As for God, well. I don't, can't, believe in a personal, caring God. But he was the subject of one of my realizations, those sudden quasi-visions when a story or an image springs fully formed into my head. In this, I found out that everyone gets to meet God once in his or her life. Few people know this, because no one talks about it; the ones who take their chance are so disappointed (I mean, you can really get your hopes up, and once you've met God, there is nowhere to go really) and disillusioned that they cannot bear to talk about it. But all you have to do is ask for your appointment and you know where to go, up to the 61st floor of the Hancock tower. (I always hated the Pru, which is a pain in the ass to deliver to, but loved the Hancock. When I delivered to the upper floors, I could never understand how the people who worked there had become so blasé about their view. The same when I delivered in the Transamerica. But you know something funny about the Hancock? It only has 60 stories.)
I walked into -- I wasn't ushered into -- an enormous office with such large windows on two sides I might as well have been floating in midair. And he stood up behind his desk in the opposite corner from me, fifty feet away, and walked around it with a hearty hello! and an extended hand. He looked like something between John Cleese and Donald Trump, late 40's, tan and healthy and hearty, in a subtle but extremely well-tailored suit, and invited me to a seat in front of the desk. I, in my ratty but comforting old thick hooded sweatshirt, cycling cap, baggy chinos and sneakers, was not saying much, as you might imagine. I tried to stammer something, to explain why I'd come, to explain that I was really not happy with the universe and I wondered why it was the way it was and if he could do anything about it. That I tried so hard but just could not make any headway. He listened patiently, leaning back with fingers interlaced, or playing with a pencil, bouncing it on his blotter, till I had run out of things to say and collapsed into at-a-loss "I don't know"s. So when he sensed I was finished, really finished, he looked at me, smiled avuncularly, and said,"Well."
He pushed out his lower lip and furrowed his chin in consideration. "You've made some good points. I always appreciate input on Creation. But, unfortunately.....," and he did not look pained or apologetic, "There's nothing I can do. Things don't quite work that way. There are some very big issues here. Not that you're small, I'm not saying that..." He held his hand with palm facing me, as if to preempt and quiet my fears and me."It's just that they are bigger than you can really understand."
He paused. My face was blank. "But I'll try to explain a little. the universe." He leaned back his head, raised his palms, looking around at it. "It's completely fair, you must understand. Completely. I mean, do you have any complaints about the conservation of momentum? Well, maybe. In some of those collisions. Or the strong nuclear force? You've got to like that, don't you?"
I was nodding. He was right. You couldn't argue with the universe. It was a damned fine piece of work. Still is. He was going on. "It's completely fair, as I said -- to atoms. I mean, they have no complaints. It's entities like you, big ones, complex ones, that have the problems. And the complaints."
He was leaning forward, his hands first clasped, then thrown in the air. "But what am I supposed to do? I hear you. I hear your complaints. I realize you are bigger than atoms. But you're still just atoms. Your atoms don't mind your job. Your atoms can't tell you're lonely......"
He stood up, turned and looked out the window. For a moment, I almost thought he was bothered. God was bothered. But no, he was not even looking for words. Just sampling the view. HE had never become blasé about it. He turned back to me. "I know what you want. You want me to intervene. You want me to agree that you are nice and deserving and I should help you. Maybe you are nice and deserving. But I don't look at you. I look at atoms. They're the universe's constituents. And my constituency. And your atoms are nice and deserving. But then, they are not complaining."
"I'm not complaining."
"No, you are good about that. But you want things to be different. And they can't be. I can't intervene." Was he going to say "I'm sorry", even just to be polite?
"It's all connected, you see? I help you -- that means moving atoms. Energy. Regulated by laws. In balance. I can't do that. Imagine how it might affect some tree in Bombay? Some gas cloud in Beta Orionis? And everyone asking? I'm proud of this universe. It works. I can't make a mess of it...." I was sitting with my mouth open and I closed it when I realized.
"Well." He watched my reaction. "Well. You yourself can try changing some atoms. I can't stop you...it might work. Try it maybe...I think it works for some people..." I looked down at my atoms, and thought, change these? But I've tried....
"Does that explain things at all?" I had made mental notes to ask about supersymmetry and the dinosaurs and Ambrose Bierce and completely forgot them. "I guess," was all I could say. But he was instantly as jovial and hearty as when I had entered. He stood up and smoothed his jacket and extended his hand, telescoping from under dark pinstriped wool and starched white french cuff. I took it, still seated, too weak for a firm grip and surprised at how gentle his was. And then I realized that this meant it was over, like an HMO psychiatrist handing out a prescription after a fifteen minute chat. I had no idea how much time had passed. Maybe none. And unlike the doctor's office, there would not be no return visit the next month to say the same things and receive the same answer. He had come around the desk to my side, and I was rising from my seat. He patted me on the shoulder, half in encouragement, half in encouragement to leave. (There were atoms to attend to, I remembered.) "You know, I really admire you, the way you try..." Was "you" in the singular or plural? *I* was not trying much. I half expected him to say "Come back anytime," but he did not, nor "Tell everyone else to come along by, I would love to meet them, tell your friends," which saved me from having to say "But I don't have any." And he did not say "good luck" because he had just told me there is no such thing. And then I was out the door and glad to see that there was no one in the hall waiting, just as no one had been coming out when I arrived, and I was glad that no one could see my face, because all I had before me was sixty stories of slow, steady descent, and I didn't feel like sharing them.
"So", he said, folding his hands, pulling closer to his desk and sitting up, "What can I do for you?"
I looked out the side window. Boston Harbor and Massachusetts Bay shimmered in the morning sun, with the serried lines of waves angling into one another like 18th-century infantry regiments. Out the window behind him I could see the cityscape out to Newton and beyond. I sighed and blurted it out. It was hard to say the word. "I've heard people are...damned." I had said the word. "Certain people. I think I'm damned." He kept his lips pursed. "I wondered. Am I damned?"
His hands were pressed together in front of his nose and he looked at me over the tips of his fingers. I didn't want to demand, or accuse. "I mean, I don't blame you if I am. I just wondered. It might simplify things."
"Well. Well." He flattened his hands on the desktop. "Damnation. Well." He pushed back from the desk. "Well, yes. It does exist. A certain number of individuals are, indeed, damned, throught no fault of their own. It's not terribly fair, I know. but then, it's not a fair universe. Except to atoms, of course."
"Now, as to whether YOU are .....well. I mean, I could look it up for you. Right now, if you like. But I mean....well, a lot of people think they are damned who aren't. When they find out, they are awfully disappointed. Nothing to blame anymore!" He raised his hands, palm up. "And the ones who are, well, when they find out for sure -- that can be even worse...."
I had thought about this. Or at least, I thought I had. I had convinced myself it didn't matter. "I'd like to know. It would explain things. Confirm theories. A matter of interest really. I do not think it will change much for me. Things will still be the same. I will still be the same. I guess."
He looked over at me with such a friendly, casual, unassuming expression that I realized I had quite forgotten who he was. "Well, all right then." He asked my date of birth. Didn't he know? Was it a pose of modesty or a glint of laziness? Beside him was a sort of card catalog and he had a long, narrow drawer open and was flicking through cards. The drawers could not have been that big, nor that full. Were the damned so few? Or were there other cabinets elsewhere? I looked around, losing myself in the size of the office, until his voice snapped me back. "It's one 'l', yes? In the last name?"
I nodded. "And no h." It was reflexive.
"Right", he said. "Oh, you were born here?"
"Yes", I said.
"Lovely city, isn't it?" I nodded. He was still flicking, occasionally stopping at a card, even withdrawing it, inspecting it, and refiling it. A few times he even clucked his tongue, "Hmmphed", or furrowed his brow. I looked at my hands. "Oh, here", he finally said. "Here we are." He had a card in his hand. For a moment I thought he would hand it to me. Then he held it close to his face and then back farther, as if farsighted. "Well."
I could have stopped him at any point in the process. I hadn't.
"I'm sorry. I guess. Depends on how much you like being right. But you are. Right. And damned. Again, it's nothing to be ashamed of. Happens to lots of folks. But yes, there it is. The big D. You might be able to get yourself some counseling, maybe a group....." But I was not hearing, any more than one hears someone speaking at the other end of a block booming with traffic; one just sees their lips move......
They had secured the area, and guys with uniforms and guns were standing around trying to restrain their curiosity. I had some cuts, but the medic just handed me some salve and bandages as if I should put them on myself. I sat against the remains of a wall.
I saw her yards away, as a woman in street clothes doubly inexplicably ignored by the uniforms, picking her way through the debris in high heels. Despite the concentration and attention involved, she was looking straight at me. I put down the bandages and watched back, letting myself bleed. I stood up when she came close. She stared. Her hands bulged in her coat pockets.
I looked down at them. "Are you going to shoot me or just slap me?"
Her lips barely moved. "Neither. It wouldn't hurt now, you're expecting it."
"Well, maybe I won't be in a minute. You could lull me into a sense of security, then ..."
"Go to hell."
I looked around at the scene. "Looks like I have."
Her eyes burned, her jaw jutted forward, her hands clenched but stayed hidden. So she jabbed not with her finger but with each word. "This didn't HAVE to happen. It didn't HAVE to end this way."
"You have NO way of knowing that." My face tensed and that widened a cut by my temple. There was blood in my eye but I didn't wipe it away. "And certainly I had no way of knowing it, then, when it was decided." I felt my lips tighten and I fought the anger. "It had to be done. I had to do it." I lost the fight. "People got hurt. I know. But in the end, I did the right thing. It had to be done. And I think you know that."
"Oh, I DO! I KNOW that," she shot back. "I'm not really as stupid as you think I am. Not that I haven't given you good reason to think I'm stupid." Her voice trailed off. She looked down, inward, then back at me. She could see I was bleeding but she would be damned if she was going to care. "You lied to me."
"Yes." I managed to get some gauze on the wound without losing the staring contest. "I had to."
"They say the same thing. You're no better than they are." She looked around. "Were." She shivered or shook off the thought. "I'm stupid. I AM STUPID, no question." She shook her head. "But not stupid enough to forgive you."
There was a silence. I wanted to sit down again.
"Ever!" I started a little.
"All right." I nodded.
"No. But you will." She turned and walked away, planting her feet with remarkable steadiness amid the rubble. I thought how when I took this job, I was quite aware I might get killed, and how I thought then that I was quite prepared for it, too.
I sat down again and in a minute they came and led me away to be debriefed and congratulated for my skill and heroism.
Draw a line between your eyeballs. Extend it past on either side, out until the muscles hurt in the sockets. Raise the line a bit from the halfway mark -- there. Now roll the line out towards you like a window shade, tight and white. Above the line color it blue, but then wash the whole thing in glare -- yes, you can put on your sunglasses. In the middle of the line put a brilliant magnesium spot of faceted black and silver, a carbuncle, a diamond, a chip of mica. You can't look at it anymore than at an incandescent filament. Look down, drag a black line from the unregardable singularity on the horizon, and widen it until it's a six-lane highway underneath your feet. Don't worry. There are no cars. No potholes either. Its as smooth and shiny under the blaze as a river of oil. You'd better get off before you burn your feet. Hey, look over there at the side of the road. There's a sign, a big green board. It says "Techburg", and an arrow points. Doesn't point anywhere else. You can see along the road as far as the prismatic city and there are no turnoffs. Under the sign there's someone sitting! A youngfeller. He's got a clean lean face beardless as a statue's. He's got hair that's parted and perfectly placed and purely pigmented. He's not tall or short or skinny or fat and he could be anyone. His clothes have no wrinkles; his shoes have no dust. There isn't any dust here. There's no wind. But he's not sweating. He's sitting on a duffle bag. He's got a metal briefcase, brushed metal; thankfully it doesn't reflect too much. He's got a bunch of attached black trapezoids on his lap -- it's a computer! How can he read the screen in this light? He's wearing wraparound shades. He's got a sign by him, leaning against the duffle bag next to the creased pantleg over his shin. Guess what it says? or asks? Techburg, of course. Nicely lettered, with a stylized thumb inked in next to it. You can read it from pretty far as you come zooming up the road. But no one is. Oh, here they are. Here come the cars, heading for Techburg. One, two a minute, now a whole pack, now a constant stream, multicolored polyhedra. Good thing you weren't in the road anymore, but standing looking at the youngfeller, who’s not looking at you, since you're just imagining this whole scene. None of the cars even consider stopping, don't even slow. The youngfeller isn't bothered. He watches them. He sometimes looks up from his laptop, sometimes looks back and holds up his sign uninterestedly. The sun gets brighter. The cars flow thicker. The youngfeller closes the laptop and stands up and smooths his pleats and stamps his feet and points to his sign and the cars still don't stop, though eventually they thin out and then, disappear. There aren't any cars any more. The sun's on the other side now. If you had pointed the shadow of the sign -- the only thing around to cast a shadow -- in any direction before, it's now the opposite one, just a hard-edged cutout from the white of the ground. Is the youngfeller showing just bit of perspiration? Are the planes of his face softening just a little? He's been here all day. You've been here all day, watching him watch the cars go by. But you don't have a car to drive him to Techburg. You wonder if he'll spend the night here, try again in the morning. Maybe he spent the last night here. You don't want to spend the night here. You'll draw yourself a new scene or find one you didn't have to draw and go to it. You turn to leave. And a car goes by. A straggler, one last one. It won't stop, no point in looking. Wait. It has stopped. It seems it's halfway to Techburg but it's stopped and now it's flying back towards you and the youngfeller in reverse. It screeches out of motion in the bottom of the frame and seems to take up most of it, its tail invisible, just the slope of aerodynamic fins angling down towards the back seat. It's a Cadillac convertible. It's electric blue. It's huge. It has curves that are the graph of no equation, flats that are not quite planes. There's a feller in it. An old feller. He wears clothes that have shades, not just two dimensions of color and saturation, and wrinkles, folds, shadows, marks, tears. He wears jeans and a flannel shirt. He has brown hair with grey here and grayer there and white there. It cascades over his shoulders and waves and moves as he nods his head to some internal rhythm, and whips it around to look at the youngfeller. For a long moment. The youngfeller looks back. The driver looks up at the big green sign, down at the handlettered one. Up again. And down the road. And back at the youngfeller. And he speaks:
"You goin' to *Techburg*?" He's not surprised, but it's not rhetorical.
"Why, yes!" says the youngfeller.
"Well, hop in then!"
And the youngfeller grins widely and tosses his duffel into the back seat and climbs into the front with his briefcase and laptop and slams the door. The car starts up and races off and things soon get dark on the desert and the road and the sign until you can almost bear to look at the city right between your eyes.