Three Conversations With God
At dinner, casually, god said: I came across another one today.
On campus. This scrubby bush, with pods like lima beans. It's a pine tree, they say.
Michael, don't start.
For chrissake, it's nothing like a pine tree. It's only because they used to make kerosene from the beans.
Turpentine, you mean. Kerosene is made from petroleum.
That doesn't make it a pine tree.
Turpentine was probably vital to something in former times.
And a pine tree is a piece of Earthly nostalgia. These people canít give it up. Like trying to grow grass in the desert. Which they call rose bushes I suppose.
You're not adjusting very well, are you?
Auberta, these people are systematically deluding themselves.
Michael, you're too concerned with the truth and not enough with people.
People are not concerned enough for themselves to be accurate. Why didn't someone tell me I would need to speak Spanish? Chinese, they said. English and Chinese, like everywhere else.
Do you think that would help?
Dammit, these people don't have the courage to make things over.
I don't think it's courage that's wanted, Michael.
Probably not, he replied heavily. The transmat has only enabled them to reproduce more of the old way.
You ought not discount the importance of everyday things.
Auberta, how can you live to any purpose with such short sight?
Does one need purpose to live?
Why go on, then?
You can't help going on, can you? Auberta said, playing my card.
Without dignity, he insisted, but Auberta had the superior response as usual. Michael often find himself on the short end of the liturgy.
Cats have dignity, Michael. It's a common quality.
The children, Auberta said, are beginning to ask about god. And didn't he think it was about time to sit down with them and have a little talk?
She sat down herself, a dishtowel in her hands, at the patio table where he'd been reading the Saturday morning newspaper.
They've fired that airline pilot who ran out of gas on the way here last month, he said, looking up. Embodied travel. Helium-driven transfer devices. Nothing changes.
Do you want to talk about this, or not?
Not. Where are the children?
Pumpkin is at the McKays' and Squash is playing soccer at school with David.
Oh. He looked off toward the rose bush at the back corner of the fence, thinking it was about time to prune the withered flowers if there were to be any more that summer. Gardening, he thought, abounds in little morals.
I suppose, he said slowly, in the hesitating way that made Auberta so angry. Her time was valuable (it was, in fact, now worth seventy-five cee an hour) and she became impatient waiting for his thoughts to wander home again, dragging their tails behind them, because very often they simply fell off a cliff and died.
I suppose, he said again, it would be easier if they could have a little formula to repeat, wouldn't it. We're Huggerites, they could say, and that would be the end of that. Nobody gives a damn what the Huggerites think. Thank god for religious tolerance.
Auberta simply closed her eyes and waited. Plainly it was going to be at least a twenty-cee subject. Michael gathered himself for an effort.
Who is telling them these things?
Oh, Michael, they're all at the age for this sort of thing. You remember, don't you?
Mm, he said, falling back.
Michael, if they can't get information from us they'll get it on the street.
He sighed. It would be an awful bore to have to codify the principles of Huggerism. I suppose someone would want to know. There always is someone.
That summer Michael discovered that religious feelings he had once had were gone. He caught the last of them, a little creature like a mouse, and spent an hour or so pulling off its back legs and listening to it squeal. It was still twitching when he put it into the garbage disposal.
All his life the creatures had annoyed him, scuttling little things as hardy and numerous as roaches, dirtying everything with their droppings, nibbling all the first fruits. Only one or two at a time could be caught in the open. He'd observed a minimum standard of cleanliness that kept their numbers from becoming obnoxiously great and, like anyone born in the wet climate of the Rim, he'd paid them little attention. Sometimes he had amused himself by murdering one, gazing for a while at the tiny flanks which heaved with pain, the fine gray fur which became slowly quite matted with blood, and the little tongue, no more than a pink string, which darted between its sharp, sparkling teeth, in and out as the animal struggled to breathe, striving to taste some mercy in the acid of this ghastly torture. But all in vain, both for the animal and for Michael, for he knew that these creatures were as devoid of pity as he, and would do the same if they could overrun him. He'd left these mutilated corpses crucified on posts at all their crossroads but they abated their implacable determination not one whit. He began to put them into the garbage disposal instead, as being more hygienic.
It was when he was in the supermarket that he first became aware that he was less troubled by the pest than he once had been. There was one in the cooler when he reached for a package of tortillas, a sight sharply unfamiliar, and for a while after that he pursued them with a bit more of the old zest from the time of my youthful idealism before he became so worldly-wise and tolerant. But he never imagined, since the age of reason, that he could exterminate a whole species of parasite, Religiosus fluellenii, or do any more than hold his ground.
Well I'm damned, he said when he understood the truth. It's a second childhood, it is.
Pumpkin came flying through the sliding glass door. Open, fortunately.
I thought you were at the McKayís, he said.
Hadda fight. She plumped herself down on an armchair to catch her breath.
Nothing. Linda wouldnít give me a bite of her sandwich. Tell me a story.
Wouldnít give you even a bite? Not very polite, was it, to eat in front of you?
No. After I helped her make it and everything.
How do you like that. What was in it?
Davidís red shirt.
We pretended it was ham.
What did you pretend was the mayonnaise? he asked after a momentís thought.
Yuk. No mayonnaise.
Were you really going to eat it?
So it was an imaginary bite you didnít get.
Come on, Dad. Tell me a story.
After giving this request a bit of thought, he waved his hand in the air before my eyes and a book appeared. She knew very well how this was done because itís done every day, but it hadnít yet failed to delight. It was the proper way to begin a story. Soon enough stories will be told every day and begin to make a pedestrian sense and cease to be enigmatic and then she will be able to wave her hand in just that way, with a little mudra of the fingers and wrist, and that will be that.
I think you are tired of The Book of Ka, he said. Letís see something else.
She put on a mouť.
The Book of Doufouz, he suggested.
And so the first page appeared.
I said, she said, thatís enough of that.
Why can't we have a cat? I complained. I wanted a cat to begin with, and now look.
Sorry, Pumpkin. Bad planning.
I don't like this story.
You don't? Here, go wash your face. You've got something icky on it. When you come back I'll tell you another.
But when I got back he was gone.