And I also saw under the sun that in the place where there should have been justice, there was wickedness; and in the place where there should have been righteousness, there was wickedness.” -Ecclesiastes 3:16
Theodicy deals with the question of God’s justice in the world. The term was coined by Leibnitz in 1710 as a title for a book in which he attempted to explain why God, who is good and loving, has permitted the existence of evil in the world. He may have constructed the word, but the concern is innate in all religions which have a concept of a beneficent God, and the discussion is everywhere in the discourse of theologians of all religions and of all eras. I have wanted for a while now to consider options in theodicy through a series of short pieces. These pieces differ from classic theodicy only in that they may sometimes not take God’s beneficence as an axiom.
“What time is it?” he said although he could not see who was beside him.
“About 2:30,” said the voice. It was Neil from Bravo Squad which meant that Sergeant Jansen was sending for him.
“They’re moving?” Findlay asked.
“We think so, Lieutenant,” said Neil.
Findlay took a minute to try to let his eyes get used to whatever limited light there might be, and then he said, “Okay, Corporal,” and Neil crawled ahead to lead him forward.
It was cold and wet and muddy and, thank God, as dark as a coal mine. They had lucked out there. It was the middle of the month, and a full moon was up there in the sky somewhere, but the thick cloud cover that poured heavy rains on them every few hours blocked out the moon, the stars, anything that might lighten the blackness. “Thank God.” Findlay muttered it aloud this time.
The orders had pretty much popped up out of nowhere. The Colonel had been visibly embarrassed when he had given them. Several islands in the chain to be taken and/or held for four or five days, until a larger troop deployment could be arranged. Someone seemed to have stumbled across these islands and decided they could not be left for the enemy or left in enemy hands for even a few days more. They divided up the available platoons in the area and dropped them off the transport, island by island, like so many bus stops at rush hour. They had been told to expect no enemy presence or, at worse, a token squad or two.
A few hours on the island had shown that to be either a failure of intelligence or an outright lie. The three makeshift platoons that had landed at first light had managed to get up and off the beach without being spotted, but some early reconnoiter had shown them to be outnumbered at least five or six to one by enemy troops. There was no hope of engaging the enemy, and they did not know enough about the island, the enemy encampments or anything else to begin to design a plan of harassment or sabotage. They decided to split up, stay out of sight and to gather as much intelligence as they could to provide to the main landing when it came. The most critical decision was to maintain radio silence so as not to give the enemy any inkling that they were on the island, “cause if they find us,” said Lieutenant Idelson of Xray Platoon, “they are gonna wipe us out.”
Findlay’s platoon, Whiskey Platoon, was the smallest of the three platoons. He should have had four squads of about ten men each, but he had been down to two and a half squads after the losses and the redeployments in the summer campaign, and they had been sent out on this island operation while they were still waiting for replacements. He had two non-coms, Sgt. Jansen and Cpl. Slatter, and a fair number of men whose experience and common sense he was willing to trust if he had to. And if they had just woken him up, it probably meant he would have to.
Jansen and Slatter were both waiting for him, lying in the mud just beneath the rise that opened up to a flat stretch south toward the hills about two hundred fifty meters away. Jansen handed him the night glasses, and he took off his helmet and then lifted his head just over the rise to see. At first glance in the green light of the glasses, it looked pretty much as it had at sundown the night before. A narrow valley surrounded by hills on three sides.
“What?” said Findlay, still looking through the goggles.
“They’re moving down,” Sgt. Jansen said. “Both sides. About twenty yards down from the top.”
Now that he knew what he was looking for, he saw it easily enough. From the tops of both hills, where the enemy had bivouacked the night before, they were moving about twenty yards down the hill and appeared to be quietly digging in behind whatever cover of rocks and trees they could manage. From there, Findlay moved his gaze down to the valley below. There was still a small contingent of the enemy between him and the open side of the valley, perhaps 200 yards away. And inside the valley, surrounded on three sides were at least one and perhaps both of the other platoons that had landed with him on the island.
“Morning?” said Findlay.
“That would be my guess, Lieutenant,” said Cpl Slatter, and Jansen said, “First light or earlier.”
Findlay dropped his head down, put his helmet on and leaned back against the dirt ridge behind him.
“Options.” he asked.
He heard Slatter take a deep breath and pause for a second. “We could keep our heads down and wait it out,” he said. “They haven’t seen us yet. Odds are they’ll be busy and may not see us at all.”
“And the platoons?”
“Outnumbered two…three to one and surrounded,” said Jansen. “Be wiped out in an hour.”
“Yeah, there’s that,” said Slatter.
Findlay rolled it over in his head, but he really had no doubt about what he had to do.
“How long until first light?” he said.
“Three, maybe three and a half hours.”
“Okay,” he said. “Get me a runner.”
“Running where?” said Slatter.
“Running in,” he said.
Slatter and Jansen muttered a few words to each other and then one of them – Findlay couldn’t see which – went off to where the men were camped. The other one sat quietly and waited which meant to Findlay that it was Slatter who had gone to get the runner. Jansen could sit silently for minutes at a time; Slatter couldn’t. After a short while, the sounds of two walking back as quietly as they could.
“This is Rios,” Slatter said.
Findlay recognized the name from the incomplete Charlie Squad.
“Good morning, Bobby,” Findlay said. “Are you volunteering?”
“Sure, Lieutenant,” he said. “What am I volunteering for?”
“Sit down, Bobby,” he said, and he heard the two sit in the wet dirt near him.
“I need you to get a message to our guys in the valley there,” he said. “We’re going to get them out, but we have to tell them how.”
“Can’t send them a postcard?”
“Right. No Stamps.”
“We’re going to send our squads up around the back of the two hills and outflank the enemy,” said Findlay. “One squad behind each hill, and the half squad here with me. You got that?”
“Yeah. Got it.”
“At exactly 5:45 hours, we’re going to start firing on the enemy from the top of the hills down and from here at the squad guarding the front of the valley. When we start, the guys in the valley have to start shooting up at the enemy on both hills and out at the guys at the front of the valley. We’ll catch them all in a cross-fire.”
“Will that work?” Slatter interrupted.
“Sure,” he said. “Probably. But not unless the platoons in the valley firing as well. Right?”
“Right,” Slatter and Rios both said together.
“So you’ve got to get in there, Bobby, and let them know what we’re planning. They have to dig in and wait for us to start firing at 545 hours. You got all that?”
“Think so, Lieutenant,” he said.
“Say it back to me,” Fiindlay said, and Rios repeated it, slowly, but with all the details intact.
“Good,” said Finlay. “Tell them to send up a flare so we’ll know you got through.”
“Won’t the enemy . . . ?” Slattery started.
“The enemy will think they’re just trying to set off some light to assess the situation,” Findlay said, trying to sound as if he were really sure about that.
“But listen,Bobby,” he said, “you’ve got to go carefully.”
“Tell me about it.”
“No,” he said. “This is important. What I’m saying is that if they catch you on the way in . . . “
“I know, I don’t tell them anything.”
“No, that’s not what I mean.” Findlay forced himself to sound calm. Reasonable. “You can’t look like you’re going in. You have to look like you’re coming out.”
Silence for a long moment
“I don’t understand what you’re saying, Lieutenant.”
Findlay nodded, but the others could not see it in the dark.
” Yes,” he finally said. “Think of this way, Bobby,” he said. “They outnumber us by …”
“A lot,” Slatter volunteered.
“A lot,” said Findlay. “If they figure out that we’re here before we are ready to take them on, we wouldn’t stand much of a chance. If they catch you and they think you were trying to get out of the valley to call for help or . .. whatever, we can still try to save the platoons…”
“But if they think I’m coming in,” Rios said, “then they’ll know . . .”
He understood it. There was no need to finish the sentence, no need, in fact, to say much of anything else, so the four of them sat quietly in the mud, dealing with the sentence that did not need to be finished. Instead, they sat quietly, their backs against the the muddy ridge.
“So what am I supposed to do?” Rios said finally. “Run backward?”
A brief laugh, all of them, which they quickly stifled.
“Okay”, Findlay said at last, “Sergeant, get him set up. Let him get as far outside of camp as he can before he starts forward.”
“Yes, Lieutenant,” Jansen said.
“Take care of yourself, Bobby,” he said, and he reached forward to try to take his hand, but in the dark he ended up patting his shoulder. It would do. “We’ll see you when it’s over.”
“See you then, Lieutenant,” he said, and Findlay heard the feet walking away from him in the mud. He followed the soft sound until it was gone and then sat back again against the rise,
“What if there’s no flare, Lieutenant,” Slatter said quietly.
“Yes,” said Findlay. He had thought about that. “If there’s no flare, we do it anyway. We just have to hope that they catch on down there.”
“If they don’t . . .” said Slatter.
“Then I guess I’ll feel pretty stupid, Corporal, don’t you think?” Findlay tried to sound matter-of fact but didn’t quite make it.
“Yes, Lieutenant,” he said.
Findlay figured the flare could come up in as little as fifteen or twenty minutes, so he sent Slatter off the be sure that everyone’s was seated or lying with heads below ground level, that all equipment was firmly sitting on the ground. No sound, no movement. If the enemy were to see or hear anything that suggested soldiers two hundred yards from the valley, it would be the end of all of them — in the valley and out.
It was a long fifteen minutes, and longer still as the fifteen became twenty and began to grind its way painfully toward the half hour mark. Findlay forced himself not to think about Bobby Rios running in the dark and forced himself instead to structure plans in his head about what he could do if he had to invite the participation of X-ray and Yankee Platoons in setting up a cross-fire they didn’t know was happening. And then the pop of the flare and the light overhead. Findlay lay flat on the ground and looked at the pale light streaming in all directions, then fading, fading to black, blacker it felt than it had been before.
Jansen and Slatter knew enough to wait until the flare was long dead before they made their way back to Findlay.
“Now what, Lieutenant?”
“Give it a half hour,” he said softly into the darkness around him. “Send me four of your best marksmen and divide the rest of the men into two squads. Sargent, take your squad behind the left hill; Corporal, your squad to the right. Everybody takes guns, ammunition and nothing else. Nothing rattles; nothing squeaks. Got that?”
“Get as far away from the hill as you can before you head up the back, but give yourself enough time to get up the hill – very slowly – and just below the top. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes, Lieutenant,” said Slattery. Jansen didn’t have to speak.
“Be in place by 530 hours, and make sure nobody moves a muscle until you hear us start shooting from here at 545. Then peek over the top and get the enemy in a cross fire. Any questions?”
“Take care of your men,” Findlay said. “We’ll see you when it’s over.”
“Yes, sir,” Slatter said again, and a moment later Jansen said, “Keep your head down, Lieutenant.”
“Count on it, Sargent,” he said.
Within half an hour, Findlay was joined by the four shooters. He had them sit beside him silently while he waited for the two squads to head off. Even knowing they were about to leave, he could barely hear a sound as they moved out, and he allowed himself to hope that this ridiculous plan might actually have some chance of working.
The shooters sat beside him in the dirt, and he explained to them what they were planning to do and how he wanted it done.
“You have to be a battalion,” he said to them. “They have to think they are being attacked by armies on three sides of them. So a lot of fire, mainly at the troops at the front of the valley and some at those dug in on the sides of the hill, as well. Can you do that?”
They looked over the ridge through their night scopes for a minute.
“Oh sure,” one said. “That’s no problem.” And the others more or less grunted agreement.
“But on the hill,you have to make sure you are shooting at the troops on the sides, not the tops,” he said. “Our guys will be shooting down on them from above. Don’t get them mixed up.”
One or two of them chuckled.
“You gonna shoot too, Lieutenant?”
“Yeah, but only to make noise,” he said. “I couldn’t hit the side of a barn from here.”
The shooters kept watch through their rifle scopes, and at 515 hours, one of them reported seeing some movement at the top of the left hill. Findlay looked through his glasses but did not see anything.
“It was there, Lieutenant,” said the shooter, looking back through his scope. “Movement at the top. They’ve gone back down below the hilltop now.”
“And the other side?”
“I don’t see anything yet,” one of the others answered, “but the angle is harder from here. They could be in place behind the hill.”
“Hope so,” said Findlay.
They saw nothing else move for the next half hour when the first rays of light began to break over the horizon. The enemy remained dug in some twenty yards down the hill; Xray Squad or Zebra Squad or both were surrounded at the bottom of the hill, and it was 545.
“Okay, gentlemen,” said Findlay. “First shots at the squad at the entrance of the valley and then you two send some stuff at the right hill, and you two at the left — and then back and forth between the valley and the hills. Ready?”
Their rifles went over the top of the ridge and they took aim, Findlay did as well.
“Maybe I’ll get lucky and get a barn door to shoot at,” he said.
And with that, he took quick aim and pulled the trigger.
It was suddenly black and then white and then black again, and Findlay felt at the same time immobile and struggling, as though he were trying and failing to swim through thick oil. He ached everywhere, in his muscles and his joints, his head, his neck. And as much as he wanted to sink into a dreamless, sightless blackness, his eyes came open on their own. For several seconds, it was all white light and blur, and then he could make out two officers’ uniforms and a doctor’s whites standing at the foot of a bed in which he was lying flat, covered by a sheet and blanket.
“Lieutenant,” said one of the two men.
As his eyes began to focus, Findlay could make out the eagle epaulet on the lapel of the older man. “Colonel,” he said, his voice dry and husky.
“Forgive me for waking you up,” said the Colonel with what looked like a polite smile. “and I know that you won’t understand everything I’m saying now. You really won’t be aware of much for another . . . “
He turned toward the Captain standing next to him who turned to the doctor. “Two hours,” said the doctor.
“Two hours, Lieutenant,” said the Colonel, “until the hypnotic is out of your system.”
He patted Findlay on the arm, and Findlay looked down to see an arm sticking out from under his blanket, several tubes attached by needles to the back of the hand. But he felt nothing, and was not sure exactly whose arm it was he was seeing.
“I really am sorry, Lieutenant,” said the Colonel, and Findlay looked back at him, “but I’ve been called away to regional HQ, and I won’t be back for at least a few days. But I really wanted to let you know how proud we all are of you. Your score was among the highest we’ve seen on this exercise. You had a troop survival rate of 84% and an enemy elimination: killed, wounded or captured – of just over 60%. The rate of survival of the other two squads on the island. . .”
The word “island” brought it back. All at once. Leaning over the dirt ridge in the night; the night breeze chilling the sweat on his face; mud drying on his hands and on the back of his neck;, his rifle propped up; trying to see an enemy form in green through the scope of the rifle.
“How many?’ he forced himself to say, again in that dry, rasping voice.
“How many men did I lose?” he said. “The names.”
The Colonel forced a short, awkward laugh. “No, no,” he said. “You didn’t lose any men. It was an exercise.”
“You said 84%,” said Findlay.
“Survival rate,” said the Colonel. “84% survival rate, and that was just the computer print.” He flashed a quick look at the Captain who did not respond to it. “Just the computer, Lieutenant. Listen, the Captain will explain it all. I have to go. I just wanted to tell you how proud we all are of you. We’ll talk again when I get back.”
And with that, he turned and marched out of the room leaving the Captain , who traded a quick glance with the doctor, to deal with Findlay.
“How many. . . “ Findlay started to say again.
“Nobody died,” said the Captain. “It was an insertion. Do you remember what an insertion is?”
The word meant something to Findlay, but he could not find it in the confusion of his mind.
“We insert an exercise, a scenario, into your mind,” said the Captain, “and the computer analysis your responses.”
“Jansen,” said Findlay. “Slatter.”
“Those your men?”
“The noncoms,” said Findlay. “Squad leaders.”
“They don’t have names,” said the Captain. “It’s just a scenario. If they had names, you gave them to them in your mind. Faces, voices. Whatever you saw of them, you made up for them. Some people personalize them; some don’t. But they weren’t really there, Lieutenant. It was all an insertion.”
The Captain motioned to the doctor who came over to Findlay’s side and emptied a hypo through the IV.
“We give you a hypnotic as part of the insertion, so that you won’t realize that the scenario isn’t real, “the Captain said. “The hypnotic hasn’t worn off yet, which is why this is all so confusing right now. You’ll sleep now for a couple more hours, and it will all be a lot more clear when you wake up.”
Findlay understood some of what he was hearing, but only some of it, and now there was suddenly a soft wave of drowsiness floating through him, his chest and then his head.
“Your score on the insertion was really remarkable,” he heard the Captain saying from farther and farther away. “Balance of strategy, bravery. . . “ he heard. “…planning… leadership.”
He was floating on the wave now. It was grey and then dark blue like the last moment of the sky on the island before the light had gone and left them in the mud in the black night.
“Nobody died.” said Findlay.
“Nobody died,” he heard the Captain from far away. “It was all an insertion. Nobody was hurt. Nobody gets hurt in an insertion. We weren’t really going to let you kill anyone as part of a training exercise, Lieutenant.”
copyright 2014 Gary M. Levine
A JUST GOD COULD NOT ALLOW THE SUFFERING OF THE INNOCENT, AND THEREFORE IT MUST BE THAT THE INNOCENT DO NOT SUFFER.
Bruce, who is the most paranoid person I have ever met, had it right as he so often does. He told us all immediately after Professor Webber disappeared not to touch anything.
“If she doesn’t come back,” he said, “this will become a missing persons investigation, and they will want to do forensics.”
What surprised me most was that he had the presence of mind to think of this. There were seven others of us in the classroom. Three of us, in addition to Bruce, had actually seen Professor Webber disappear, and we were too shocked to say anything. It must have been a solid thirty seconds between the time she disappeared and when Bruce spoke, and all I—for one—could do was look back and forth across the front of the room, as though Professor Webber were hiding somewhere and would suddenly pop up from under the desk or inside the storage cupboard. The other four had not actually seen the disappearance. They had been writing or keyboarding notes and had only looked up when the Professor’s voice had suddenly stopped mid-sentence: “What Einstein understood that Newton could not was that the flow of time was not . . . ” and then the sound of the chalk hitting the floor. They were looking around as well, not only at the front of the room, but at the others in the class whom they assumed had seen the Professor leave so suddenly. Less shock, then, than confusion.
Certainly, no one moved. It was only after the first thirty seconds or so, when Simone began to get up from her chair, that Bruce the Paranoid warned everyone not to touch anything. And after the three or four years that we had all spent together in grad school, we all know that Bruce was crazy in general but probably right, and Simone sat down again.
There is a button in every class to communicate with the department office, but it is in the front of the room near the teacher’s desk, so no one moved toward it. Instead, I called the department office from my cell phone.
“This is Stanley Yung in Room C443,,” I said to Mr. Michaelson in the office. ” Professor Webber has disappeared.”
“I am certain that she will be back shortly,” he said.
“I am less certain,” I said. There was no way I was going to try to explain this over the phone. “Could you please send an administrator immediately.”
“Is everything all right, Stanley?” he said.
“No,” I said. “I think not.” And I closed the phone.
We remained seated. Those who had seen now explained in whispers to those who had not seen what had happened. . . or what appeared to have happened. There was no speculation about what might actually have happened or why. We simply waited until the Vice-Chair, Professor Elwell, came in. We told him briefly what we had seen and pointed to the broken piece of yellow chalk on the floor near the desk. Bruce repeated his admonition against investigating the area, and Professor Elwell who was Bruce better than any of us—he was Bruce’s thesis advisor—merely nodded.
He made sure to take down our names and to make a few notes, and then he dismissed us. We left the room and walked out into the hall, and I felt no small emotional disorientation at being suddenly in the middle of people walking and talking as though a Senior Professor in Quantum Mechanics had not just suddenly disappeared in the middle of a sentence.
Professor Elwell was the last one out of the room, and he locked the door behind him.
Professor Webber did not reappear in the classroom or anywhere else, and two days later, just as Bruce had predicted, there was police tape over the classroom door and a forensics team working in the front of the classroom. The eight of us who had been in the class were called to a conference room in the department offices to meet with two detectives from Missing Persons: a short, balding middle-aged man in Clark Kent glasses and a trim grey suit and a taller, younger man who had little to say but did an enviable job monitoring the flashcard in the digital recorder.
We recounted, as completely as we could, what had happened in the classroom when Professor Webber had disappeared.
“People do not just disappear,” said Clark Kent who asked to be addressed as Detective Lubinsky.
None of us disagreed.
“So that makes your statement that she simply disappeared somewhat hard to accept.”
“Nevertheless,” said Bruce with no little condescension.
“Tell you what,” said Detective Lubinsky. “You are all ladies and gentlemen of science. Advanced thinkers, yes? Why don’t you help me out here. You tell me how someone could have just disappeared into thin air.”
He looked around at us and held his hands open, inviting comments.
“The most logical option is that we are all lying.” This from Tanya.
“A conspiracy,” said the detective.
“Yes,” said Tanya. “That would seem to me to be the most logical option. We have all agreed to say that Professor Webber disappeared.”
“And why would you do that?” he asked.
“We didn’t do that,” said Tanya. “That just seemed most logical.”
“She slipped into another dimension,” NIraj offered half-heartedly. Niraj is a Trekkie.
“Does that happen often?” said Detective Lubinsky.
“Never, that I know of,” said Niraj, “but it is theoretically possible.”
“Maybe we were drugged,” said Peter Powder—great name—”or mass hypnosis.”
“The chalk,” I said. “We saw the chalk fall. “There couldn’t have been a passage of time.”
“Einstein-Rosenberg bridge,” offered Simone. “Of course, no one on Earth could set that up, but a sufficiently advanced civilization . . . ” and she let it trail off.
Lubinsky shook his head. “Any other thoughts,” he said. “You,” he said looking at me.
I thought for a minute.”Magic,” I said finally. “Stage magic. Smoke and mirrors. If a good stage magician can make an elephant disappear, a teacher at the front of a classroom doesn’t seem so hard.”
“Ah,” said Lubinsky. “Is that what you think happened?”
“No,” I said. “Did your forensics team find any smoke or mirrors?”
Lubinsky didn’t answer. “So we are back to the conspiracy theory,” he said.
“You think that’s funny?”
“Certainly,” said Bruce. “I know there was no conspiracy. You will now check our backgrounds, our bank accounts, whatever it is you check, and you will find no proof, no reason for a conspiracy to do away with Professor Webber.”
“I didn’t say anything about doing away with her.”
“I don’t believe you are supposing that we sent her on a cruise,” said Bruce.
Lubinsky looked around the room at us and then passed a glance over to his colleague who was fiddling with the voice recorder.
“All of these scientific minds,” Lubinsky said finally. “And you don’t seem to know very much.”
“We don’t know,” I said.
“Is that science?”
“That’s absolutely science! There is not yet sufficient data upon which to base a hypothesis.”
“Raging curiosity, Mr. Spok” said Lubinsky.
“Scientific method,” I said. “We could play a great parlour game speculating about this, but we don’t know anything until we have some data to examine.”
“You don’t know,” he said.
“I don’t,” I said. “Not yet. If I don’t get some definitive data to work with, I may never know. And even then. I can guess; I can wonder; but you have to give us something definitive to work with before we can try to know anything.”
Lubinsky scowled at me and slid his Clark Kent glasses farther back on his nose with his index finger.
“I’m a detective,” he said, “and I don’t work that way.”
“I’m a scientist,” I said, “and I do.”
copyright 2014 Gary M. Levine
NO ONE CAN FIND THE WORK THAT GOD DOES FROM THE BEGINNING TO THE END. (ecclesiastes 3:11)
It had been a long summer day, and as the sun finally slid down toward the houses across the street and the air began to cool, Robbie found himself sitting in the grass, leaning against the fence at the edge of the small back yard behind the house, with Woof snuggling against him.
Woof wasn’t the dog’s real name of course. It was “Mycroft,” the name his father had given the dog. It was the name, he had told Robbie, of Sherlock Holmes’ brother. Sherlock Holmes was a detective who caught criminals in England, and Daddy had told him stories about Sherlock Holmes. One was about a snake sliding down a rope in the middle of the night and biting someone. But Robbie called the dog “Woof” because it really was his dog, and he liked to go around his back yard, calling out, “Here Woof, Woof, Woof, Woof, Woof” like he was barking too.
He felt that way about his own name. It was his name, and even though his Mommy liked to call him Robert or sometimes Rob and his father always called him Bobby, he liked Robbie. In school, Mrs. Hepping in Grade 1 before last summer had told them about a poem-writer whose name had been Robbie and had written a poem for a mouse. Right away, when he heard the name “Robbie”, he had thought it was a really cool name. That night at supper, he had told his parents about Robbie and the mouse and told them that he wanted to be called Robbie too. His parents had nodded their heads and said that it was his name, and he could be called Robbie if he wanted. And though his mother still called him Robert or Rob and his father called him Bobby, in school now they called him Robbie because he told them to.
It had been a really long day, and even though it was getting cooler now, he could still feel the sweat under his T-shirt and on his face. He thought he could even feel the sweat under Woof’s fur where he was scratching him on the back of his neck, but he couldn’t really be sure because Woof always just felt like Woof. He looked down at his own clothes, and he could see that his shirt and his shorts and his sneakers were all really dirty, and he was sure his face was too. Almost every time he came inside after playing outside, his Mommy would say, “Hello there, Pigpen,” which was the name of a boy in a cartoon book who was always dirty, and sometimes she wouldn’t even send him to wash up but would make him take a whole bath before supper.
He had fallen over the long log earlier in the day when he and Woof were playing Pirates with Brian and Lizzie from the next block. Lizzie was in his class at school and they were kind of friends, mostly because she lived so close. But he was really better friends with Brian who was a year younger but liked to play boy stuff more than Lizzie did. Anyway, he had been walking the plank, which was the log, but he fell off the side instead of making it all the way to the front, and he got a cut and a scrape right near his knee which really hurt. He probably would have cried if Brian and Lizzie hadn’t been there, but Woof could tell he was hurt and went running all around him barking and barking “woof woof woof woof” until Robbie got up and showed Woof he was okay. But he did have to go inside and get Mommy to put on a bandage. He looked at his knee and saw that the bandage was still on although it was curling up a little bit at the edge, so that it would probably come off in the bath (Oh yes, Mommy was certainly going to give him a bath), and he would have to have a new bandage afterward. But Pirates had been fun, and even Lizzie had liked it though she pretended not to. “I don’t walk planks,” she said. “I’m the captain!”
Brian and Lizzie went back home for lunch because they were going to go out shopping in the afternoon with their Mommy to get clothes for day camp. Just before they left, Robbie had heard the screen door squeaking open, and he knew that Mommy was going to ask if they wanted something to eat. You could always tell when someone was going to come outside because the screen door would squeak open. Usually, it was Mommy who would come out or call to him after the squeak because Daddy was at work during the day. For a long time, Daddy tried to fix the squeak. “There’s no reason a door should squeak,” he said. And he had sprayed the door with sprays and rubbed the side of the door with oily stuff, but the door still squeaked. Once Daddy got really angry, and he took the door down and threw it away and put up a brand new screen door.
But it squeaked too. “They make them that way,” Mommy said which Daddy said was just nonsense. But he gave out trying to fix it which was why Robbie always knew when someone was going to come outside or call out to him.
So he had head the screen door squeak, and then Mommy had come out to ask if they wanted something to eat, but Brian and Lizzie had said they had to go back home because they had to buy clothes for Day Camp. In the end, Mommy brought a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk and two cookies out onto the back porch for Robbie—and some dog food and water for Woof—and they had their lunch there.
Robbie had gone to day camp last summer, and it was pretty good, but he wasn’t going to go this summer which was why he was pretty much spending the days playing outside. That was because next week he was going to go with Mommy and Daddy on a vacation. First they were going to go to see Mom and Pops in Philadelphia. He liked Mom and Pops. Mom always made him special pancakes with faces made out of chocolate chips and lots of gooey syrup on it. Pops was the only one outside of school who called him Robbie, and sometimes they would take a walk, just the two of them, to the candy store near the park, and he could buy any candy bar he wanted. Then they would sit on the bench in the park where he would eat his candy bar and Pops would smoke his black pipe, and Pops would always ask him if he was learning anything in school and whether he wanted a pack of cigarettes, which was silly, of course, but they always both laughed and laughed at it.
While they were in Philadelphia, they would also go see Aunt Margaret who was Mommy’s sister and lived in a house all by herself which had a lot of nice pictures on the wall that Aunt Margaret had painted all by herself. Aunt Margaret was always very nice but didn’t have too much to say to him (and nothing at all to say to Woof) and he always had to be careful not to touch things that could break (and Woof always had to wait outside).
But the best part was that after they stayed in Philadelphia for a few days, they were going to get back in the car and drive for days! until they came to Disneyland where he had always always wanted to go, and now they were going to go there. And Daddy said they were going to stay in Disneyland for days and days until they had seen everything there was to see and been on every ride there was to ride.
So that was why he wasn’t going to go to day camp this summer – because he was going to go to Mom and Pops and then to Disneyland. Which was going to be great!
But today had been pretty good too. Even before Brian and Lizzie had come over to play Pirates, he had fun in the back yard with Woof looking for frogs in the grass. There weren’t any frogs in the grass, of course, but once they had been to a park with Mommy and Daddy where they had a picnic and there was a little lake where there were real frogs. Daddy had caught one and given him to Robbie to play with. “But be careful,” he had said. “Frogs are very small, and you don’t want to hurt it.” And so he had been really careful. He had made sure not to hold it too tight in his hand, and when it tried to jump out he put his other hand over it so it couldn’t jump out but not so tight that it would hurt it. He wouldn’t even let Woof sniff it too closely because even though he was a great dog, he was still only a dog and you could never really know what he was thinking. Like that terrible time he caught the bird. And when they finished playing with the frog, he wanted to give it some of his peanut butter sandwich, but Daddy said he shouldn’t because frogs didn’t much eat peanut butter, so they just let him jump back into the little lake and swim away.
So even though there weren’t any real frogs in the back yard, Robbie and Woof liked to play Frog Hunting. Robbie would creep around in the grass, and then he would jump up and point and say: “Frog. Frog. There’s a frog!” And he would run after it in the grass, and Woof would bark and bark and run around too. Once, when he got tired of looking for frogs, Robbie decided to look for lions and called out “Lion. Lion.” And Woof barked and ran around just the same. Near the end of that game, just before Mommy called him for lunch, Woof ran around too close to the fence and ran right into it. It must have really hurt him because he did what “owp owp owp” kind of bark he did when he was hurt, and Robbie got scared, and he hugged Woof really close and scratched the back of his head and said “It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay” like Mommy sometimes said to him when he was hurt. And while he was doing that, he remembered his Daddy’s story about the dog he had had when he was little. They called him Brownie because he was brown, and he had gotten sick and died. When he remembered that story, he hugged Woof even closer.
The sun was going down now; it was just over the chimney at Mr. and Mrs. Loggins’ house across the street. The sweat down the back of his shirt had started to dry and it made him feel kind of cool and sticky. Sitting against the back fence, he and Woof looked over the back yard, and Robbie began to think about what they might do tomorrow. He thought that maybe tomorrow they could move the log over near the back porch so it could be like a ladder and the back porch could be a treehouse. Daddy said once that they could build a tree house in the back yard, but there weren’t any trees in the back yard, so Robbie didn’t understand how that could happen. And, in the end, Daddy never did build a tree house.
But they might play on the back porch tomorrow and pretend it was a tree house.
“And we could swim in the ocean,” he said to Woof although he wasn’t quite sure where they were going to put the ocean in the back yard. He had once made a river by turning on the backyard hose, but Mommy had not liked that so much.
“We’ll figure it out tomorrow,” he said to Woof who seemed to agree and nestled a little closer to him.
The sun was down below the Loggins’ chimney now, and the street lights were on along the sidewalk. The lights were mostly on in the houses around him, but the back porch light wasn’t on, and from where he sat against the fence, his house was only a grey shape and the backyard grass seemed like the dark sand he had once seen on an old, dirty beach. And without remembering the word, he thought of a lighthouse they had once seen at night from far away.
The screen door squeaked, and Robbie and Woof looked up to see the small light go on over the back porch, and his mother’s voice called to him. “Robert,” she said, “It’s time to come in.”
copyright 2014 Gary M. Levine
QUIET LIKE, SOME STILL DAY, I’M JUST GOING HOME. (Dvorak, William Arms Fisher)
“You have no case,” the lawyer said.
“No case?” This was Hortense, with no little astonishment. She was less the spokesman of the group than the voice of its flaming indignation.
“How can we have no case?” said Sidney. “The roof is leaking.”
There were five of them representing the owner/residents of the co-op. Sidney, well into his seventies, was the eldest, a man of generally calm demeanor, seasoned by fifty years in the managerial level of the business world. Doctor Reed, Alice and Edward had come along to be sure all floors of the building were represented, and Hortense had insisted on being included, lest the full depth of their suffering and outrage fail to be appropriately presented.
“The building is ten years old,” the lawyer said. “After ten years, roofs leak.”
“He promised us workmanship!” Hortense flared. “He promised us professionalism!”
“As far as I can see,” said the lawyer, leafing through the papers they had brought, “you seem to have gotten all that.”
“Even if the roof is leaking?” said Sidney.
Hortense: “And the cracks in the parking lot! And the leaks in the pipes!”
The lawyer raised a cautionary hand.
“And the rips in the carpet!” Hortense would not be cautioned.
“Yes, I understand,” said the lawyer. “But all that is natural wear and tear. Things wear out.”
“And the builder takes no responsibility?” Sidney said..
“Not for natural wear and tear. Did you expect everything to last forever?”
Edward, a middle-aged man of some shyness, actually raised his hand to be recognized, which startled even Hortense into temporary silence.
“But the building is the builder’s responsibility,” said Edward.
“Only until he sold it to you,” said the lawyer. “Now you are the owners. It’s your building to enjoy; it’s your building to take care of.”
“It doesn’t seem right,” said Sidney, “that we should suddenly be stuck with all this expense all at once.”
“It’s theft, plain and simple!” Hortense.
“It’s not ‘all at once,’” said the lawyer, ignoring her—an effective strategy he had learned to use in a short time. “Any building needs regular maintenance at regular times. Your error was in letting everything get to this point before dealing with it.”
“But the builder. . . “
“The builder’s gone,” he said. “He built it, he sold it, he transferred ownership. He’s out of the picture . It’s your building now.”
“It’s just theft!” Hortense said again, but a somewhat subdued volume. The others just sat quietly for a minute.
Then an idea hit Hortense, and she flamed again. “You’re not the only lawyer, you know!” she said.
“True enough,” the lawyer agreed. “You can find plenty of lawyers in the city to take your money.”
“But we’ll lose.” Sidney finished the thought.
“Yes, you will,” said the lawyer. “You have no case.”
Copyright 2015 Gary M. Levine
THE HEAVENS ARE THE HEAVENS OF GOD, BUT THE EARTH HE HAS GIVEN TO THE CHILDREN OF MAN. (psalms 115:16)
It has been about as lousy an evening as Sam could remember.
He was not a particular fan of formal dinners: the speeches and the too-nice dishes and the polished silver. And although Lauren liked to dress up nicely—and she looked fantastic when she did—he found that a tux or even an expensive suit on him felt somehow insufficient and incongruous, as though he could never shave close enough to look entirely at ease dressed that well. When he looked in the mirror before leaving the house, he seemed to look good enough, no worse on the whole than any of the other 23rd Floor executives at the dinner, but he knew very well that there were any number of them who wore it all more comfortably than he did. Some looked downright happy, like winners at a masquerade party. He did not understand it at all.
But it was the sort of evening one put up with. It came with being an executive in a large, important company. Every few months, there would be a formal dinner called in the glass-enclosed Reception Hall on the roof to celebrate something or announce something, and he would have to trot out the tux or the good suit—depending on the occasion—and spend an uncomfortable evening, made all the more uncomfortable by the need to try not to appear uncomfortable.
Tonight’s dinner was a tux night: a “Tribute Dinner for a Beloved Colleague,” as the invitation read. After twelve years as a colleague in Corporate Research and Acquisitions, Davis Lawrence was being awarded a plaque for Consistent and Significant Achievement and was being assigned the large corner office on the Floor, with the broad view of the downtown skyline and the western ocean.
The evening would be chaired by the Senior VP of Corporate Research and Acquisitions, Vivian Rusk, whose office was with the other Senior VPs on the 31stFloor, and the Keynote Tribute would be delivered by the President and CEO himself, Thomas Flood.
As well, Sam and two or three other colleagues had been tapped to present a semi-comical “roast” of Lawrence which, after some days’ work, would be funny enough without being either patronizing or insulting and which would therefore certainly be forgotten after a few days, as such roasts were meant to be.
In truth, Sam was not a petty man. He found resentment and vindictiveness to be distasteful and unproductive. He worked hard at his job, did it well and respected those whose work was worthy of respect.
Davis Lawrence was not one of these. His work was not always thorough, not always rigorous, and it was not uncommon for his to pass it around to one or two others to clean it up, to make comments or suggestions that should have been done in the initial work.
And Lawrence had been at the company no longer than Sam. They had both started in the same summer, twelve years before. They had both worked their way up from the 17th to the 19th and then to the 23rd Floor. They both worked for Vivian Rusk whose office was on the 31st Floor. When the invitation had first arrived, Lauren had read it with some excitement, made a comment about it being an opportunity to shop for a new dress, and then, seeing Lawrence’s name, began, “Didn’t Davis . . ?” but stopped herself before completing the sentence.
So, on the whole, a lousy night. But Lauren loved to dress up, and she looked so lovely and was clearly having such a good time with the other couples around that Sam could only do his best to swallow his discomfort and try to simulate what he took to be the general pleasantness of the evening.
In her introduction, Vivian spoke glowingly of the work of the whole department, especially, of course, of Lawrence’s, whose twelve years of excellence had set the bar and inspired his colleagues around him. The colleagues’ roast went well enough, with polite and sometimes even appreciative laughter at this company policy or that characteristic of Lawrence’s held up to mild parody. The highlight of the presentation was, as it should have been, the tribute by the President and CEO which ended with the presentation of the plaque and a warm hug for the guest of honour.
Lawrence responded briefly but emotionally about his love for the company, his colleagues, his family and the honour he felt in having been able to serve them all in his years of dedicated service.
The program ended with the required standing ovation and some informal joviality around the room.
As was the custom with these formal evenings, at this point the employees accompanied their spouses down to the ground floor and to their car pools back home, and then went back up to the Library off the CEO’s office on the 35th Floor for closing drinks and a little informal “shop talk.”
The library was something out of Dickens. Long rows of bookshelves, each lined with leather-bound sets of volumes that were well dusted every week and virtually never used. Small tables were carefully set here and there, and leather couches enclosed the center of the room; and near a fireplace—well, ofcourse a fireplace—an almost regal dark leather armchair for Thomas.
Dr. Flood (Harvard Business) insisted on being called Thomas. It was less false modesty than an air of collegiality he wanted to model for his company, but whenever Sam had spoken to him and called him “Thomas,” it always felt to him like he had left out the appropriate honorarium, like “Sir” or “Eminence.”
In any case, Thomas took a drink from the modest bar—modest in the sense of only a few bottles and mixers, but the quality of the liquor was of the “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” variety—and he motioned everyone else to help themselves, more in the nature of a command than an invitation. Sam did not drink much, and he had already had one or two during the evening, but he helped himself to a small amount of a scotch whose name he had not only never heard of, but did not even know how to pronounce, added ice and water and took a seat on the end of one of the long leather couches.
Thomas congratulated Davis Lawrence again and then said appropriately kind words about Vivian and her whole department, after which, in as colloquial a tone as he could manage, he spoke about the upcoming acquisitions and divestments that he saw coming up as a result of the department’s work. He went on to some general comments about his vision of the next five years for the company and the expanding place of R and A in the company’s expansion. The whole monologue—there really was no place for questions—went on for about thirty minutes and was punctuated by a stop or two to refill glasses. He finished with a last thank you and a final toast to the Guest of Honour which was met by well-modulated applause: a bit beyond polite, but less than sycophantic.
Getting up somewhat unsteadily from the couch, it was clear to Sam that he was not going to be driving himself home tonight, and watching his colleagues wavering here and there, he wasn’t going to be asking any of them for a lift either. He used the washroom, splashed a little cold water on his face, and came back into the library to say goodnight and call a cab.
Most of the 23rd floor had by now said good night to Thomas or were in a group that tried to look like something more informal than single-file past the host and out to the elevator. Thomas said a pleasant good night to some, took one or two to the side to say a few extra words, and Sam found himself the last one standing next to the CEO.
“Lovely evening, Thomas,” he said, watching the last of his colleagues heading toward the elevator. “Thanks so much.” And he waited for a brief acknowledgement.
Instead, Thomas said, “Have you got time for a drink, Sam?”
Caught off-guard, Sam forced a small, congenial laugh. “I’ve already gone over my limit,” he said.
“Coffee then,” Thomas said. A statement, not a question, and Thomas didn’t wait for an answer. He put his own drink down, and walked a dozen steps or so to the coffee urn on the buffet table. “Sugar?” he called over his shoulder.
“No, no thanks,” Sam said, trying not to sound as puzzled as he was. “A little cream, though.”
Thomas came back with the coffee, handed it to Sam and motioned him to the couch, picked up his own drink and sat down in his armchair.
“Did you have a nice evening?” Thomas said.
“Very nice,” said Sam. “It was very lovely.”
Sam sipped at his coffee, waiting for Thomas to say something that would give him some indication of what this was about.
“Davis produced a lot of good work on the acquisition of the Printing Company in Akron,” Thomas said. “That deal was a solid year in the making.”
“Yes,” Sam said with some sincerity. “That project came together very well.”
“Of course,” Thomas continued, “most of the good work Davis produced was done by you. . .
“Oh, I wouldn’t . . .”
“You, Evelyn, Bill Ruez, and Marty Jansen in accounting.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Sam said, now utterly confused.
“No, of course you wouldn’t,” Thomas said, “and I appreciate that. But you know it’s true, and so do Evelyn and the others, and so does Vivian—she really does know what goes on in her department. I suspect that even Davis may have some idea of how little of what he took credit for was actually his doing.”
“Then why . . .” Sam started to say in spite of himself.
“Why a tribute dinner?” said Thomas. “And the corner desk on the 23rd floor?” He laughed as though the question was some sort of punchline. “All a matter of perspective, Sam.”
He got up again with his glass, started for the bar, then thought better of it and made himself a cup of coffee at the urn. He started speaking again as he headed back to his chair.
“You work on the 23rd floor,” he said. “You spend long days and no few weekends—I know that too—at your desk or with some really good colleagues you have down there, looking into companies we can use, that can grow our company in the short term and in the long term. You’re really good at what you do. But it’s all the 23rd floor. That’s where your focus is. That’s your perspective of the company. And I work . . .” He paused here and waited for Sam to finish the sentence.
“On the 35th floor,” Sam said.
“No,” said Thomas, with a little gotcha smile. “I sit on the 35th floor. I work in New York and Chicago, California, Akron, Toronto now and Vancouver—and in thirty other cities I don’t actually ever visit but whose resources I supervise. I pretty much run the place, and my perspective is different from yours. I has to be.”
Sam had no idea how he was supposed to respond to any of this.
“No, I’m not drunk,” Thomas went on. “I’m telling you this because it’s important that you begin to think this way, from a different, somewhat larger perspective.”
He sipped at his coffee and looked over the time to see how Sam was taking all this in.
“We gave Davis Lawrence a lovely tribute dinner, a plaque and a corner office,” Thomas said, “because he is going nowhere. He will finish his career with us on the 23rd floor. In a week or two, we will give him a second secretary and two assistants, and he will begin to review and correlate the profit/loss figures from our North American resources. It is a necessary, but in no way analytical, accounting job. He will do it just fine.”
Sam nodded, not being quite sure, himself, if he was nodding to agree that Davis would do an acceptable job as an accountant or if he was nodding to suggest that he was understanding where Thomas was going with all this.
“In two or three years, he may realize that you and Evelyn and Bill and Marty are gone, no longer on the 23rd floor. That you’ve moved up to larger things, more important responsibilities. Or, for that matter, he may not even notice.”
“But why keep him on?” Sam’s question was sincere curiosity. When he heard the words come out of his mouth, he was afraid that it sounded resentful or churlish, but Thomas didn’t take it that way.
“Because from the perspective of where I sit,” he said, “it’s all win-win. You fire the man and it affects staff morale; it can lead to infighting and annoyance. For a few dollars, you give him a plaque, a dinner, a small raise and a bigger office, and you quietly demote him to a position he can handle. And, in effect, we are finished with him.”
Sam nodded. “I understand,” he said. And he did, and he felt both a little foolish that he had needed to have it explained to him and a little privileged that Thomas had chosen to explain it.
“In about two weeks,” Thomas said, “you will start getting some sealed files delivered to you. They will say “Arizona Manufacturing” on them, but, in fact, they will be background we want you to begin to study on areas of the Middle East where we are interested in expanding: the Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain. Really interesting opportunities there.”
“Yes,” Sam said. “I did a research paper a few years ago . . .”
“Four years ago,” Thomas said. “It’s made the rounds. Will Diamond is going to VP the region. You are going to Direct. In six weeks, the three of us will begin meeting on it: develop initial timetables: one year, three year, five year. Build staff and so on. The unit will formally open in four months.”
“Direct?” Sam said. “I don’t . . . I don’t know what to say. . .”
“You’ll have some time to figure out what to say,” Thomas said. “For now, just know it’s a kick upstairs in terms of title, salary, benefits, but mostly responsibility and authority. And this is all extremely under wraps. No one knows. There could be market fallout if anyone hears about this too soon.”
“I can see that,” Sam said.
“I know you can,” said Thomas. “We have big plans for this unit. Or, more properly, we expect you to develop big plans for this unit. Staffing will take up about thirty percent of the 28th floor.”
Sam’s coffee cup was still in his hand. The coffee was not better than lukewarm now, but he forced himself to sip at it without tasting it, trying not to sit as shell-shocked as a park statue.
“You can have a corner office if you like,” said Thomas.
“No,” said Sam, almost blurting it out. “That’s really not necessary.”
Thomas nodded. “All right,” he said.
Copyright 2015 Gary M. Levine
THE OPEN DOOR IS NOT ALWAYS OPENED; THE CLOSED DOOR IS NOT ALWAYS CLOSED.
It was the strangest feeling. She would remember it always. She read the letter through, and when she came to the line: “I think I am going to stay in Canberra for a while,” she felt her heart break.
It didn’t “break” of course. There was no sound or sharp pain. It was only that all at once, in the instant it took to read that one line, something was no longer whole inside her, something that was part of her had somehow come apart and would never be whole again. She had never felt anything like that before, and she knew with an absolute certainty that this was what people meant when they spoke of a broken heart: something hollow inside that would never again be filled.
She cried. Her parents, her sister, her friends all sympathized with her, consoled her, but the depth of what she felt was something she could not explain—did not want to explain—to anyone. (Her mother understood it though. Although they would never speak of it, her mother held a small part of her daughter’s pain in her own heart for the rest of her life. )
They corresponded, she and Michael, for a while: how he needed some time after Viet Nam to find his way, to see who he was; how she understood and hoped that he would find ways to make use of his energy and talents. But he never asked her to come to Australia, and she never suggested that he should come back home, and in the course of a few months, the writing stopped.
And things moved on. What would become the IT revolution was still young, and her degree in programming, which consisted of no more than any eight-year-old would learn sitting at the PC fifteen years later, was then a very salable commodity. She programmed for IBM and moved up as time passed. Within a few years, she had moved to a managerial position in a new start-up, and then to better positions in better companies.
She did not avoid meeting people. There were friends and gatherings and dates as well. But nothing ever went being pleasant or comfortable. The men she dated came to understand that sooner or later. Most gave up interest; several became friends. The sadness wore off in time, but the quiet emptiness did not, and it simply became part of who she was. “Just not interested,” her friends said.
She met Tim at a friend’s Thanksgiving Party when she was 32. He was a practicing pharmacist, finishing off his PhD in pharmacology. He was a truly kind person, not shy, but quiet in the same kind of self-contained way that she was, and their friendship grew naturally. After two years, she knew he was going to ask her to marry him, and, as she thought about it, she decided it would be a good match, founded on a very real respect and sincere affection.
When she came home wearing the engagement ring, her mother cried and held her close and said, “Baby, all I want is for you to be happy.” And she said, “I will be, Mom.”
And she was. In the course of a few years, they had three children in whom they both found the great joy and great frustration that comes with children. After their second child, their second son, was born, they decided that Tim should open his own pharmacy, and she left her job to help him. The pharmacy did well, and, in fact, the specialized software she developed to run medical inventory and customer medical records had a life of its own, spawning its own pharmaceutical office software company which she ran for several years before they sold it.
They opened a second pharmacy a few years after their daughter was born. Neither of them was interested in empire building. It was just what they saw as necessary to better serve the community. And a few years later, with the money from the sale of the software company and respectable profits coming in from the stores, they set up a non-profit organization with a few friends and local doctors. The called it The Medication Assistance Program and let other doctors in the area know that the pharmacies would try to help out patients who couldn’t afford their medicine. The need was greater than anyone had anticipated, and after two years, the seed money was more than gone, and in a leap of either faith or foolishness, they threw in more money and hired a director who was tasked with trying to raise more money for the Program without being public about it. In the end, the woman they hired did more than they could have hoped. The Program became her life’s work, and in a few short years, the Program had expanded to virtually all of the doctors and pharmacies in town and, in a more limited way, to both hospitals in the area.
And, as time passed, life moved on more and more quickly: birthdays, vacations, weddings; aging parents, illness, funerals; aches, morning stiffness, appointments with specialists—the early intimations of mortality.
Their friends and even their children would have called them quiet people, perhaps even a little dull, but truly good people and absolutely devoted to each other. And that was true. She knew it was true. It was only that sometimes, she would look at Tim, sitting on the sofa and reading the professional journals as he often did in the evening, and she would wonder how much she had stolen from him because of the hollow place in her heart, what that good, good man deserved from her that he had never had. And, at moments like that, she would quietly sit down beside him and lean her head on his shoulder, and he would put down his book and put his arm around her, and they would sit that way for a time without speaking
Several weeks after their thirtieth anniversary, they were invited to a dinner at their friends Caryn and Eddie. Dinners at Caryn and Eddie’s were always formal. Eddie had made his money in used car parts and thought it was a wonderful absurdity to gather his friends for a really good meal and a kind of game of dress-up that they all played: evening wear, gowns and dinner jackets, a long set table, candles in elaborate glass or silver candlesticks, every now and then a server in livery. The truth was, for all the silliness, it was an evening they all enjoyed.
That evening, as usual, in addition to their usual friends, Caryn and Eddie had brought in one or two “guests,” outsiders to enlighten or enliven the evening. The highlight of the dinner was certainly “Jocko” Robinson, an Australian lawyer with whom Eddie had had some dealings over the year, in town for a vacation “to show the sprogs what the Yanks are up to.” Jocko got into the spirit of the thing immediately. He exaggerated his Australian accent so that even his wife couldn’t understand him, and he did a solid ten minutes on “fighting off those dingo bastards with the horn end of my digeridoo, to keep ‘em from chomping down on roo joeys and furry little koala ears.” Everyone around the table laughed too hard to touch the soup course.
Jocko gave them a minute to calm down and then started in about how “Yanks have never been to Australia. Am I right? Anyone? Anyone here?” Giggles. “You watched Lord of the Rings and now you’ve seen quite enough. Right? Hobbits, all of you. You don’t even know anyone who’s been to Australia. Right. Nobody, right?”
“I know some…” How can she had said that? It slipped out, like part of his joke, and now she couldn’t leave the sentence half-finished; it would make it sound too secret, too significant. She tried to make it sound like a stutter. “I know some..someone who moved to Australia.”
“Oh, do you, darling?” he said. “Skipped out on bail or deported?”
Laughter again around the table, and she hoped that he would just go on. And he probably would have, but her friend Janine said from down the table, “Who is that?”
“A boy we went to high school with.” She tried to make it sound casual, almost incidental.
“What was his name?” Janine asked.
“Michael,” she said. And then she tried to sound as though she were struggling with the last name, as though it had not been in her thoughts every day or more than forty years. “Michael Bridger or Bridgeman….”
“Bridgeman!” Jocko exploded. “Bridgeman! You sent us The Bridgeman! How can Australia ever express its full measure of gratitude?”
“You know him?” said Janine, obviously delighted with the coincidence.
“Know him?” said Jocko. “He was a solicitor in the firm for fifteen years. A mongrel, if ever there was one. Bloody oath to that! All talk, no action. He went through three wives in ten years, and then got caught with both his hands in the till and ended up disbarred, a crim in the state jail. Last I heard, years and years ago, he was out and was heading off to Alaska to sell ice to the eskimos. The Bridgeman! And he comes from here! Thank you so much, U S of A, for your contribution to Aussie culture.”
Jocko’s rant was greeted with a hearty round of applause, more because of its spontaneity—he may have run it all out in one breath—than because of any single joke or phrase. It was as though he had the monologue prepared and was just waiting for the trigger word.
She tried to laugh too, tried to measure her laugh to match everyone around her, but Jocko’s wife, across the table looked at her and quietly put a hand on Jocko’s arm.
“Did you know him well, dear?” she asked.
“Oh no,” she said. “We were just in high school . . .” And the sentence trailed off. It sounded wrong to her, the way the sentence did not end, and she struggled to find something more to say. “And it was all such a long time ago,” she said.
Eddie, their host, perhaps hoping to move the conversation from Jocko, to spread it around the table a little, picked up on what she said.
“Everything is a long time ago, don’t you think?” he said. “If it didn’t happen a long time ago, I generally can’t remember it at all.”
And the group, still in a responsive mood from Jocko’s routine, made various “Don’t I know it?” or “Talk about getting older!” comments to each other.
She knew that Ted, sitting just to her right, was looking at her and that she needed to look back at him, just in the normal way a wife would turn every now and then to look at her husband. But she was looking still at Jocko’s wife and could not turn her head.
Copyright 2016 Gary M. Levine
WHO CAN SAY WHAT IS AND IS NOT A MISFORTUNE? LIFE COMES IN FRAGMENTS …. (ancient Chinese folktale)t
THEODICY 11: A LIGHT BROWN VEST
As always, he came through the light gradually, quietly. First the pain slipped away, and then the fear, and then the heaviness that had come to sit upon him, little by little over years. At last, all the memories became slowly distant and pale and shed their emotions, so that they were a flat, faded picture, half-remembered from long ago.
And yet, when he had passed at last through the quiet light, he still wore a body and found himself standing in a physical place.
The place was a wide dirt road, winding gently between a field of thick summer corn on the one side and patches of wheat and row vegetables on the other. The sky above him gleamed deep blue with threads of cloud hanging from an afternoon sun.
He, himself, was shorter than he had last been and thinner. He wore loose jeans and walking shoes, and his shirt was blue denim with the sleeves rolled halfway up to his elbow; and over that a light brown cloth vest, worn open, with two pockets, one above the other, on each side. He did not think he had ever had such a vest, although he could remember once seeing someone wearing a vest like this and had wondered to himself if the two pockets on either side were really of any use. In fact, looking down at himself, it occurred to him that he was perhaps now the man he had once seen in the vest, and almost without being aware of it, he reached down and picked up two small stones, and, after rubbing off a little of the dirt between his thumb and forefinger, he put one stone in the top pocket of either side of his vest.
He was aware that he had never before worn a body after coming back, nor seen a place with his eyes, and it crossed his mind to wonder why the Lord had chosen to do this. But there was no longer anything like feelings of surprise or concern, and the sense of strangeness drifted away when a warm breeze brushed across his face as it rustled through the corn.
The whisper of the wind in the wheat on the other side of the road was softer than the breeze though the corn, and neither sound was as sharp as the dirt and small rocks crunching under his feet on the road. He heard birds calling over the corn to his left, and he paused to look to his right where he heard barking dogs. There were gthree dogs he could see over the green tops of the low rows of onions. They chased each other in ragged circles, yapping in the front yard of a farmhouse, newly painted yellow and white, not far from an old metal silo and a red barn in need of painting.
He walked on, following the road, glancing around him as he went. The crops were in high summer, and although the sun was pleasantly warm on his face and arms, it was cool for high summer especially on a cloudless day. And then the cornfields ended on his left, and there were hills in the distance and a small pond of still water in the vale before them. He thought to sit and found a chair and a small round table waiting at the right side of the road. He leaned back in the chair and watched the sun move lower over the hills. Light orange strokes began to appear in the west, and the sun grew strangely brighter and larger as it began to settle for the day while on his hands and face he could feel the beginning of the late afternoon cooling of the summer air
He smelled coffee, strong and earthy, and the smell of it alone was enough to make him smile. On the table stood a large white mug, steaming, and he cupped it in his hands and enjoyed the armth. He did not look into the cup before he sipped; he knew it would be dark and sweet and that the first sip would feel pleasantly hot as it went down his throat.
He sat at his table, sipping from his coffee mug, watching the day grow older. The light faded as he watched; the streaks in the sky changed to darker orange, and then red, and then slipped away altogether as the sun set behind the hills.
And then the stars. Only the larger ones at first, but then the smaller and smaller stars appeared as the sky grew black: stars as they only appeared far from the cities where the night was pure, the sky like black velvet cloth to show off the sparkle of the diamonds. And the moon was suddenly there, full and clean, the whole of the moment moving softly in and out on the surface of the hidden pond below.
He watched it all until it began to fade. And he knew that the body was now beginning to fade as well. He would soon, he understood, become spirit, and he understood now that he would not be sent again to wear a body. That was over. He had, after all these many times, learned what he had been sent to learn, and the spirit would serve now as the Lord wished the spirit to serve.
What had spirit learned? There was this strange feeling of hearing the words in the mind of the body he still wore, but at the same time, the spirit knew within itself without words, as a part of itself. There was no action, no intention, no thought: good, bad, wise, foolish, purposeful, random, noble, selfish that did not create infinite ripples that intersected and blended and enhanced and shattered infinite other ripples at every instant of all human time. And in that churning and upheaval which was the world that human beings created at every moment, no one could see the hand of the Lord, or the Lord’s Justice or the Lord’s Mercy. It was only after having lived and died over and over, so many, many times, that spirit could realize that it was just that churning and upheaval with was the hand of the Lord, the Lord’s Justice, the Lord’s Mercy.
And it was in that last moment that the voice of the body and the silence of the spirit together thanked the Lord for a beautiful day.
Glory be to God for dappled things -“Pied Beauty” Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877
Copyright 2019, Gary M Levine
The world was created, God often says, as a little break from all the more serious stuff.
The archangels watched him begin the universe, fill it with spectacles, lights, movement, fantasies growing ever-wider and more intricate. Empty places that erupted from within condensed phases, time that folded in on itself and moved backward and forward simultaneously, stars that circled each other while worlds circled the stars and moons circled the worlds. And always growing and expanding, wonder upon wonder, infinity upon infinity.
“Time” is not a useful term here, but the process went/goes/is forever and immediately, so full, so intense. The archangels stood at God’s side and watched it all—felt it all—unfold, and even they could find no praise exalted enough, no tribute sufficient for the glory of it all. They were so overcome with the grandeur of it that it exhausted them, all but broke them. God saw this and took a step back; he paused a bit.
I’m sorry, he said. That was a little much.
The archangels tried to murmur some humble reassurance, but of course it had been a little much. God knows those things.
Come, he said. A little break.
And the archangels gathered around him as he pointed to draw their attention to a planet turning on its axis, revolving around a sun. Look, said God. And God made a large, hairy quadruped with long, sharp teeth and then two hairless little bipeds, and then he set them all in motion. The quadruped growled and gnashed its long teeth and began to move at some considerable speed toward the bipeds who seemed to realize immediately what the beast’s intentions were. They ran without looking, without thinking. First they ran directly into each other and fell backwards, only managing to scramble away to the sides as the quadruped sprang at them.
One of the bipeds—clearly the stupider of the two—immediately tripped over a rock and didn’t have the sense to get up before the beast grabbed him between his teeth and gobbled him down. The other biped, seeing it, yelped and ran in a panic in whatever direction seemed most available which led in only a few steps to a cliff, over which he sailed right off and right down. The quadruped moved to the edge of the cliff and looked down, apparently unsure of whether to stop there or follow the second mouthful down. In the end, it stepped back, gave a small, satisfied belch and walked away.
The archangels laughed themselves silly. Certainly, part of it was the nonsense of the little bipeds falling all over themselves, running from the hulking quadruped; but more than that, it was the breaking of the tension of all the sustained concentration of the development of an intricate universe. But they laughed so hard that some of them actually rolled on the floor and ruffled their wings. Even God smiled, not that he found any of this funny, per se; it was just such a pleasure to see his archangels happy. In fact, when the laughter had died down a little, God made more hairy quadrupeds and a whole host of bipeds for them to chase and stomp and munch. The archangels began to laugh all over again, and, there was no question about it: they all understood that this was not the glory of Creation, but it was certainly the most harmless fun they had enjoyed since God had ignited the first great fire in the midst of the blackness.
They went back to their important work with a wondrously refreshed resolve. As for God, he noted the difference that a break watching the bipeds had made to the archangels, and seeing that it was good, he let the bipeds and quadrupeds develop on the rotating planet.
And so it became their practice, God and his angels. Every now and then—usually at the end of a particularly intense period of expansion or innovation, but sometimes seemingly at random (although “random” is hardly an accurate term)—God would gather them around, and they would look to see what was happening on the planet of the bipeds. Their numbers grew explosively, the procreative little things! Not the quadrupeds; their numbers were limited. But the bipeds soon filled up whole swatches of the planet. And they always seemed to find new and marvelous ways to keep running into each other. It even stopped being an accidental thing, just two of them running in the wrong direction. No, they did it on purpose now. One would stand at the top of a hill, and then another one would push him off so that he could stand at the top of the hill; and then another one pushed him off, and so on.
And it grew and it grew. The bipeds came with sticks or rocks and then blades and poles to push each other off the hill. And then they came in groups, and it would be a contest of how many of one group could push, stab, poke, beat how many of the other group off the hill. All of it was funny to watch. The biggest laugh always came when one biped would mistakenly push, stab, poke, beat one of his own group or, better still, himself and knock himself down a hill or off a cliff or whatever.
And as the numbers got larger and larger, the bipeds got more imaginative. They learned to ride on the quadrupeds and to run them into each other. And then in little wheeled things and even clunky things that hovered over the ground. Whatever they could try, they used to push, stab, poke and beat each other in larger and larger groups. All the archangels could do was marvel and laugh. And, of course, every now and then the quadruped would roll over and crush his own biped; or the wheeled thing would wheel itself over a cliff; or the clunky thing would rise up into the air and then fall right down again. And that always made the archangels laugh harder than anything else.
It all reached a kind of marvelous foolishness when the bipeds began to make their own fire, and now a whole group of then could burn a whole other group all at once. And then another group would come and burn the second group. And they would try to burn each other from wheeled things and clunky things. And, naturally, sometimes they would burn themselves up by accident while trying to burn some other things. It got to be so much that God had to limit the archangels viewing time for fear that they would hurt themselves laughing and rolling on the floor.
But knowing how much they loved it and looked forward to it, God still made sure to make occasional time for them all to gather around and watch the bipeds. And it was said evermore by the archangels that with the creation of the universe, God had revealed Majesty, and with the creation of the bipeds, he had revealed Happiness.
“Lord, what fools these mortals be!” – Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 3: Scene 2
Copyright 2019, Gary M. Levine
THEODICY 13 — FREE WILL
The assembled angels of God sat before the Lord, their heads bent, their eyes downcast; and God Himself looked at them, from one to the next, without anger or sadness, but with a look of resignation that was darker still.
“I tried to explain,” he said softly. He always spoke softly. “I tried to explain that by being the instrument of My Will, you served as part of My Holiness and that there could be no higher place than to be a part of My Holiness. But some of you said, ‘It would be a higher place to serve out of free choice, out of free will.’
“And so I made creatures of free will for you to see. The first two immediately violated the only rule I had given them. And then the third of them murdered the fourth. ‘This,’ I said to you, ‘is free will.’
“But some of you said, ‘That is because they were flesh. They were not spirit.’ And so I gave some of you the free will you asked for and sent you down to live among the creatures. But those I sent became worse than any of the creatures, violating My holiness forever and exiling themselves from My Presence. And so I destroyed them all, angels and creatures, and I said, ‘I have shown it to you now. This is the product of free will.’
“But then one of you said:…”
God’s eyes did not pause at Ohevel, among the smallest and quietest of the angels, but Ohevel felt the weight upon him as though there were a mountain resting on his shoulders.
“But then one of you said, ‘Perhaps it was because they were new, because they had never seen before and did not have a lesson from which to learn.’ And so I spared several to begin again and to teach those who would come what was right and what was not. And I said to them, ‘I have shown you the path of the right and the good, and you have seen what comes of not following that path. I promise you now that if you will do what is right and good, you will live in happiness and plenty.’
“I left them then to make of their world what they would. I left it, as you asked, to their free will. And you see what has become of them.
“It is all an angry, howling storm of emptiness. They have defiled every holiness and mocked every kindness. Those who still seek to follow the path I gave are broken over and over, until their children ask them why they have not learned to live in the world as it is.
“You asked to see,” God said. “And you have seen.”
And Ohevel, his head still bowed, whispered: “Will You destroy them now, Lord?”
“No,” said God. “They will destroy themselves.”
God departed then, knowing that some of the angels cried.
(There are) those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. –C.S Lewis
Copyright 2019 Gary M. Levine
Copyright 2019, Gary M. Levine
THEODICY 14 — ONE GOOD THING
Fred sat at the wall side of the corner table, an old fashioned glass in front of him. Alicia the ADA stood at the other side of the table looking down at Fred’s drink.
“What is that?” she said.
“A double what?”
“A double on the rocks,” he said.
“A double what on the rocks, Fred?”
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I asked for a double on the rocks, and that’s what he gave me.”
“You don’t drink, Fred,” she said.
He looked at the glass in front of him for a moment.
“Beer sometimes,” he mumbled.
She took off her jacket and folded it over the far chair on her side of the table and then, still standing, slid Fred’s glass over to the chair opposite him.
“Wait,” she said and walked back to the bar.
Fred waited. He put his hand on the table and thought of reaching for the glass opposite him, but he didn’t. He waited until Alicia came back. She put a short beer on the table in front of Fred and took the chair facing him, the one with the double rocks glass waiting.
“It’s bourbon,” she said after she sipped it. “Do you want to tell me what this is about, Fred?”
“You go home drunk,” she said, “and Natalie will lock you in the basement for three days…”
Fred looked up at her.
“…and send the boys to blast that awful music outside the door.”
“She would too,” he said, and he smiled.
“Drink the beer,” she said, and she sipped at the bourbon.
He took a few small swallows of the beer and then looked at Alicia across the table.
“Fred,” she said, “this isn’t about the verdict today, is it?”
“He admitted he shot the man,” she said. “I mean he admitted it, and the man was unarmed, for heaven’s sake.”
Fred nodded. “The man was the head of one of the biggest crime families in the city,” he said.
“The unarmed head of one of the biggest . . . “
“And you got it knocked down to Aggravated Assault,” she said.
“Also true,” said Fred, “but he’ll probably be dead by the end of the month in any case. There’s no prison in the state without soldiers of the Nadia Family. You know that.”
“If he had turned state’s evidence…” she began, but Fred shook his head.
“Then they would have killed his wife and kids. Come on, Alice.”
“Witness Protection?” she said, but Fred just shook his head again.
She finished the bourbon. “Then what’s this about, Fred?” she said.
He looked at her empty glass. “Can I get you another one?”
“No, I’m buying,” she said standing up. “Another beer?”
“No thanks.” His glass was perhaps two-thirds full.
When Alicia the ADA came back with her drink—a single this time—Fred had taken off his jacket and draped it over the back of his chair, and the beer was down to a half glass.
“Sit, Alice,” he said, as Alicia was, in fact, sitting down, but he meant it as an introduction to what he had to say.
“You did a good job, Fred,” she said.
“I did,” he said, “as did you. The trial was fair. The law was clear. I don’t think that there was much I could have done that I didn’t do.”
“So you’re right, Alice,” he said. “The system did what it was meant to do.”
He picked up his beer glass and then sighed and put it back down.
“Fred?” she said.
He held up a hand and nodded.
“Hypothetically…” he said.
She had known Fred for years and knew the opening: the beginning of a summation.
“Okay Fred,” she said.
“…because there is such a thing as lawyer-client confidentiality.”
“I am aware.”
“So, hypothetically,” he said. “Let us consider a hypothetical client. What shall we call him?”
“Bob,” she said, sitting back, glass in hand. “I had a cat named Bob.”
“Very good,” he said. “Bob the Cat.”
“Bob the Cat,” she acknowledged.
“And, for argument’s sake,” he said, “Bob the American Shorthair Cat.”
“Is that a thing?” she said. “A shorthair cat?”
“Absolutely,” said Fred. “American shorthair. A well-known breed. You said you had a cat.”
“It was just a cat,” she said.
“Bob the American Shorthair Cat,” said Fred, “was born into a family of American Shorthair Cats. His brother and sister cats were all, naturally enough, American Shorthairs. His relatives, his friends, his neighbors, and the other cats he knew were American Shorthair Cats. Oh, he saw other cats in the streets: Siamese, Persians, Abyssinians, Scottish Folds . . . “
“You’re just making that one up,” she said.
“Other cats,” he repeated, “So he knew in a kind of theoretical way that that other kinds of cats were out there, but he lived his life, day-to-day, in a world of American Shorthairs. They were his parents, his relatives, his friends. Everything he knew, he learned from them. And the most important thing he learned was that stronger was better and that the closer you could get to the meanest shorthair on the street, the higher up you could go.”
“Simple as that?”
“The first commandment of the shorthair,” Fred said. “He knew it like everyone knew it.”
“Not everyone,” Alicia said. “Some get out.”
Fred shook his head and nearly scowled. “No,” he said. And then, “A few maybe, but not. . . not . . .”
“Bob,” she reminded him.
“Not Bob,” he said. “He doesn’t have the imagination, the intelligence. Bob is a … a zhlub.”
“Zhlub?” She laughed in spite of herself.
“He hasn’t got the imagination of a crushed rock in a roadbed,” Fred said.
“Zhlub,” she said again. “Great word. That’s from Stanford?”
“East Jersey.” he said. “And because he was big and strong and willing to do what he was told, he moved up in the family.”
“No, not smart enough for that,” said Fred. “Foot soldier. Enforcer. He could scare anyone just by walking into the room, and if scaring wasn’t enough, he could do whatever he had to.”
“Whatever he . . . “
“With his fists,” said Fred, “a knife, a gun, a bigger gun . . . “
“Got it,” she said.
“A couple of friends with even bigger guns.”
“Understood,” she said. “Understood.”
“We continue. One day a few years ago, the boss…” said Fred. And then, “What should we call him?”
“’The Boss’ will do,” said Alicia.
“The Boss calls him in and tells him to go visit a hardware store in his area.”
“The Boss’s. The section of the city controlled by the shorthair cats.”
“The Boss needed a distribution point for his drug traffic there,” Fred said. “So he tells Bob to put in a good-size safe in the hardware store’s storage room, so the runners can drop off and the dealers can pick up.”
Here, Alicia looked at Fred over the top of her glass and raised an eyebrow.
“What is that?” she said. “Where does a hardware store come from? You never mentioned that in court.”
“Hypothetical,” said Fred.
“Where?” she said with no small sarcasm. “Here or in court?”
Fred ignored the comment and went on. “The owner of the store was a simple enough man,” he said.
“What was his name?”
“Owner,” said Fred.
“We’re finished with cats?” she said.
“Only to say that Owner was not an American shorthair,” he said. “A simple, decent guy. High school, college, wife, three kids, small house, large mortgage.”
“Got it,” she said. “Not a shorthair.”
“Bob had already met him. The boss’ legitimate company was waste removal, and he had the exclusive on the Owner’s neighborhood.”
“’Legitimate’,” she said.
Fred shrugged. “Trucks came. They took away the garbage. They charged the going rate for doing it. Legitimate enough. So Bob had met the Owner as the rep of the company when the hardware store had first opened.”
Bob dropped by and told the owner that the company wanted to bring in a safe to keep local contracts and papers. It was a convenient place for it, Bob said, and the company would pay a few hundred a month to rent space for the safe in the downstairs break room.
The Owner wasn’t an idiot. He was not unaware of the reputation of disposal companies in the city, and he was a little wary of the offer, but Bob put a simple, one-page contract down on the table.
‘It’s just rental of floor space,’ he said. ‘You won’t have a key or a combination. You have nothing to do with it. Just about two foot square in your break room. The Boss would appreciate your help.”
The phrase, though delivered pleasantly enough, fell someplace between a request and a warning, and the Owner signed and the safe was put in, and, as promised, no one bothered the Owner about it again. People came in occasionally–during store hours only–used the safe unobtrusively and left just as quietly.
In the several years that followed, Bob found excuses to drop by the Hardware Store every few weeks: to check up and this and that, maybe sit for a few minutes in the office over a cup of coffee. It was, and Bob would not have thought of it this way, actually the first and only “friendship” he had ever had with someone outside his world. And, at that, “friendship” would have been too strong. It was just that the Owner was a different kind of person than Bob had ever known before, and it was like visiting a foreign country, someone who saw things differently, had different goals for himself and his family. And a nice man, Bob thought.
A bad shipment of narcotics hit the city that summer: very bad, hospitalizations and no few deaths. And it was widespread, city-wide. The Boss’ district had its fair share, and the newspapers were full of stories and art of dying kids and crying parents. It was not the kind of public attention that anyone in the Boss’ line of work wanted.
The Boss called Bob in one night in mid-August. The street was hot so that Bob’s damp shirt chilled him when he sat down in the deeply air-conditioned office. There had been too much talk in his district about bad drugs and evil drug lords, the Boss said, and he wanted it stopped. Now and quickly. The Boss said it was coming from the hardware store.
Bob tried to dismiss the idea, said that the Owner didn’t know anything and would not have said anything if he did.
“This isn’t a discussion,” said the Boss and he instructed Bob that the Owner was to have an accident immediately, perhaps in a fire that would gut the store before it could be put out. Wherever the talk might have originated, the accident would serve as warning to everyone, and the talking would stop.
The thoughts that went through Bob’s mind took only a few seconds at most. He could not refuse the Boss’ order. He would not carry it out. The only thing that would protect the Owner was for the order never to have been given and never to have been heard. Bob reached under his jacket to the gun in his shoulder holster, took it out, and put two bullets in the Boss’ chest three inches apart.
Then he left the office, closing the door, put the Do Not Disturb hanger over the outside door knob, and left the building.
By morning, the safe had been moved elsewhere, and by mid-afternoon, Bob had been arrested and charged with murder.
“Are you saying you suborned perjury?” Alicia said.
“All hypothetical, Alice,” said Fred.
She looked down at her glass, but she had finished that drink too.
“You could have told me about this,” she said, but she knew as she said it that it was nonsense.
“The only way the Owner stays alive is that no one knows he exists,” said Fred.
“This must all have been very hard for you,” she said.
He shook his head.
“No, I’ll tell you what’s hard,” he said. “Bob our American Shorthair made maybe one purely uninfluenced decision–free will decision–in his whole life. One good thing in his whole life. And for that he is going to jail and will probably be dead in a few weeks.”
Alicia could not think of a response.
“That’s the system,” she said finally, and it felt lame to her as she said it.
“Yes,” he said. “You’re right. That’s the system. But it isn’t justice.”
“The system is the best we can do,” she said. “It’s what we have.”
She looked at poor Fred across the table and saw the small beer glass in front of him was still half full.
“You don’t like beer very much, do you?” she said.
A little laugh in spite of himself. “If I liked it, it wouldn’t be wallowing,” he said.
“Some wallow,” Alicia said. “Call Natalie and tell her you’re bringing me home for supper. We’ll pick up some cake for the kids on the way, and we can try wallowing over dessert.”
She stood up a bit unsteadily, and took her jacket from off the chair.
Fred eased out of his chair as well and reached for his own jacket.
“Not justice, Alice,” he said, following her toward the door.
“It’s what we have, Fred,” she said again.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord – Is. 55:8
Copyright G.M. Levine 2021
THEODICY 15 — AT BEST, A METAPHOR
None of what I say here is strictly correct.
I will try, but I’m afraid I can’t explain any of this in words you can understand because you are human, and therefore everything I tell you can only be, at best, a metaphor and not a very good one at that.
It might help for you to think about it in terms of physics: of natural laws about how things function. Things have mass, weight, dimension. They take up space, displace water. You know all that. But all that matters so much to you because it is the only way you can understand the world around you. The way you perceive everything around you is reflected in the laws of physics. It doesn’t matter if you can actually recite the laws or not in numbers or in words; you know them instinctively, as the only way the world can function.
A science fiction thing: imagine an alien race that comes by from another galaxy to say hello. Their perceptions are different. They don’t work by physics. They perceive auras. In color. They understand ten times more about everything by the interaction of the colored auras than any human being can possibly comprehend. Your physics is so irrelevant to them that they can’t even be bothered to consider it. More than that: considering what they can understand and what you can understand, your dependence on physics is actually a drawback for you, a handicap.
We’ve all seen that movie, right? Or something like it.
And the most limiting law of physics is time. I could ask you to imagine a change in gravity or centrifugal force so that things fell up or sideways instead or down, or maybe planets flew off into space or whatever, and you could picture that and perhaps laugh at it. But you couldn’t imagine not-time. Everything, everything you have ever seen or imagined starts at some point, develops, and the fades. Everything. Plants, animals, day, night, lunch, parties, love, hate, and of course you and everyone else you have ever known. It is beyond you to conceive of anything which does not start, develop and fade.
I say a word to you. Take the word “word.” It starts with pursed lips opening with slight breath exhaled and a vibration of the vocal chords; then the lips extend to the sides, lengthening into the vowel and then back toward the center with the tongue moving toward the roof of the mouth for the “r;” and finally the tongue touches the roof behind the teeth for the aspiration of the “d,” slightly lighter than the “t.” It takes. . .what?. . .half a second or so. But the important thing is that it cannot happen without the passage of time. Start, development, fade. Everything.
If our sci-fi aura aliens did not share time with us: if all things simply “are” to them unchanged and unchanging—the interplay of the colours, complex and labyrinthine beyond our experience: if it all simply exists without start, development, fade—how could we relate to that? Or even comprehend that?
And what if it were not sci-fi aura aliens, but God?
When we say that God is “eternal,” children can only imagine that as meaning that God “started” before anything else started and will “fade” way after everything else or maybe never, whatever that may be.
But that is not what “eternal” means in this context. God simply “is.” He never “was;” He never “will be.” He never began; He cannot fade. And while you may accept that theoretically, there is no possible way that you can even imagine it in any practical sense.
So please allow me to explain as well as I can what cannot be explained, and I ask you to try to find what matters to you somewhere within the insufficient metaphor.
God created (as it were) the soul of all things. It is one soul which contains and is part of everything which is and, at the same time, it is unique within each thing. And the soul learns from everything which is, and everything which is within the soul struggles to grow (as it were) in understanding of, and compassion for, everything else. It is only for this purpose that all things exist.
It happened once (and this of course is where the insufficient metaphor breaks down most grievously) that one “voice” within the soul spoke.
“No more,” said he voice. “It is too hard. There is too much sadness, too much emptiness.”
And because the soul was one and complete, the whole of the soul heard the voice and felt the sadness and the emptiness; and the voice and the sadness and the emptiness became part of the one soul, as much as the understanding and the compassion.
And God—and this is the important part—understood as He understands all things; and he released the voice from the soul, but, as He did so, He said (as it were) to the soul of all things, “I am sorry.”
Copyright G.M. Levine 2021
THEODICY 16 — A STORY NECHAMA LEIBOWITZ LIKED TO TELL
Once there was a man who robbed, lied, cheated and swindled all of his life, as a result of which he gained much wealth and honor.
When he grew old and knew that the end was near, he called together his close friends and relatives and said to them: “All my life, I have robbed, lied, cheated and swindled, and, as a result, I have gained much wealth and honor. So my advice to you is that if you which to gain much wealth and honor, you should all rob, lie, cheat and swindle as I have done.”
And with that he took to his bed and shortly after, he passed away.
As for his close friends and relatives, they listened to his advice, and they all spent their lives robbing, lying, cheating and swindling, and, as a result, they all gained much wealth and honor.
And what does all of this teach us about right and wrong?