becoming like them.  If you don’t use the power on rare occasions when you have it, then you will be crushed by the powerful.  Demand every payment to the last dime.  Intimidate.  Divide and rule.  Sow confusion everywhere.  Take your revenge.  Join them.  Kill them, and join them.  Survive.  It sounds so reasonable, so inescapable.  And to refuse to be an animal is to accept death in the claws and fangs of animals.”

“Like a martyr.”

“Hah!  Yeah, like that!  Like a flaming martyr!  No… no.  Not like that at all.  Because martyrs are supposed to embrace death joyfully, aren’t they?  Or not embrace death—anyone can embrace death who has lived a few adult years of this life… but to embrace the way this world gives them death.  They’re supposed to find a mystical joy in that.  And to take joy in the slow rot that eats away in you—that crumples and cripples everyone dear to you, that lets every sun set on the victories of the powerful, that allows the whole sick life cycle to adorn itself in the trappings of respectability, or even holiness… I don’t really think there can be any such thing as a martyr.  There are raving lunatics, of course… and then there are exhibitionists who would be happy to surrender life for one full day of TV coverage.  But how could any decent person find joy in this slaughterhouse?”

“But a martyr is merely a witness, a witness to the truth.  At the very end, just before death, he would know joy, surely.  Because he would know that he’d done what he had to do.”

“If you put it that way… then yes, I suppose so.  But wouldn’t the joy be that the end is finally near—that you aren’t going to have to offer your ignored testimony yet again after one more time?  That’s not the same as the joy of seeing the skies part before heaven’s throne as they toss torches around your stake.  I don’t think I believe that… I don’t think I believe anyone who claims to see visions or hear voices, even at death’s door.  Even if you did… if you did, it would somewhat compromise your beatitude.  You would be dying for a throne’s beauty, and not a principle’s goodness.”

“Always the ascendancy of moral duty!  I’m afraid you’re something of a Roundhat, my friend!  Why cannot goodness be beautiful?  What else is better suited to be perfectly beautiful than perfect goodness?”

“But the issue is whether or not you can ever see such beauty in this world, even in your last glimpse of it.  And I say ‘no’ to that.  I say that it is all too far away—beauty, goodness, perfection.  Even the most withered, mangled imitation is a rarity here.  To think that you could see heaven in earthly images… my God, what a poor opinion of heaven you would have to have!”

“Yes, I recall now something you said much earlier about how distant God is.”

“Yes.  Distant.  It isn’t very comforting, is it?  And yet, anything else would be a lie… a lie of some kind.  Perhaps a comforting lie for those who don’t inquire too closely.  Something short of real faith.”

“So those who believe that they can see God’s hand in earthly affairs are… are falling short of faith?”

“Yes.  Yes.  I can see a castle in the clouds, too.  Or a whale.  Or a beach, or a mountain range.  It’s beautiful, and child-like.  But I’m not a child, and I should know that the beauty was not put up there in the cloudbank by a creator, but by my imagination.  It’s even wrong—it is actually wrong to view certain events as God’s will, because then you impose upon them the same intentional closure that the child does upon his cloud-castle.  And that, perhaps, makes you forget all the suffering that’s going on within those events, or maybe to overlook a moral obligation to change them.”

“And so how do you… how do you bear it all?  It sounds like constant warfare, unrelieved by any moment when you can lean back on your weapons and breathe a sigh of accomplishment.”

“It is constant warfare… and you don’t bear it all.  You try to… but you don’t.  You go insane trying.  That’s what I meant a minute ago by saying that faith is insanity.  It isn’t insanity: as you said, it’s the only thing that can keep you from insanity.  Yet the struggle to have faith can drive you insane.”

“Because… because you inquire too closely, as you were saying just then in your rash of images and phrases from Hamlet.  So… happy are those of limited intelligence?”

“But they are, Padre!  They’re the only happy people I’ve ever known.  And they mean well, and they’re sincere… but they don’t get it, they can’t see it.  The lions roar in their back yard, and they think a loud truck is passing.  Their obtundity is a blessing.”

“Until they get devoured.”

“But we all get devoured, anyway.  The jungle is invincible.  God gave us a garden and set us free to enjoy it.  Now we enjoy it as animals enjoy their haunts and prowls—terrifying the weak into a stampede, culling out the weakest, mobbing the single victim.  It’s freedom—that’s the picture’s author, and not goodness or beauty.  It’s our freedom: it’s us, serving like a slave under the whip to satisfy our egotism.  Nothing, I tell you, can be made of this picture—nothing remotely good or beautiful.”

“Yet your wife is part of it, an arresting face in the tableau.  You said she was the most beautiful woman—”

“Yes, I know what I said.  What does she have to do with men’s actions?  So what if a beautiful flower grows ten feet from where the lions are disemboweling the antelope?  So you have a still-life in the middle of a real-life sequence…”

“But you want her to be a still-life, don’t you?  That’s why you want her distant from you. Like God.  So she can remain perfect, unmauled.”

“You’re getting too rhetorical.  The perfection of goodness is what makes the feeding frenzy disgusting.  The less your awareness of that perfection, the less your disgust at the jackals.  Don’t tell me that dulling that awareness produces a heightened sense of reality!”

“Okay, perhaps I permitted myself a slight flourish… though I will only admit to a slight one.  Because I still suspect that there is a fear in you that keeps your family at arm’s length this way, a fear that’s not completely unrelated to the great distance you perceive God as keeping.”

“Maybe.”

“Do you still see her—your wife?  Is it really all over between you?  Are you… you said separated.  Not divorced?”

“I send home checks.  And sometimes I go back, for a day or two.  Never for very long.  It’s… I don’t want them seeing me, looking at me.  I don’t want any questions.”

“Or any comfort?”

“Maybe not.  Okay, I’ll give you that point—I don’t want to start feeling comfortable again.  That’s true enough.  I work harder this way, without any comfort.  Work more overtime, make more money.  More trash to keep the boiler burning—enough to keep us all going.  All I want is to keep them going.  I don’t want any thanks for it.”

“And why is that?  Because thanks would indicate that things were getting better, and that would be asking for trouble?  Because to scale a slope is to risk a fall?”

“No, because they’re my dependants—the people I’m responsible for.  I’m just doing my job.  But things are getting better, now that I’m more focused.  They’re starting a new franchise up the interstate, since this one’s doing so well.  I’ll have a few more opportunities then.  Maybe even manager.”

“More money…”

“Yeah, more money.  That’s what they need from me.  They don’t need to be tucked in—they need a roof over their heads.”

“And that’s all?  Your new focus, as you call it—your avoiding their thanks and the comfort they might offer you—isn’t your way of keeping them from jinxing your success?”

Jinxing it?”

“Sure.  By letting something beautiful into your life.  Something comforting.  That would be just asking for trouble, wouldn’t it?”

“You think that?”

“I think the man who views most prayer as rubbing a rabbit’s foot is as superstitious as the rest of us.  I think he’s become afraid to be happy.  I misspoke earlier when I said that you hadn’t really been unlucky.  You may be the unluckiest man I’ve ever met…”

“But there are no rabbit’s feet, Padre!  And you were right before you corrected yourself—there really is no luck.  Not even for that guy that lost his wife, and then his son.  There are just billions of motives, of purposes, all knocking up against each other—and the ones that lead out of this world can only deceive you more if you pretend to understand them, but the ones completely in this world all carry the scent of an animal.”

“Ouch!  And there’s the lighting, right on cue!  Is it going to stay on?  We’d better get out of here in case it doesn’t.”

“Nah, it’ll stay on.  The storm blew a transformer somewhere—that’s all it was.  You can get that sliding door to work now.  I’ll see you tomorrow afternoon on the tennis courts with those new nets.  About three.  Sorry about the screw-up.  I didn’t order the things, you know—but I’ll catch all the blame if I don’t straighten it out.”

“Don’t worry about it.  In fact, I’ll put in a good word for you—for the new managerial position, you know.  And make it four, after the parents have picked up all their kids.  You won’t have people getting in your way.  The last classes end at three-thirty.  Man, my eyes are stinging!”

“Do you need some help finding the exit?”

“No, no.  But… are you really not coming?”

“I’ll be out later.  I have to close up.  In fact, I may just spend the night here.  I do sometimes, when I work late.  I have a cot in the back.”

“Just like a monastery… what a pity.  Well, I will see you at the tennis courts tomorrow, Brother.”

 

John S. Moseby is a frequent contributor to Praesidium.  He lives in the Atlanta area with his family, where he does freelance writing and consulting work.