Chapter Two

The Underworld

1. It Begins With Harry

Harry stirred himself, sat up, and after staring at the bottle of scotch for several seconds, emptied it. Then he turned his attention to the TV screen where Mary Richard’s was performing one of the Homicide mini-documentaries.

“She is beautiful,” his voice slurred. “So beautiful. I could love the world through her.”

Harry belched, petted his small stomach like it was a pet sitting in his lap. There was a hollow appetite in Harry. He wanted without enquiry. Something must be fed. Harry was the servant of his desires. At the sound of Mary’s voice, Harry’s prick raised its head like a drowsing watchdog. A contented Guernsey smile came over his mouth.

I listened to Mary’s voice and I watched Harry. What was the relationship between these two? I did not want to think about Mary and Harry fornicating. I wanted to get back to the office where Murray and Ted were jousting with words, where I could put on my billy-goat gruff routine, where Mary could sit behind her typewriter staring out past the eye of the camera, where I could be comforted by the laugh track. I did not want to be in this room with Harry watching him rub his groin as Mary’s mouth moved in sequence. The mechanics of imagination resonated in my head like an old rusted out nineteenth century machine. It was the speculation of pornography. I wanted to think about something other than the clash of body parts. Why had Lou Grant brought me here? Why was he creating this world where Mary’s voice, sweet, assured, strong, perfectly articulate, was made to sound like a vamp siren. What did Harry hear? Did he listen to the stories of sordid violence or was he intoxicated by a call to some primordial dance of corruption. His hand reached into his trousers. I did not want to be privy to his passion. I did not want to feel his terrible need for another human being he did not know but only imagined; I did not want to be abandoned, left alone to the terrible ache of his lust; I did not want to watch the object of his fixation writhing beneath his adoration. I preferred a up of black coffee and a few good one-liners.

I am both Lou Grant and not Lou Grant. Lou Grant is a fictional television character and yet I felt more real as Lou Grant than I did as myself. I wouldn’t even know how to explain who myself would be. Know thyself! And how would you go about that when the self is a mob of influences, a compilation of urban nightmares? Take anyone from a modern city landscape and drop them into the middle ages and they would be locked away in a tower for their own safety. The late Twentieth Century was populated by disembodied souls imprisoned in straw men talking to each other like a convention of stand-up comics breaking in new material. The Jungian consciousness is television. God sends angels to do his bidding; the devil sends commercials.

2. A Drink After Work Hours At The Brass Rail

TED: I heard some stories, Lou… (giggling) …anecdotes… you don’ t have to tell me, Lou. I really mean that, Lou. It is certainly not something I have to know. Everyone should have…

LOU: Get to the point, Ted.

TED: Are you seeing a shrink?

LOU: I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that, Ted.

TED: So how’s your golf game, Lou?

LAUGH TRACK

LOU: I don’t play golf, Ted.

TED: What a coincidence, Lou. Neither do I. Not since the Celebrity Tournament when I hit Maury Reese with my ball. It wasn’t my fault. The guy takes a size 9 hat.

LOU: Didn’t Maury die?

LAUGH TRACK

TED: Complications, Lou. Doc said that his heart was ready to burst at any moment. He could have taken a spell while driving home in his car, or taking the elevator, or just…

LOU: You gave Maury sugar, Ted.

TED: How was I supposed to know that he was allergic to sugar?

LOU: It was a sugar cube, Ted. He choked!

LAUGH TRACK

TED: So, Lou, are you as looney as they say?

LOU: You don’t want to know, Ted.

TED: I want to know, Lou. Honest.

LOU: I hear voices in my head, Ted.

TED: Well, that’s not so bad. We all hear voices from time to time. I heard voices the other day in the grocery store. Something about my car being parked in a handicap zone. There was no one using it, Lou. How can you be sure those people are handicapped? A sticker on your windshield doesn’t mean you’re handicapped.

LAUGH TRACK

LOU: It’s the booze talking, Ted. I hear voices when I’ve been drinking too much. They are voices that I don’t want to hear. Voices of someone called Harry.

TED: A relative of yours?

LOU: No.

TED: Is it Harry the security guard. Nice fellow. Did you know that he has this amazing collection…

LOU: I hear the voice all the time. Sometimes when I’m having dinner I can hear the salad talking.

TED: You never eat salad, Lou.

LAUGH TRACK

LOU: I hear his voice when I’m driving to work in the morning.

TED: I like to listen to tapes on my way to work. I’m learning French. Parlez-vous francais. You should try it sometimes, Lou.

LAUGH TRACK

LOU: This is scaring me, Ted.

TED: (giggles)

LOU: With murder in our hearts, the only sane man is the porter at the gate.

TED: You drink scotch, Lou.

LOU: Do you own a gun, Ted?

TED: Ah, Lou. I’ve got to get going. I just remembered a date I had with…

LOU: Ted, sit down!

TED: I’m sorry, Lou. I’m just not good at this. You should talk to Murray. I’ve got to go.

LOU: Get back here, Ted!

LAUGH TRACK

TED: Please, Lou.

LOU: Listen to me, Ted. The wife wants me to seek out professional help. I don’t need a psychiatrist to tell me that hearing a voice in my head isn’t normal. It’s a trick. I’m supposed to be having a fantasy. If you’re pretending to be someone, that someone shouldn’t be having psychiatric problems. That should be the litmus test for reality. This is my test, Ted.

TED: I was never good at tests.

LOU: 1. If you’re feeling pain than you’re real. 2. Lou Grant is feeling pain. 3. I’m feeling pain as Lou Grant. Therefore I am Lou Grant.

TED: Well now that that is settled, I’ll be off.

LAUGH TRACK

LOU: Ted!

TED: Lou?

LAUGH TRACK

LOU: I have cold sweats. In the morning my pillow case is soaking wet. One night I cried out Mary’s name.

TED: Mary’s name? Why would you do that, Lou?

LOU: The wife was pretty upset by that. Once I interviewed a fellow in prison who claimed that he had painted several masterpieces. When I asked him where he kept them, he smiled and pointed to his head. Everything is in the head, Ted. Why am I hearing these voices, having this dream? I am not alone.

TED: I never dream, Lou.

LOU: Millions of people are dreaming their lives away. Fantasies. Dreaming about winning a million dollars. Dreaming about becoming famous. Dreaming about getting that girl. Dreaming as much as they can, trying to find some reason for staying alive. Ted…

TED: Yes, Lou.

LOU: I don’t want to die, Ted.

TED: (giggling) Oh, is that all it is?

3. A Phone Rings

Harry’s chest burned as he swallowed the whisky. He shook his head spastically as his attention turned to the TV where Mary Richards was speaking.

“You don’t fuck women like that,” Harry addressed the empty room. “You murder them with adoration and then hold them up… to other women as an example of perfection. All women should have something to shoot for.”

Harry closed his eyes. The phone rang. Harry peaked through the slits in his eyes and smiled. Looking at Mary’s image on the television, he opened his mouth and roared with laughter. Harry kicked the empty can of coke at his feet across the floor at the cat who was curled up in the corner of the room. The cat fled out of the room. This made Harry laugh again. Bringing the bottle of whisky to his mouth, Harry discovered it was empty. The bottle slipped out of his hand, fell to the floor, rolled across the carpet toward the television.

The bottle stopped. The phone continued to ring. Leaning his head back, Harry stared up at the ceiling.

“I’m not fucking in! For the last fucking time, I’m not fucking in!”

4. A Drink After Work At The Red Lion

LOU: Have you ever… you know, with a blonde?

MURRAY: You like blondes, Lou?

LOU: Don’t you like blondes?

MURRAY: I like any woman with hair.

LAUGH TRACK

LOU: Have you ever?

MURRAY: Been to bed with a blonde? Is that what you’re asking?

LOU: Ya….

MURRAY: Well, Lou. There are blondes and then there are blondes. I’ve been to bed with bottled blondes but natural blondes are a rare species.

LOU: Oh. I’ve only been to bed with one woman, Murray.

MURRAY: Well, I hope your wife doesn’t find out, Lou.

LAUGH TRACK

LOU: (braying laughter) Pretty funny, Murray.

MURRAY: It’s an old joke, Lou. You think you’ve missed out on something?

LOU: Well, a guy would like to know that he didn’t miss out on something. I mean, the wife and I have had our moments but… what if it’s a whole lot better than I’ve known?

MURRAY: You ain’t in the grave yet, Lou.

LOU: Actually I am. I’ve been having these dreams, Murray. Keep reoccurring.

MURRAY: Well, we all have dreams, Lou.

LOU: This is the dream, Murray. This conversation we’re having now is part of the dream.

MURRAY: Ted was right.

LOU: What’s this about Ted? Has Ted been talking?

MURRAY: Well you know Ted, Lou. What’s this all about, Lou?”

LOU: I’m dieing, Murray. I’m sitting… actually I’m lying down on a lounge chair in a backyard under this Dutch Elm and I’m having a stroke. I need another drink.

MURRAY: Maybe you’ve been drinking too much, Lou. I’ve heard of guys who…

LOU: I’m not crazy, Murray!

MURRAY: Well, what are you?

LOU: I’m… stuck.

LAUGH TRACK

MURRAY: You’re stuck?

LOU: I’m having a stroke. I’m stuck in the last moments of my life and I’m dreaming all of this.

MURRAY: So you’re not Lou Grant?

LOU: No.

MURRAY: If you’re not Lou Grant, Lou, who are you?

LOU: I don’t remember. I’m not sure.

MURRAY: I’m the one who needs a drink.

LAUGH TRACK

LOU: Did you hear that?

MURRAY: Hear what?

LOU: Never mind.

MURRAY: Have you considered professional… ?

LOU: I’m not crazy, Murray.

MURRAY: Who said you were crazy, Lou? You’re stuck. Maybe you should seek out a professional? A locksmith? Or a plumber? Or a blonde?

5. Michael

“Harry,” a voice from the corner of the room uttered softly. Stepping out of the darkness, a well dressed gentleman in a dark blue three piece suit, hands thrust deeply into his pocket, dropped his head slightly to one side and smiled. It was a face that was rough and ugly, a mean sallow expression, the handsome features that both frighten and attract. His teeth were white, slightly bent. His lips were thin and twisted around a large mouth. He smiled like a mortician on a profitable afternoon. His features were intense like someone whose was totally focused on the moment.

Harry squinted. “How’d you get in here?”

“I’m always around. ” The man laughed. “I’m your guardian angel, Harry.”

Harry muttered something, leaned over a cabinet and brought out another bottle of whisky. The phone began to ring again.

“Aren’t you going to answer your phone, Harry?”

Harry looked up from the cabinet. “You answer it, Michael.”

Michael did not respond.

“You want a drink?” Harry asked.

“Your telephone is ringing, Harry!” Michael repeated.

Harry grunted. “You want a drink or what?”

Michael shook his handsome face.

“I’ll get some glasses; you’ll have a drink.” Harry put the bottle of scotch on the television set and retreated to the adjoining kitchenette.

Michael looked at the phone, still ringing. When he reached over to answer it, the ringing stopped.

“So this is how it begins,” he muttered, then, raising his voice, addressed Harry. “You should answer your phone. It could be an emergency, Harry. Maybe your mother died. Maybe you won the lottery. Maybe the world has ended. People should answer their phones!”

Harry returned to the room with two glasses and a peanut butter tin.

“Ice,” Harry smiled, raising the tin. He sat down on the sofa, placing the two glasses on the floor between his feet, dropped a couple of ice cubes in each, then poured the whisky.

“You should answer your phone, Harry.”

“Why?”

“It could have been me.”

Harry looked at Michael for a moment, than laughed.

“You drunk?” Michael asked.

“Don’t I wish?” Harry unscrewed the bottle of scotch. “Can’t get drunk. Been trying all day.”

Michael turned and looked at the television. The weatherman was bouncing around his set pointing at various highs and lows across a map of the country. “You drink too much, Harry. And you watch too much television.”

“Thanks, mom,” Harry responded, holding one of the glasses for Michael. “So what’s with the threads? Big date? Going to a funeral?”

Michael smiled. “What’s interesting on the tube?”

“Will you take this glass before my arm falls off.”

Michael took the glass out of Harry’s hand. Harry poured some whiskey in his own glass and some in Michael’s.

“I’ve been taping this series they’ve been running on homicides. Murder through the last century. Celebrating the last Millennium. You can’t believe how many strange deaths there have been. Ever wondered how you might die, Michael?”

Michael shook his head. “Not especially.”

Harry raised his glass to Michael and took a swallow. “I’ve been thinking about death a lot. Death wouldn’t be so bad if you could avoid the pain. I mean if you could get into the pain. Enjoy it. I figure a positive attitude can get you through anything. In this series they’re showing, they’ve got this great looking chick narrating. She’s a knockout and she’s got class, real class, Michael.”

Michael raised the glass of scotch to his mouth and tasted it. The light coming through the window cast Michael’s face in shadows so that his head looked like a skull and his hand a spider.

“Murder and beauty.” Harry smiled, shaking his head. “What a concept, eh? And these guys figured out that the best way to present gruesome crimes was to have a gorgeous babe present them. She ain’t blonde but she’ll do in a pinch. I was thinking of making a series like that except it could just be guys being punched out. Really worked over. Knuckle sandwiches in the ribs. Knees in the teeth. You wouldn’t have to show the faces of the guys doing their work. Put masks on them. Pictures of the President. Something witty. You know what I’m saying, Michael?”

“How long have you been drinking, Harry?”

“Since I was about fifteen.” Harry laughed. “What time is it now?”

“Ten thirty.”

“In the morning?”

“Evening.

“Since last night then. What day is…”

“Tuesday.”

“Tuesday…” Harry shook his head, finished his drink and refilled his glass. He smiled at Michael then leaned his head back on the sofa and stared up at the ceiling. A tear cradled in the corner of his eye. “What the fuck am I doing, Michael?”

Michael laughed. “What’s her name?”

“Why do you think there’s a woman involved?”

“You always get philosophic when you’ve broken it off with a lady.”

“She was no lady.” Harry sat up in the couch, his shoulders caught in a twitch. “A bitch! Complaining that I don’t take her out to nice places. God, whose got the money? Telling me I ain’t going to make nothing of myself. Like I ain’t trying, Michael. Like I ain’t trying.” Harry paused for a moment. He rubbed his glass on his forehead. “But it ain’t her. It’s everything.” Harry shook his head and dropped his eyes to the floor. “Have you ever noticed how everything looks like a ceiling? I’m so fucked up, man. Feel like a spectator in my own life. Like I was in the bleachers watching the world go by. Like I was a fat man frying in the mid-day sun having a stroke.”

Harry took another swallow of scotch. He looked up at Michael. “What is it with me and women, Michael? I thought this one was it. We used to talk. Real talk. She seemed so together, always had the right answers for everything that came up. Tied everything up into such neat little packages. No loose ends. Everything dissected, categorized, labeled and put in its place. And what a piece of ass, Michael. I never met anyone so uninhibited. She howled like a maternity ward. And her mouth, Michael. She could smoke a cigarette and suck you off at the same time.” Harry took another swallow of scotch. His shoulders twitched again. “I don’t know what happened. She started to get bored. She warned me it would happen. She told me that she’d make me throw her out. That she’d turn into another piece of furniture. After a while it was like fucking the sofa.” Harry laughed. “She was right. I threw her out. In the middle of the fucking night. The last thing I saw was a cab driving off with her in the back seat. And I knew I’d never see her again. And I never wanted to see her again. And she had planned the whole thing. Ah shit, Michael. One time I’d like to do the right thing by a broad.”

Michael moved out of the light into a pocket of darkness. “There’ll be other women, Harry.”

Harry fell back in his couch and looked up at the ceiling. “And I hear voices in my head, Michael.”

“What kind of voices?”

“Voices. A man’s voice. Some old fart talking to himself. Talking about life, death, all that shit. He’s talking but no one is listening. Like he was on a cell phone and I’m listening in accidentally. Except it’s coming from inside my head. And I don’t want to listen. And some of it is about me. And some of it’s about a woman. Did you ever see that old Barbara Stanwyck film, Sorry, Wrong Number?”

“What the hell are you talking about, Harry?” Michael laughed.

Harry shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know what fucks up your head more, the booze or the women.”

6. A Drink After Work At The Spadina Hotel

MURRAY: You’re scarring me, Lou. I always thought of you as being a rock of sanity and now you tell me that we are living inside a dream. That Gordo, and Mary, and Ted and everyone at WJM is part of your dream. This is very bizarre, Lou.

LOU: In the middle ages there was a fellow named Aldebert who claimed to be a living saint. He declared that he was filled with God’s graces while still in his mother’s womb and by God’s favor was already a holy being when he was born. Before his mother gave birth she had a dream that a calf came out of her right side. Adelbert claimed to have been totally conscious of his own birth and that a special angel brought him relics from the ends of the earth.

MURRAY: Lou, you’ve lost me.

LOU: You think Adelbert was crazy?

MURRAY: One case at a time, Lou

LOU: Life is stranger than we think, Murray. Is this my mid-life crisis? I feel like my life is a country and western song. Maybe it’s the changing of the millennium? Or maybe its the baby-boorners mid-life crisis? Technology has been manipulated to coax us into a social catatonia. Are these dreams the last moments of a society becoming suicidal?

MURRAY: You’ve been reading too much, Lou.

LAUGH TRACK

LOU: Did you hear that?

MURRAY: You keep saying that. What is it that I’m supposed to be hearing.

LOU: It doesn’t stop there, Murray. There’s another dream.

MURRAY: I’m afraid to ask, Lou.

LOU: I’m having a dream about someone named Harry. And he’s infatuated with Mary.

MURRAY: Stop!

LAUGH TRACK

MURRAY: You’re dieing in someone’s backyard dreaming about Lou Grant and the Lou Grant you’re dreaming about is having a dream about someone named Harry.

LOU: (braying laughter) You got it.

MURRAY: What have I got, Lou?

LAUGH TRACK

LOU: And this fellow Harry is drunk on scotch.

MURRAY: I’m not surprised.

LAUGH TRACK

LOU: You really don’t hear that, do you?

MURRAY: What am I supposed to be hearing, Lou?

LOU: Forget it. This fellow Harry is real low life, slime bag. He lives in a kind of underworld…

MURRAY: Dante’s inferno.

LOU: Could be a basement apartment or a flat on the first floor of a house. And he won’t answer his phone.

MURRAY: I hate phones.

LOU: There is nothing so real as a phone ringing. The beep. A birth. Waiting. First there was the Word. Let the heavens leave their message! What a joke! The universe has nothing to say. We are the only ones who have anything to say and we won’t utter a word unless we have our lawyer present. Or unless there is a buck to be made. That’s what I love about capitalism. Brings everything back to ground zero. The bottom line is our sun, our North Star, our Cartesian ground. It is not money or power that attracts our entrepreneurs; it is the illusion of reality. And the phone is ringing. And if he would only pick it up, all of this might stop.

MURRAY: And then what, Lou?

LOU: There might be a recorded voice, a message, an answering machine. We might be able to leave a message for someone.

7. It Is Always Dark

Michael took a handkerchief out of his suit pocket. A mole was bleeding on his neck. Michael wiped his neck, looked at the blood and put the handkerchief back in his pocket. Stepping across the room, Michael stared out the window into the night.

“You owe me money, Harry.”

“I’m good for the money, Michael. You know that. I ain’t going to stiff you. But now… it ain’t a good time for me. I gotta get my head together.”

“Give me something, Harry. I need something for the street. Word gets out, Harry, that I’m being cuckold, everybody will be fucking me around.”

Michael turned and looked at Harry.

“I ain’t got no bread, Michael.”

“Something, Harry.”

“I ain’t got it. You don’t know what it’s been like.”

“Nobody knows what it’s like to be Harry.” Michael smiled at Harry then glanced out the window again. “How can you live in this dump, Harry? Why don’t you go out and get a job. There’s a world out there for the taking and you sit in his hovel and feel sorry for yourself. Get a regular job, Harry. Make an honest living. Meet a girl, marry, settle down and have kids. And pay me back my fucking money!”

“Give me some of your action, Michael. Something on the street.”

“You ain’t got the balls for the street, Harry. I love you man but they’d eat you alive out there.”

“You don’t understand.”

“Then you tell me, Harry.”

“Its not women. Or sex. It’s everything. I can’t get a handle on anything. Things keep moving around on me. It’s all racing by too fast. I don’t see nothing in front of me but a great void, a great nothingness. I just want everything to stop long enough so that I can get my bearings. Michael, you think I want to live in this dump. I need a second chance. There must be something you can use me for. I ain’t had any luck. Maybe I made some bad choices. Everyone makes mistakes. I just don’t seem to be good at much. I just keep fucking up, Michael. If you have to bust me up to prove something in the street, go ahead. Bust me up. I can’t feel a damn thing anyway.”

Michael drew a hole in the dust on the window with his fingertip. “You’re a drunk, Harry.”

“I’m not a drunk. Maybe my body is a drunk, but my head is like a rock. Voices. I see things. Swirling around. I can’t stop it. Been drinking for days now and I can’t stop it. Want to stop thinking. Want to stop hearing his voice in my head. Michael, I want it to stop.”

Michael turned sharply around. “Don’t press your luck, Harry.”

There was no answer. Harry had passed out.

8. Lou In The Elevator With Ted

LOU: I am back in the real world, in the middle of my backyard, in a lounge chair, having a stroke. I can feel my chest melting. The low sizzle of skin. Drops of perspiration tickling my breasts. A low breeze moves the trees slightly. The sun slips behind some leaves and for a brief moment a chill crawls across me. I have known this feeling all my life. It is death. Me and death are old friends; I’m like a big brother to her. To me, death is always innocent, unaware of its awful affect on us. Death is a young girl skipping rope, reciting an old chant.

TED: Lou, are you feeling alright?

LOU: A few yards behind, the compost is groaning, the low growls and farts of digestion. When I was young, the nuns talked about the soul as if it were some kind of spiritual black hole out of which nothing escaped. We knew nothing of its nature except that it existed. Perhaps when we die, the spirit of the body is sucked into the soul like a star collapsing into itself. We have become a single moment, a thought. The definition of homo-sapiens: I am here. And that is all there is, Ted.

TED: Excuse me, Lou. Am I supposed to be writing this down?

LAUGH TRACK

LOU: The modern consciousness has been reduced to amoeno acids. In the last century we seemed so complex, interesting. What happened? As the world grew smaller with the developments in transportation, telecommunications and satellites, did we shrink? Has the weight of information and experience pushed us back into the ghetto of our own thoughts? Are we the first children of a continually crowded world? Information, data running through our heads like whisky through a drunk’s veins. Nausea. I can’t allow myself to barf. I’ll choke on my own vomit. Must stop this swinging. Must stay focused. I have one pure emotion remaining -anger. What is this anger? Anger is the engine of despair, driving me through the merry-go-round of each day. What is the rage that my soul sheaves? That my body can barely restrain? What is this muttering in my soul like a drunk constantly railing against everything? And I see it all around me, from the girl who checks out my groceries to the lawyer who advises legal matters at the station. Everyone has this mean spiritedness about them like they’d just been cheated out of some inheritance. Let’s blame it on the fucking ozone layer. I have to get out of the sun. I’m dieing, Ted.

TED: (giggling nervously)

9. A Drink After Hours At The Brunswick House.

MURRAY: So what’s this backyard like?

LOU: Backyard?

MURRAY: You said you were having a stroke sitting in a lounge chair in a backyard.

LOU: A backyard. Nothing special. Lot of trees. Squirrels. Sprinkler. Waving back and forth like a hoola-dancer. The arc of water like the swaying hips of the dancer. You ever been to Hawaii, Murrray?

MURRAY: I was stationed there during the war.

LOU: Someone is cutting their lawn. I can hear a radio. There’s a baseball game on. It’s hot.

MURRAY: Whose playing?

LOU: You’re missing the point, Murray! The Twins are playing.

MURRAY: Whose the home team, Lou?

LOU: Who do you think? So you were in Hawaii. Did you ever see From Here to Eternity? I really had a thing for Deborah Kerr.

MURRAY: You said you were drinking beer. Lou, you hate beer. You always drink scotch.

LOU: That’s right. I never drink beer. It must have been very hot. I was thirsty.

MURRAY: Were you wearing shorts? You once told me that you looked like a walrus in shorts.

LAUGH TRACK

LOU: Would you get to the point, Murray.

MURRAY: Don’t you think that if you were really having a stroke in a backyard you’d have more details? It’s my guess, Lou, that having a stroke in a backyard is the real dream, a nightmare that has frightened you so much that you’ve mistaken it for reality.

LOU: (braying laughter) So that’s the dream and this is the reality?

MURRAY: I recognize that I have a vested interest in this conclusion but I think that it is the correct one.

LOU: You’re a hell of a guy, Murray!

MURRAY: You’re drunk, Lou.

LAUGH TRACK

LOU: Did you hear that?

10. Michael Is Alone

Michael turned from Harry and looked around the room, at the dried out hanging plants, the flaccid limbs dangling from the pots, at the paint peeling off the ceiling, at the flickering television screen, at the dust on the windows, the discarded clothes scattered across the floor, the posters now faded and hanging precariously on the walls. Michael looked at Harry, passed out on the chair. Reaching into his pocket, Michael retrieved his handkerchief and wiped his brow and neck, careful not to smear the blood on his skin. A spider dangled on a fine thread from the ceiling in Michael’s face. Michael smiled. With the wave of the handkerchief, the tiny creature was gone. Michael looked down at Harry and spat.

11. Harry Wakes Up

“What!” Harry cried, startled out of his sleep.

“Gotta get out of here, Harry.” Michael looked down at Harry. “The air is bad. Don’t you ever open a window around here, Harry? God, you’ve probably been recycling your farts for months.”

Harry looked at Michael with a puzzled expression. “What?”

‘This dump.”

“What’s wrong with it? I’m happy.”

“Happy!” Michael laughed.

Harry leaned over his glass and cleared the phlegm out of his throat and spit it into his glass of scotch.

“I’m going down to the Blue Lagoon.” Michael ran a finger around the inside of his shirt collar. “Some business to settle with Bud.”

“What kind of business?” Harry asked with an innocent curiosity.

Michael glared at Harry for a moment.

Harry swallowed. Wrong question.

“Somebody is trying to fuck me, Harry. Fuck with me, big time.”

“Oh!” Harry wiped some phlegm off his cheek. “I didn’t hear anything. Not that anyone talks to me. I’m just Joe Smoe. But I could scout around for you, Michael, if you want. What’s it all about?”

“Are you coming to the Blue Lagoon, Harry?”

Harry grimaced.

Michael stepped over to Harry, grabbed his glass of whisky and threw it into the corner. The glass shattered against the wall.

“What’d you do that for?”

“Come on. I’ll buy you a drink at the bar. Sheila will be there.”

“Ah!” Harry cried, shaking his head, “Sheila’s not interested in me! She’s your girl.”

“Who told you that?” barked Michael.

“Everyone knows it.” Harry straightened up in his chair, waiting to defend himself. “It’s been common knowledge that you two have…”

“Sheila’s been talking!”

“She don’t mean nothing by…” Harry stammered defensively.

“That big mouth bitch better…”

“Ah Michael, she’s crazy about you. I don’t know why you treat…”

Michael ground his teeth.

Harry climbed to his feet and stepped over to turn the television off when another of the Homicide series came on.

“Be right with you,” Harry said, switching on the VCR.

HOMICIDE

‘She was standing there with her hands in her back pockets leaning against a tree. Bold as the sun. The top three buttons of her blouse were undone. Even though it was almost noon, the moon was smitten. I stood there confused and burning up in the shade.’

Marshall Johnson, 32, Eau Claire roofer, has admitted in a signed statement the slayings of Raymond Smith, 18, bank clerk, and Gertrude Bauman, 17.

‘I was just returning from a hunting trip. I must have startled them as I stepped out of the shade. The boy came toward me. There was a scuffle. I pushed the kid onto the grass and shot him. The girl started to scream so I shot her too. She looked good with blood on her blouse. I smiled. The boy got back up again and I shot him two or three more times. The girl wouldn’t stop crying so I finished her off.’

The bullet-ridden bodies of the couple were found October 24 near a golf course. An autopsy declared that the girl had been raped. Sheriff Thompson said that portions of Johnson’s statement were withheld in order to clarify some points in the case.

‘I’m sorry for what happened. Really made a mess of it this time. All a mystery to me. I knew what was happening but I just sat back and watched. Watched myself murdering. Didn’t seem to be any crime in watching. Never raped no one. She was covered in blood. Ask the cops, there wasn’t any blood on me.’

I’m Mary Richards and that’s the way it was November 3, 1948.

Chapter One

I Am A Corpse

1. Dieing

I am a corpse. I am having a stroke in a lounge chair on the outskirts of the American Empire on the ledge of a small blue planet in the suburbs of the Milky Way during the first days of the third Millennium. I can hear children in the next block on their bellies crawling through the bushes. There is a cat above me, walking along the telephone wire like a trapeze artist. He tip-toes across with such delicate bravado. I wish I had a camera. A lawnmower two houses down is blasting out music, a Bob Dylan song I’ve never heard before but there is no mistaking the great bards vocal tones. Ants are crawling up the beams of sunlight marching in goose steps like little Nazis toward the sun. Sweat is rolling off my forehead and into my eyes like tears retreating.

In this moment I can smell the lawn bleeding. I shouldn’t have bothered to mow the lawn. Perhaps that brought on my stroke. But the grass was so long you could have parted it down the middle and slicked it back like a mortician might the recently deceased. I hope they don’t manicure my face before they place me on public display. I was never a handsome and was proud of it. I don’t want to be painted up to look like one of Picasso’s blue women.

My fingers tingle. The muscles on my arms and legs are flaccid. I have a craving for bacon, scrambled eggs and sausage, and gravy on toast. How I love American cuisine. My cholesterol was too high. For years I have been trying to control it and now in my last moments I would like a good breakfast. The machinery of my existence is breaking down. My bowels are relaxing. A pool is spreading out from my crotch. There is no feeling in my legs. The muscles on my arms are twitching. The throat has dried up. My tongue races around in my mouth like some creature caught in the jaws of a trap. I am having a stroke. I can feel my arteries expanding like inner tubes ready to burst. My veins turning brittle are popping like lights on a Christmas tree. Is this a test of my personal civil defense system? It is the panic of stillness. My Absolute Moment is coming to fruition. I’m not ready. This is not a good time. I still have payments to make on the house. I was losing weight. I stopped drinking. Not all at once, I grant you that. And I was trying not to think about sex every five minutes. My voting habits were becoming more conservative. I voted for Mayor Anderson and his recent crusade against pornography. I supported the movement to have cats put on leashes and bicycle helmets made mandatory equipment for cyclists. And women’s rights to choose. And I can’t seem to stop talking.

I have always talked. Since I was a kid and my mother took the teat out of my mouth, I’ve been talking. I wake up talking. I talk in my sleep. I interrupt people when they’re talking. I talk during movies. I talk with my mouth full of food. I do not talk while I am being intimate with a woman. Not unless I’m asked to. When I was a kid over the breakfast table my old man used to bet me a quarter that I couldn’t refrain from talking for five minutes. I never made a dime off him. And now as I lay here dieing, in the midst of a stroke, I can’t stop talking. But does anyone hear me? No one ever listened to me. That’s what’s wrong with people. They never learn to listen. It would be a far better world if people learned to listen. Especially to me. Not that I was Bertrand Russell. But I had my story. Like right now, I’m laying here looking at God straight in the eyes. God has a receding chin. No wonder he’s always wearing a beard. And he has very little personality. God is a chartered accountant with a wired sense of humor. Or perhaps God is a mortician preparing us for our long journey through nature’s decomposition. Or maybe a publisher with a musty smelling manuscript growing in his lap. I am looking my creator straight in the eyes and I have a story.

2. My Story

My story began in games. Children’s games. Eight and nine year olds playing the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the first episode in which we learn why the Lone Ranger dons a mask and becomes a defender of justice. We also acted out episodes of Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Davy Crockett, and Superman. Every kid knew that George Reeves who played Superman had jumped out of a building, forgetting that he was not the Man of Steel. And every kid knew that Davy Crockett patched up the Liberty Bell. He was a welder. And every kid knew that Roy Rogers and his horse were one creature, but why was his sidekick Brady driving around in a jeep?

In adolescence our stories changed from adventure to athletics. I played Jim Brown, the great Cleveland back, carrying half a dozen of my friends on my back down the field toward the goal line. There were Foster Hewett scenarios played out in our heads as we streaked in off the wing like the Big M, or dipsy-doodled down the middle of the ice like the Pocket Rocket, or taunted opponents with the cheeky finesse of a Carl Brewer. In the summer we learned to hit like Rocky Nelson, the big slugger for the Toronto triple A club. He had a peculiar way of standing with one foot perpendicular to the other. Rocky Nelson later went up to the majors with the Dodgers, a big bat off the bench. I remember listening to the World Series on the radio and when Rocky came to bat I felt as if I was up there with him. I could hear the crowd, feel the dust at his feet, and smell the sweat running down his arms and into his hands. The sky was blue, the sun was yellow, and the grass was painted neon. And when the first pitch arrived I could feel the muscles in his arm tighten and Wickenhauser, my grade six teacher yelling out, “Are you listening to a radio, Grant?”

In our stories we felt at home. Harmony ruled. It was safe for we knew what was coming. Even our conflicts were so structured that they almost always had a peaceful resolution. I remember one warm afternoon in May when I was challenged to a fight by one of the schoolyard toughs. His name was Higgins. Though not a large kid, Higgins had a reputation as a fighter. Chewing gum, hair dangling over his eyes, jeans hanging low over his hips, Higgins struck a menacing pose. I don’t remember the reason for our fight. Perhaps there was none. But Higgins had challenged me and I had to respond. All the kids in the schoolyard formed a circle into which Higgins and I entered. Higgins snarled at me. I stood, hands at my side, and waited to be pummeled. The crowd was silent. Higgins ambled up to me, grinned, and swung. I ducked. Higgins missed, swirling passed me. The schoolyard broke into laughter. Higgins looked at me and then down at his feet where his trousers were now curled. The fight was over.

As we entered our twenties we exchanged jocks for rock stars and still we kept dreaming; about playing a guitar and shaking our long hair and girls fainting at our feet, about having money, and adulation, and interviews with straight-laced reporters named Jones who never understood what were up to. I used to hang out in Yorkville, the local coffee house area, in one of my father’s old suits, faking an English accent, hoping girls would mistake me for Brian Jones of the Rollingstones, which worked wonders for me until he drowned. The story was that Brian was on acid and thought he was a fish. He ended up a bottom feeder.

At college there were new roles to play. . Sometimes I was an existentialist, smoking too many cigarettes, drinking pots of black coffee, and pretending that alienation was my Cross. I especially craved the attention of young girls with straight long hair, mini skirts and see-through white blouses. Love was my god. It was lovely to walk around for hours with an erection strapped down inside skintight jeans. At college, I drank a lot of beer, and lived lonely evenings in dreams that played out in my head like black and white matinees at the old Runnymede theatre. I graduated in media studies, got a job running cable at the CBC, learned to operate a camera. Life became boring. My employers found me to be diligent, punctual, hard working and enterprising. I was able to function very successfully on two levels. My body, the robot, paid my rent; my imagination kept me sane. In time the place normally labeled reality became the closet where I kept my body. My soul was the stuff of stories.

I loved situation comedies on television, loved the way the characters bounced one-liners off each other, punctuated by a laugh track. (There was a woman’s voice in the laugh track that I recognized as my Aunt Eunice. It was a lovely laugh that seemed to break temporarily into hysteria as if it had suddenly reached a moment of orgasmic enlightenment.) These characters (for me they were real people) in sitcoms lived an idyllic existence, a life quietly sifted through a gentle humanity that ordinary life could only faintly duplicate. There was no down time, no moments of tedium, no flat line existence. People tolerated each other. There was no pettiness that was not humorous, no anger that embittered, no sense of loss that was intolerable. And even in the depths of despair there was always next week show.

I watched all the sitcoms. There was the Nelsons, and the Honeymooners, Leave it to Beaver, the Andy Griffith Show, Car 54, but my favorite was the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Like every other red blooded North American, I fell in love with Mary Richards, the character Mary Tyler Moore played on the show. Sometimes I saw myself as Lou Grant, her crusty cantankerous, always loveable boss.

3. The Newsroom Staff

I slept through my years at the Corporation as we called the CBC. Even though I operated a camera on several prestigious programs, I lived each day as the forty seven year old, bald, fat, grumpy, Lou Grant, dreaming through all the episodes of the Mary Tyler Moore Show until I had exhausted all the scripts and began to create stories of my own. In my stories I had the same staff members, the same offices as WGM of Minnesota. But my characters began to evolve, to become something more than they had been imprisoned in the original show.

My main writer, Murray Slaughter, was an odd fellow. Like myself, Murray had a reclining hairline, but unlike myself, Murray wore a toupee. He wore it shifted slightly on his head to one side like a French beret. Murray was quite the lady’s man and was not beyond boasting about his recent conquests, keeping a record of his girls, as he called them, in an album of raw Polaroid snapshots. This is somewhat at odds with the Murray Slaughter of the television series, but then, all of my colleagues had more of an edge to their personalities than was apparent on the tube. Murray and I got along. I made Murray laugh, especially when I insisted that he was not being true to his nature, which was as a devoted husband and father. Not that Murray didn’t love his wife, Marie. Murray had vices. The ladies was one: the ponies was another. They were related. Murray followed anything with a tail. It was never difficult to find Murray when he wasn’t at work. The Chez Moi, a small bar tucked into a side street near the corner of Bloor and Yonge in Toronto, was filled every evening with gamblers and low life drifters and Murray was always in attendance. I don’t know why Marie put up with him but I guess there are women who can’t live without some abuse, not that Murray ever hit his wife, not that I know of, not that it would have been any of my business. I make it a rule — never get involved with the private lives of anyone on staff. I hate personal stuff. I was not against someone having a vice; I have several of my own and cherish them as I do my own children. Everyone has their vices and it’s better that they are out front and not in hiding where they can suddenly rise up in moments of stress like relatives who only show up at funerals. But personal intimate discussions made my skin crawl.

Gordie was my weatherman. He was colored, though he claimed he was Italian. I hate that word colored. No one calls Italians brown, or Swedes beige, or Irish poke-a-dot. On several occasions Gordie was ready to bust my chops because I made some reference to his ancestry. “Nothing to be ashamed of Gordo,” I would say. “There’s no one I respect more than Martin Luther King.” This was before Dr. King was assassinated. Not that Dr. King’s assassination ever came up on the show. Generally speaking. Murder puts a damper on humor. Gordie was in denial. We wanted to put him in sports but Gordo had no interest at all in football, or baseball, or hockey. The only sport he showed any interest at all was the Tour de France and no one thought that our market share would increase with Gordo’s analysis of the flying Belgians. Gordie did the weather. He loved it. Said the weather was the sound of God’s bodily functions.

Ted Baxter was our news anchorman. Although he was a few inches too tall and had a little bit too much black in his hair (which I attributed to the use of Grecian Formula), Ted had the same bumbling bluster as his television counterpart. It was great having Ted around the newsroom, like having a portable and moving dartboard. Ted came to us directly from the movie industry where he had been doing promotional projects for various products. One that he was exceptionally proud of was a film done for the plumbing industry on industrial attire.

Although everything else was in place, our office had no Mary Richards. The newsroom lacked a certain sweetness and innocence. And until Mary showed up, I could still return to the real world, to my job as a cameraman at the Corporation, to paying my bills, to driving home to my wife and children each evening. Each world was separate from the other but all that would change the day she walked into my office. It was a slow news day in mid-August. I think the Pope was praying for peace some place. Murray’s tongue was hanging out the side of his mouth as he opened the door to my office and stuck his head in.

“Guess whose here, Lou?”

I looked up impatiently. I hated being interrupted especially by chirpiness.

“You gotta guess, Lou!”

I let out a low animal growl.

LAUGH TRACK. Did you hear that? I hate laugh tracks but I cannot separate it from the show. It’s embedded in my head like some indelible character. Maybe it’s the devil gargling.

Murray stepped to one side and a lovely young woman stepped in. Murray smiled at me with those adult rated eyebrows. Murray introduced us. For a moment I was stunned and said nothing. I dismissed Murray and reached over my desk to shake that small trembling hand. Mary smiled nervously. Mary always seemed to be nervous around me as if she thought I might suddenly lunge for her throat. She’d just graduated from journalism, and was hoping that she might get a job in our newsroom, making copies, making coffee, and running errands. And then she started to cry. God, it happened so suddenly. I wasn’t prepared.

“Don’t…” I barked.

Mary wept harder.

LAUGH TRACK. You see what I mean. I hate that. This should have been a dramatic scene. My first meeting with the lovely young princess of our story, but the laugh track change it into farce.

Mary reached into her purse and pulled out a tissue. I would have used the name of a commercial product but these things were still being negotiated.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Grant. I don’t know what’s come over me. Oh this is…”

“Please. Miss Richards,” I muttered turning away. I can’t stand to see a woman cry. I never know what to do with my hands.

“You don’t know how difficult it is to find work, Mr. Grant. You can’t get a job because you don’t have enough experience and you can’t get experience unless you get a job. It’s a catch 32.”

“22!”

LAUGH TRACK

“Excuse me, Mr. Grant?”

“Catch 22.”

“Are you sure? My eye makeup is running. I must look awful. It’s just been one thing after another. Mildred died last night. Well, not really died. She was eaten by Jack. Rhoda warned me about Jack but I thought they’d work things out. I guess I turned a blind eye. I woke up to find Mildred’s sweet little head and feathers in the sugar bowl.”

LAUGH TRACK

“Jack ate Mildred?” I turned back to Mary who was dabbing her eyes with the tissues. She looked like a raccoon.

“Jack is my cat,” Mary explained.

“And Mildred is…”

“My cock-a-too.”

LAUGH TRACK

“I really need a job, Mr. Grant. I’ll work free for the first month if you’ll just give me a chance.”

“Whose Rhoda?”

“My best friend.”

“Thank God!”

LAUGH TRACK

I thought for a moment. Dramatic effect. “Look. Miss Richards. We don’t need a gopher. We have Ted.”

LAUGH TRACK

Mary’s lip began to tremble. Tears welled up in her eyes once again.

“No, not again,” I pleaded.

“I can’t help it, Mr. Grant. You must think I’m just a foolish young girl. I really am quite bright. Graduated with straight A’s.” Mary rambled on for some time in this manner, swinging from a detailed account of all her academic accomplishments to bouts of uncontrolled weeping.

“Miss Richards!” I interjected when there was a pause in the action. “We have a position as a junior writer and if you would be willing to go through a period of…”

“Oh, Mr. Grant!” Mary cried, a broad smile sweeping across her face. I stared at her, amazed. I think I might have smiled. And laughed. I have this ridiculous laugh like Goofy, the Disney character. Mary smiled. I thought I heard wedding bells. I was falling in love with her. Everyone fell in love with Mary.

4. Panic Attack

Everything changed. More and more I found myself locked into my fantasy world. I couldn’t stand being without my Mary. Life in the real world was like a dream I had and when I was awakened it was always into the world of WGM Minnesota. I should have been happy. But alas, every silver lining has its cloud. And my fantasy had its own hell and it found its birthplace in Lou Grant, my doppelganger. Lou Grant of WGM Minnesota had his own dream world, one that I had been unaware of until Mary joined the office. Lou Grant pined for the life of the street, the criminal world, life as expressed in movies of the late forties and early fifties, films that had come to be known as film noir. Lou Grant had a taste for danger and he indulged this taste by fantasizing. It’s ridiculous. How can a sitcom character have fantasies? There should have been a law against it. I was not in control. A dream inside a dream. In these last moments my life was unraveling as a series of TV reruns.

The sun was lying on my forehead. My shirt collar felt too tight. It felt gritty. My belt was too tight. I was panting like a dog in the midday sun. Warmth filled my crotch. Jesus, I think I pissed my pants. I kept listening for an ambulance siren hoping that someone had found me out here in the yard slipping in and out of consciousness, in and out of the dreams of Lou Grant. Sweat sizzled on my forehead. Tree branches overhead creaked like a rusty gate. A thought flashed across my mind. How much of modern psychosis is a result of overcrowding? Claustrophobia. Not the fear of being closed in but the revulsion, like motion sickness, of too many bodies, too many minds, too much hate, love, jealousy, lust, greed, too much sympathy, too much of everything, too much of us. I felt like my chest was caving in. I wanted to be back in the newsroom with Murray and Mary and the gang but I kept falling back into Lou Grant’s nightmare.

5. A Drink After Work At The Silver Dollar

MURRAY: “Let me get this straight, Lou. You’re having nightmares.”

LOU GRANT: “Yes.”

MURRAY: “About what? What are these nightmares about?”

LOU GRANT: “What difference does that make?”

MURRAY: “They’re about sex, eh Lou?”

LAUGH TRACK

LOU GRANT: “Did you hear that?”

MURRAY: “Hear what?”

LOU GRANT: “Nothing.”

MURRAY: “You’re starting to scare me, Lou.”

LOU GRANT: “I am not having nightmares about sex, Murray. They’re dreams about the low life of the city. Scumbags. Drug dealers, winos, hookers…”

MURRAY: “Ah!”

LAUGH TRACK

LOU GRANT: “I don’t want to have them anymore but I can’t seem to stop them. They have a life of their own. Have you ever had recurring nightmares, Murray?”

MURRAY: “Only when my mother-in-law shows up for the weekend.”

LAUGH TRACK

MURRAY: “What? Something wrong, Lou? Look, Lou, if its really bothering you, maybe you should seek out some professional help.”

LOU GRANT: “I’m not nuts, Murray!”

MURRAY: “You don’t have to be crazy to seek out counseling from a psychiatrist. You don’t think Mary is crazy, do you?”

LOU GRANT: “Mary is seeing a shrink?”

MURRAY: “Ya, Lou. She’s dating him.”

LAUGH TRACK

MURRAY: “Sorry, Lou. I couldn’t resist it. No, Mary is seeing a psychiatrist. Remember, she had that problem with an eating disorder. Well, she went to a counselor and I think it’s really helped her.”

LOU GRANT: “I think I’ll stick to scotch.”

MURRAY: “Does it help?”

LOU GRANT: “No, but I like the buzz I get off it.”

LAUGH TRACK

6. Who Is Harry?

Lou Grants dreams begin with Harry. Harry, an unshaven, surly looking character, spends most of his hours sprawled out on a sofa, half in darkness, nursing a hangover. Is Harry a psychological projection of Lou Grant’s desire for adventure? Given Harry’s disheveled appearance and degenerate life style that would seem unlikely. Perhaps Harry is a Christ like figure sprawled out on his crucifix sofa? Lou had been dragged to numerous Bergman films when he was courting his wife and this bleak Kierkegaardian landscape could have rubbed off onto Lou. But that too is unlikely. Lou had fallen asleep during most of the films. Perhaps Harry is the remembrance of some character in Lou Grant’s childhood, a drunken uncle or perhaps Harry is Lou himself, a younger and leaner Lou Grant caught up in his misbegotten youth. But whatever his origins Harry is always there at the beginning of Lou’s dream, the portal into the slimy underworld of the city.

Harry’s head is propped up on the armrest where he has passed out. An almost empty bottle of Black and White Scotch Whisky, liquid rolling slowly back and forth in its belly, rests on the floor just out of the reach of his dangling arm. A light flickered off and on from a streetlamp outside the living room window. On a table beside Harry is an ashtray brimming over with cigarette butts, Camels. I liked that name for a cigarette; I like the picture of the camel on the package. Passive nobility. They were the cigarettes Lou Grant smoked. Harry looked a little like a camel: exhausted, bags under his big sad eyes, drooping mouth, hairy ankles. Harry coughed, cleared his throat, rubbed his nose with his index finger, the white of his teeth turned golden. The bottom corner of his lip curled up. Harry’s chest shook. Another cough. His teeth began to grind. Harry smiled in his sleep.

It was always the same. Across the room, a television set was on. The screen hovered in the darkness, like an apparition. The sound was low, barely audible. Mary Richards was on the screen, her long dark hair, soft milk skin, eyes large, bright, unflinching, teeth perfectly placed. She was delivering one of the series of documentaries WJM had created called Homicide. People are fascinated with violence, especially murder. Someone else’s murder. Mary’s voice was light, fragile, vulnerable, a sweet song.

Homicide was a series of documentaries we designed to market the exit of the twentieth century. Mary didn’t want the job. She wanted to remain in the newsroom writing copy for Ted. Ted was on his knees in my office begging me to give him the job, his lips polishing the soul of my Italian leather shoes. Ted worshipped Walter Cronkite. He yearned to say the words, brought to you by the Prudential Insurance Company of America. But Ted wasn’t right. His voice was too polished, his manner too smooth and cultured. No one would trust him. This series was to document the horror of the twentieth century. Mary was the perfect victim — beautiful and without guile.

(As an afterthought I might add that this novel is written as a collage.)


A Tale of Two Cities

April 24, 2009

(A Tale of Two Cities was written many years ago. I tried to combine two different worlds – that of fantasy and harsh reality. In this case I combined the worlds of television sitcom with police work (the world of the street). The sitcom I chose was the Mary Tyler Moore Show, a comedy about the world of the television newsroom in the 70s in the city of Minnesota and a young woman’s life there. The other world was the life of small time drug dealers in Toronto. The two worlds become intertwined so much so that the cities themselves become each other. By the end of the book we are not completely sure which world we are inhabiting. Or perhaps the story is just the unravelling of the mind of a man about to die.

The book was fun to write, but perhaps difficult to read. I’m not sure if the distance we have moved from the 70s has made that more difficult or easier. Some of the subtext has to do with the actual characters on the show and how they are affected by the real world. Perhaps in a present reading with readers who are not acquainted with the show that doesn’t matter. Perhaps it is a different book altogether.)

Original collage to be used for cover of A Tale of Two Cities

Original collage to be used for cover of A Tale of Two Cities

Ramblin’ nothin’s

April 13, 2009

I’m not sure where I’m going with this blog now. It may lay dormant for some time. I still have another one running. power of h Weblog. Going to be busy over the next few weeks coaching a girl’s soccer team so my time is eaten up. Well, excuses. I’m talking to myself. Which is what I do the most of these days. That’s what blogging has become. I don’t want to think about twittering.

ccf12262008_00026

Conversations with Gabriel

1. Suffering

“Your wife tells me you like to fish,” I said.

Matthew Chambers, a small man with a thin wiry frame, stood in front of me. An ugly man, his hands and head were out of proportion to the rest of his body.

“Did she?” Chambers responded, a streak of bitterness in his voice. Stepping over to the table he ground his cigarette out in the ashtray.

“Would you like a coffee?” I asked.

Chambers looked around the office.

“I didn’t think it would look like this,” he said. “Cigarettes and coffee. I didn’t see that written down anywhere. No coffee for me.”

Chambers slumped down in a chair opposite me. There was an arrogant slouch to his shoulders.

“I once pondered the possibility of intelligent life on another planet being trout. That’s my only interest in fish.”

I scribbled a note in the book in front of me.

“Your wife told me a lot about you,” I said.

“More of my hobbies?” Chambers grunted sarcastically. I didn’t like his attitude.

“We had a nice long chat the other day. Over crackers and cheese. Dutch cream cheese. A lovely woman.”

“Smells like Swiss,” Chambers said.

“Swiss?”

“Cheese,” Chambers said. “My wife smells like cheese.”

I looked across the table at this very angry man sitting in the chair like a prisoner being interrogated. Along with his anger, there was smugness. He knew something that I didn’t. Or thought he did.

“Mrs. Chambers tells me that you suffer from insomnia,” I said.

Chambers nodded. As I waited for him to say something I unconsciously removed my wedding ring and examined it. He was watching me. I smiled uncomfortably and put the ring back on my finger.

“How long has this been going on?”

“How long has what been going on?” he responded.

“The insomnia.”

“Oh,” Chambers responded with a nod. “I thought you meant the anger.”

“Well,” I said with a smile, “how long have you been angry?”

Chambers smiled. “I wasn’t aware that I was angry.”

“Perhaps the two are related,” I suggested.

Chambers straightened up in his chair. “I know that the fashionable analysis of the world today is to establish a root cause for behavior somewhere in the unconscious. Anger is always a nice hook to hang your hat on. Everyone is angry. It’s the social condition. Unrequited expectations. Early childhood trauma. Biological imbalance. All bullshit. There is no root cause. There is no anger for most people. Anger would suggest some depth of character. We live in a world of mirrors. People play out their roles. Every shadow wants his five minutes on the stage. We all like to hear ourselves talk. It’s not about anger; its all about vanity.”

Chambers lit up another cigarette. I leaned back in my chair and stared at him. A ring of smoke left Chambers mouth and spiraled toward me.

“You shouldn’t stare,” he said. “It isn’t polite.”

I glanced at my notes.

“Your wife tells me that you are obsessed by the idiot box. That’s what she calls television. She says that you can sit and watch television for hours at a time. Programming doesn’t concern you.”

“Martha is very perceptive,” he responded almost spitting the words out. It was hard to decipher if he was being sarcastic.

“She thinks it might have affected your health.”

“Did you know that when televisions were first released,” Chambers began, “children were warned not to sit too close to the set. It was thought that dangerous rays emanated from the screen. And yet the sales of televisions were never affected by this fear. Imagine that. I watch a lot of television. I can’t stand the silence without it. The silence is the real enemy. The silence in our technological world. The silence of a dead planet. The silence inside our head. The silence of the spheres. I ain’t crazy, you know. I’m alive.”

2. Guilt

Matthew stood up and walked over to the shelves of books that covered one wall of my office.

“You read all of these?” he asked as his eyes scanned the titles.

“Most of them,” I replied.

“Why so many journals and manuals? I expected at least one of the Russians. Where’s Crime and Punishment?”

“I keep my private reading at home,” I apologized. “This is more or less professional material.”

Chambers turned and laughed.

“To intimidate your clients?”

“To impress them,” I admitted. “Trust is important.”

Chambers returned to his chair.

“Don’t get upset. I’m impressed. There’s something very 21st Century about manuals and journals. The middle-ages had their theology texts. We have our technical manuals. I like the idea of treating people like machines. I once opened a Volkswagon manual and they mentioned loneliness in it. Can you imagine that? Angst with horsepower.”

Chambers flicked ashes off his cigarette into the ashtray and smiled.

“I once heard an air-conditioner in a grocery store singing a Dylan song, Subterranean Homesick Blues. We live in this sterile environment seduced by our need for comfortable images. No hell or heaven. No angels or devils. A God sleeping on a cross with his wounds healed. No blood running down the wood. No splinters. No suffering. It doesn’t fool anyone. Everyone knows its coming. They can feel it in their bones. They can hear it in the silence.”

Chambers sat there for several moments, a cigarette crucified on his lips. Perhaps he expected me to burst out in anger, to defend reality. I scribbled down some notes. He looked amused.

“Your wife says that you never got over the death of your son.”

Chambers looked away. “It was a miscarriage.”

“Excuse me.”

“Martha dropped the cookie tray. How could anyone be upset by a kid that never was?”

“She didn’t tell me that.”

“Martha has her own version of events. The kid was still born. It wasn’t me that was hysterical. Martha fell apart. You should really stop playing with that ring.”

I smiled and put the ring back on my finger. I got up and stepped across the room to top up my coffee. I took the ring off and placed it beside the coffee pot.

“Did Martha tell you anything else?” he asked.

I returned to my desk and placed my coffee down.

“What did you have in mind?” I asked.

Chambers shrugged his shoulders. “Nothing.”

“There is something.”

Chambers removed the cigarette from between his lips.

“You people are so condescending. You think you’re some holy man sitting on a hill with a perfect view of the truth. Shall I tell you how you’ve acquired such a good vantage point?”

“Hard work,” I smiled.

Chambers glared at me for a moment. The thought struck me that he might resort to violence.

“By piling up the bullshit,” he began, “and climbing on top of it. I had almost two decades of Catholic indoctrination so I know something about pomposity. Ivory Tower wisdom. Insight through tenure. You’re living off the avails of all these grade B thinkers on your wall. Freud, Skinner, Adler. They had no idea what reality is all about.”

We sat looking at each for some time in silence.

Chambers smiled. “Did I miss someone?”

I reached over and opened my humidor. I offered Chambers a cigar. He gestured to his cigarette. I lit up a cigar.

“Who are you really angry at, Mr. Chambers?”

“I am pissed off with God.”

I laughed, choking on cigar smoke.

“You really are old fashioned. I thought that sort of analysis went out with the Middle-Ages.”

“You tell me why we were put here on the planet,” Chambers asked.

“Is that relevant?”

“Let me give you the Hallmark Greeting Card version. To develop our talents. Get a good job, get married, buy a house, raise a family, retire in short pants to Florida. Above all, don’t get angry. Don’t buy a gun, return to the Plant and blow away the graveyard shift. Don’t get pissed every night and pass out in the bathtub. Don’t beat the wife. Don’t rob your boss blind, go to Vegas and blow your mortgage on a pair of Jacks. Don’t get sick. Don’t be poor. Don’t complain or raise your voice in anger. Pay your income tax and shut up. That still-born baby was blessed. He never knew hunger.”

3. Bad Nerves

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

A small wiry grin had wrapped itself across Chambers’ face.

“Nothing,” he shrugged.

“Then why are you smiling? You like to have your own little jokes. Afraid to share them?”

“It’s your smile,” he said.

“What about my smile?”

“When you don’t know what to say, you smile. You don’t even know you’re doing it. Professional hazard?”

“I don’t smile,” I responded.

“Sure you do,” Chambers said and laughed. “It’s more like a twitch. A touch of Tourette? If you flashed that faggy grin in a bar, you’d get your block knocked off.”

“Do you always do that?” I asked.

“Do what?”

“Attack when someone gets too close to you, when someone touches a nerve.”

“Like what you’re doing now,” Chambers replied.

I did not respond. I scribbled some notes on my pad. I wanted an excuse to back away, to give Chambers’ rage a moment to subside. I rubbed my chin with the end of my pencil and waited. Chambers lit up another cigarette. I asked Chambers if music would bother him. He shrugged. I put on some chamber music. Ten minutes passed before our conversation continued.

“Talk to me about your anger,” I said.

Chambers began. “My generation was born privileged. We didn’t treat our talents as gifts but as rights. We were the chosen people, the children of God. The universe was unfolding as it must for us. We were the generation cursed with the awesome responsibility of making the world right. We were educated, healthy, nurtured like exotic flowers. We were the beginning of a new world. Ultimately it was all about me. It makes me want to vomit. I’m sick of me. I’d like a vacation from my own fucking mind, my own fucking thoughts, from this constant addiction to feeding my head. Fuck consciousness. God woke up the planet so that we could look at Him. We are the planet Earth opening its eyes.”

“You don’t love your wife.”

Chambers shook his head. “What the hell has love got to do with it. Love dulls your pain. It’s a narcotic. It is only in suffering that you understand God. He wants you to suffer. God is pain.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“He killed my little girl,” Chambers said in a low sad voice.

I looked at my notes.

“How did he do that?”

Chambers was silent for a moment. “He watched. He knew what was coming and he let it happen. Attila the Hun can plunder his way across Europe, Hitler can build his houses of death, Stalin can invent his frozen hell, and he does nothing. He lets them prosper. He lets them ravage the earth like mad dogs. But my little girl, he allows her to be crushed by a television set. Everywhere you look innocence is punished.”

“Do you have any responsibility in this matter?” I asked.

“What are you trying to say?” Chambers responded, his eyes white with rage.

“Perhaps if you’d been more careful.”

“Careful!” Chambers replied than laughed. “This is the way God passes the buck. I have suffered for my part in the affair. Don’t you think I haven’t replayed everything over in my head a million times. If I had done this or that, maybe Betty would be with us now. But God knew. He knew and did nothing.”

“You never had a daughter,” I said. “Allan is your only offspring.”

Chambers sat staring at me for some time.

“Martha never told you about Betty?”

I picked up the file I had on Chambers and passed it across the desk to him.

“There never was a Betty, Mr. Chambers. She was a character you created in one of your stories.”

“Why would I do something like that? Betty was my daughter. The pain of her death has never subsided. It is as if it just happened. My chest feels as if my heart was ripped out. And now you’re trying to rewrite my history, to ease my pain by cutting out the cancer. Is this some kind of Disney version of psychotherapy? Healing the sick by pretending that there was no wound?”

“You used Betty to make yourself feel something,” I said. “Pain is necessary for existence. It makes you feel alive. Truth is hollow, Mr. Chambers.”

For a long time Chambers stared at me as if he had fallen into a trance. His eyes closed and his lips moved as if he were murmuring in a dream.

“But, I loved her,” he said.


Postscript

(Quotations of Matthew Chambers selected from a number of sources.

The order of selection is random.)

1. NATIONALISM

“…if you look back you’ll find that the state and the nation were considered separate entities. The state, the civil service, has always lusted after the nation and in particular the cultural robes in which to adorn itself. The state functioned principally as a political and bureaucratic entity. The nation on the other hand was the very life blood of the people through a common culture and language and religion. It was in the state’s self-interest to marry itself with the nation, to use its emotional and spiritual power to ensure the state’s political survival.” THE CANADIAN EXPERIMENT, CABLE 10 TELEVISION, TORONTO, CANADA.

2. PATRIOTISM

“… was the pride in ourselves and in those who founded the country to recognize that there were things more important than one’s country; that there were questions bigger and more serious than one’s national allegiances; that humanity was more important than citizenship.” THE CANADIAN EXPERIMENT, CABLE 10 TELEVISION, TORONTO, CANADA.

3. AMERICA

“…and yet we lived on the edge of American culture like stragglers in a war on the fringes of an army never sure in which direction was the front or the enemy. We looked to America for a sense of our place in time. But, America did not believe in history; she believed in herself.” THE NEW ROMANS, THE TORONTO STAR, WEEKEND EDITION, APRIL 19…

4. CANADA

“…the truth was that Canadian nationalism was the prodigal son of American imperialism.” THE NEW ROMANS, THE TORONTO STAR, WEEKEND EDITION, APRIL 19….

5. AMERICA

“…American culture appealed to the nibblers in all of us… It appealed to that part of human nature that wouldn’t mind taking a peek, that would just have a taste, that a little of that or a little of this couldn’t do much harm. In short it appealed to the pleasure principle, to the small vices of mass man.” INTRODUCTION TO GADHI, POETRY OF THE NEW NORTH, HOFFSPRINGER PRESS, AUGUST 19…

6. REALITY

“… reality is created from within. It is perceived as if its birth place were from without. All discussion of reality ultimately leads us into one of two camps: the Parmedian (all reality is one) or the Heracletian (all reality is fluid).” MEDIA AND MADNESS, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, OCTOBER 19…

7. ALIENATION

“…result of any form of thinking. Searching for the truth implies a separation from the truth.” THE RECIPES OF CANADIAN LITERATURE, COACH HOUSE PRESS, APRIL 19…

8. EDUCATION

“…the best is rote learning; at the worst, propaganda. Not political propaganda, but psychological and sociological propaganda. The way we structure thought, the manner in which we solve problems.” THE EDUCATION OF YOUTH, FORUM, FACULTY OF EDUCATION, THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, MAY 19….

9. THE THINKERS

“…of the noble savage facing the world with innocence and courage is a comforting lie… It is only the exceptional person… the madmen who dare to step out of the past and look upon experience with fresh eyes.” THE NEW ROMANS, THE TORONTO STAR, WEEKEND EDITION, APRIL 19…

10. DANGEROUS TIMES

“… these are dangerous times. When the majority of society are sleepwalking through their lives, society’s unsavory and violent representatives are given the opportunity to slip, in the wee hours of the night, into the institutions of power.” THE EDUCATION OF YOUTH, FORUM, FACULTY OF EDUCATION, THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, MAY 19…

11. MODERNISM

“…Modernism was a reaction against the remnants of nineteenth century classicism and its sister, romanticism. It was the final secularization of western culture, characterized by a profound pessimism, melancholy, humour of the absurd, a belief in education as a panacea for all human ills, in the power of the present over the past, in the failure of the present to deal with the future, and an addiction to play.” THE EDUCATION OF YOUTH, FORUM, FACULTY OF EDUCATION, THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, MAY 19…

12. INTELLECTUAL CONSUMERISM

“…Ideas have become a food for the intellect, a way of pacifying the mind. Education is the supermarket for such ideas. Buy what you think you need.” THE EDUCATION OF YOUTH, FORUM, FACULTY OF EDUCATION, THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, MAY 19…

13. POST-MODERNISM

“…post-modernism is the first movement since classicism that believes implicitly in a natural order of things… in some ways an attempt to step outside history, to suggest that possibility not probability is the road to truth.” THE NEW ROMANS, THE TORONTO STAR, WEEKEND EDITION, APRIL 19…

14. TIME

“…clocks are like cops… taught how to perceive time through clocks as its guardians. There is one on every corner… Clocks are a link to our past. Without them our sense of time would be random, subjective, and completely unpredictable. Our whole civilization depends upon the dictatorship of the time-piece. Like an occupying army, they have created an empire out of the NOW.” THE RECIPES OF CANADIAN LITERATURE, COACH HOUSE PRESS, APRIL 19…

15. MATTER

“…matter is not dependent upon our experience for its existence. When we say that the material universe has grown, we mean to say that our knowledge of the material world has grown… creatures can have an existence independent of our sense… can we know an object so completely that there would be no possibility of any further information coming to our attention?… Discovery becomes the equivalent of creation.” AN INTRODUCTION TO CONCRET POETRY, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO PRESS, JULY 19…

16. THE SOUL

“… spiritual world becoming that part of the material world that will always remain outside our grasp to understand. Soul is part of a darker world… Not everyone has one.” MEDIA AND MADNESS, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, OCTOBER 19…

17. CONSCIOUSNESS

“… the two of us used to spend hours on our knees crawling along the shoulders of the highways discovering the wonderful blend of man and nature: washers and butterfly wings, glass and dandelion seeds, bees and pieces of rubber, nails and branches of trees, blood and flies. There was a haunting beauty about this carnage, a first glimpse into the plan. The universe was filled with intelligence. There was no such thing as an accident. All was order. Life could not exist apart from consciousness. Everything was aware… Everything was soul, in its completed form. Separated from wholeness, there was no life… I have met creatures without a soul: a cat lost in the woods, an accountant wandering through numbers, a child sleeping on a highway, lawyers at a circus.” MEDIA AND MADNESS, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, OCTOBER 19…

18. SOCIETY

“… is no different than the swamp, the forest, the mountain range.. Society is an organism. But human society is becoming the brachisaurus of history… Life is indestructible. Life forms are not.” MEDIA AND MADNESS, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, OCTOBER 19…

19. FAME

“… When space travel began I had only a passing interest. It seemed like a terrible waste of money and resources. When my book, I HAVE SPOKEN TO THE MOON, was published, it was suggested that I go on a book tour. Although sales in Canada were modest, the book took off in California. I did dozens of talk shows, making it as far as the Tonight Show though I was bumped off the first evening when they couldn’t get the comedian Laury Martens off in time. Americans love talk shows. They are the Yankee version of the café. Everytime I said something funny, people applauded. No one laughed.” THE CANADIAN EXPERIMENT, CABLE 10 TELEVISION, TORONTO, CANADA.

20. GROUPIES

“…strange young women. Very businesslike. I recall one young lady who met me at the airport in Memphis. Drove me to the hotel. Booked me a room. Ran me a bath. And tucked me for the night. She told me a sad story about her mother in Macedonia. I’ve forgotten her name, but I do recall she had terrible bruises on her legs.” MEDIA AND MADNESS, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY, OCTOBER 19…

21. STUDIOS

“… are sitting talking to someone in front of a false backdrop as if you were in front of a large studio audience while the only people you are aware of are the cameramen and they’re talking to each other. It’s like being in a dentist’s office. You can’t see anything behind the dentist’s big light.” THE RECIPES OF CANADIAN LITERATURE, COACH HOUSE PRESS, APRIL 19…

22. SPACE

“… and in I HAVE SPOKEN TO THE MOON, I suggested that the planet Earth was a conscious living being. I had long ago abandoned my earlier notions of animism. It was no longer possible in my view to believe that everything on earth including the creations were separate consciousness… we were dealing with something far more mysterious, more bizarre. All souls have a common ground and that was the planet… How could I prove my theory? We were like cells in a brain, too limited in our sphere to recognize the greater consciousness. Only when the planet was in contact with a foreign life form would its consciousness become evident. I was contacted by NASA. They wanted to test my theory on their next trip to the moon. Of course the test I concocted was a failure. I was devastated. I was sure that it was because of the test I had created. The truth was more incredible that I could ever have imagined.” THE EXPERIENCE OF DIVINITY, CABLE 10 TELEVISION, TORONTO, CANADA, OCTOBER 19…

23. GOD

“…as a child I’d had nightmares. A naked woman would be standing at the end of my bed with her stomach open, open like a drawer pulled out of a dresser. She had long curly black hair, dark brown skin, and sharp blue eyes. She was God and she wanted me to crawl into the drawer.” THE EXPERIENCE OF DIVINITY, CABLE 10 TELEVISION, TORONTO, CANADA, OCTOBER 19…

24. TELEVISION

“…is a created reality rather than a given one… but how can television be a reality when it is, by nature, an illusion? … Television is a primitive form of intelligence. Presently, it is on a par with the intelligence of a colony of ants.. We cannot or will not separate intelligence from personality. Personality means individualism. But personality is the way our species insulates individuals from each other. Personality is not consciousness. We are no more aware of the reality of existence that the trees of the forest or the creatures of the sea. We are as conscious as we need to be to survive.” THE RECIPES OF CANADIAN LITERATURE, COACH HOUSE PRESS, APRIL 19…

25. TECHNOLOGY

“… technology is the coming to fruition of the planet Earth, the birth of the living planet… One day with a switch of a dial, one will be able to watch anything worldwide. Cameras will be installed everywhere. The mundane will rule. The humble shall inherit the earth. Each individual will be omnipresent. The planet will wake up.” I HAVE SPOKEN TO THE MOON, BANTAM BOOKS, APRIL 19…

26. NOISE

“… time began, man has enjoyed the fruits of the ear. He has listened to Mozart, Woody Guthrie, the music of the spheres. But now, the airways fester with the puss of the machine. Popular music imitates the rhythms and cadences of speech, the speech of machines. We have become terrified of silence.” I HAVE SPOKEN TO THE MOON, BANTAM BOOKS, APRIL 19…

27. MID-WIFE

“… our creations hold the key, that wish to whisper their secret to us. They are the messengers of some greater intelligence. And we are their mid-wife.” AN ESSAY ON THE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS, MACLEANS MAGAZINE, AUGUST 19…

28. THE MIND

“…what is television? It is like our physical brain, the gray matter we keep locked up inside our skulls. Television has the same relationship to the Earth as our brain has to our mind… What if television, all forms of communication, were the mental extension of some free form intelligence, some unseen cloud floating around the airways? The atmosphere is the planet’s spinal cord.” SPEAK UP, SUNDAY MORNING ON THE GLOBAL NETWORK, JUNE 19…

29. ORDER

“I refused to spend life dawdling over affairs of state, musing in the arenas of entertainment, preening my ego. I needed to find some overview of life, some myth, some metaphor to relieve me of the terrible burden of confusion. I was the moth attracted to the flame of the candle, and I wanted to know why.” I HAVE SPOKEN TO THE MOON, BANTAM BOOKS, APRIL 19…

30. OUR NEW LORD

“Television ambushes us with sound, the noise of our own thoughts placed in the world. In our vanity we are attracted by our own thoughts. We have become prisoners in our theatre of perception, civil servants of our human culture. Machines have become the thick skull we protect our ideas with. Something, someone must rescue us from our vanity.” I HAVE SPOKEN TO THE MOON, BANTAM BOOKS, APRIL 19…

31. THE LAST TRUTH

“We exist in a box. For a millennium? For a second? In the darkness how can you measure time? There is nothing in the box. No furniture. No door. No window. We cannot find the walls. There are no corners. We go mad and imagine that we are being born.” DISCOVERED ON A SCRAP OF PAPER IN MR. CHAMBERS’ TROUSER POCKET ON THE MORNING HE WAS FOUND DEAD.

The McClachen Report

April 2, 2009

ccf12262008_000221

The McClachen Report

by Matthew Chambers

God, a middle-aged man, slightly balding with a comb over, and wearing a three piece tweed suit, sat behind a large walnut desk. God resembles in many ways the great comedian, W.C. Fields. Leafing through a report, God yawned.

“Losing my mind,” God mumbled to himself as he attempted to decipher the report. Losing it. Teeth gone. Still have my hair. Most of it. Feet ache. Shoulders filled with arthritis. Rash on my left ankle. Hemorrhoids. And a terrible case of the nods.

“Where did I put those glasses?”

A small scar barely noticeable ran down from the corner of God’s eye as if a tear like a small glacier had burrowed itself along his cheek. Smoke twisted up from the cigar that rested like a teeter-totter on the edge of an ashtray. Behind God, there was a large glass window. It was night. Comets streaked across the sky. Stars sparkled like lures in a tackle box. A moon rolled slowly across the darkness like a bowling ball down a gutter.

God looked around on his desk, exasperated. Then he noticed the glasses on his nose.

“How’d they get there?” he muttered. I should get a back up pair.

God threw the report on his desk. I can’t make any sense out of this. It’s too convoluted. All those four syllable words. You need a doctorate to read it. I need a drink.

God picked up his cigar. The phone rang. He picked up the receiver and blew smoke through it. Someone on the other end of the line coughed.

“Hello,” God said with a smile on one side of his face.

“Don’t you hello me!” the voice of God’s wife rang out. “You know I hate those Cubans.”

God winced almost dropping the receiver. He placed it carefully on his desk. He leaned back in his chair smoking.

“Problems, dearest?” God asked.

“Don’t dearest me!”

God winced.

“When are you coming home?” the voice continued. “I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve reheated your dinner.”

God leaned forward, took a bottle of scotch and a glass out of the top drawer of his desk and poured himself a drink. He smiled and took a sip.

“Mountain of work, dear,” God replied, looking fondly at his drink. “Mountains. It never seems to end. I just finish one document and they drag another in here. You go and eat without me. I’ll be home presently.”

“I’m lonely,” God’s wife cried. “You keep saying you’ll be home but I’m here alone.”

“Yes, dear.” God sipped on his scotch and took a puff from his cigar. “I understand and am increasingly empathetic. Unfortunately, my dear, we all have to carry our cross. Just recently I have been imposed upon by a McClachen Report. A very important periodical, dear, if I can judge by the type face. Almost as dry as the manuscript that German fellow, Kant, submitted. I believe it was Kant. Perhaps it was Can. A little philosophic humour, my dear. Yes, very little.”

At the other end of the line, God could hear his wife weeping. He took another swallow of scotch.

“Yes, dear,” God spoke into the receiver as he took another puff of his cigar.

Mrs. God continued to sniffle and wheeze.

“Now try and control yourself, dear. My time is not mine. Being God is a 24-7 proposition.”

“You don’t care.” God’s wife sniffled.

“Of course I care. I’m God. Not caring is against my very nature, dear. How’s Junior?”

“Junior!” his wife screamed.

“Just joking,” God responded.

“How can you joke about the death of your only begotten son?” his wife cried.

God picked up the picture on his desk. The photograph, slightly out of focus, portrayed a young teenager and his mother in life jackets sitting in a canoe as the canoe was slowly sinking into a lake.

His wife continued to weep.

“You used to be so…”

“Attentive,” God added. “Yes I know. And more talkative. And kinder. No one’s perfect, dear.”

“But you joke about everything,” Mrs. God blabbered. “Can’t you take anything seriously? Maybe if you’d paid attention you could have prevented…”

“Let’s not bring that up again, dear,” God said. “It wasn’t my fault. I could not have stopped… Okay, so I could have prevented his death… I was not drunk. Haven’t touched a drop…”

God looked at the glass of scotch on his desk and winced. He opened the drawer and put the glass in it.

“I fell asleep,” God continued. “Is that a crime? It could have happened to anyone.”

As his wife’s voice whaled out from the other end of the line, God sucked on his cigar, exhaled, and put the cigar back down in its manger.

“Of course I haven’t abandoned you dear,” God responded to the weeping of his wife. “I’ve been busy. I told you about this McClachen Report. I wish you wouldn’t go on about that dear. It’s not doing any of us any good. I feel as bad as you.”

“Is that Jezebel there?” she cried.

“She’s my secretary, dear. A very efficient and professional young lady. What’s that dear? I think my phone is breaking up. Yes, dear.”

As his wife continued to harangue him, God hung the phone up. Lovely woman. In her day. He wondered how long it would take his wife to notice that he was no longer on the phone. How could I have fallen asleep? What is happening to my mind? Too much gingko? God looked at the report resting on his desk. He pressed a button on a small box next to the report.

“Miss…” God began. I’ve forgotten her name. “Would you come in here please… Just for a moment… Nothing urgent. If you have a few moments… Nothing pressing.”

A shapely young woman in a tight knit skirt stepped into the room. A cigarette dangled out of the side of her mouth. She carried a handful of papers. As she moved closer to the desk, she noticed that God had begun to nod off. She slapped him on the back of the head. God woke up with a startled expression on his face.

“I need your John Hancock,” God’s secretary said.

“John Hancock?” God responded. “Yes of course, Miss…”

His secretary smirked.

“Forgotten my name again?”

“Not really. It’s just… yes I have.”

“Rose,” his secretary smiled.

God leaned back in his chair and laughed.

“Rose. Of course, it is my dear. By any other name you would smell as sweet.”

“Ya, right,” Rose said with a snarl, butting her cigarette out in God’s ashtray.

God smiled briefly and signed each of the papers placed in front of him, taking advantage of the situation to gaze down his secretary’s blouse. What a lovely… God cleared his throat and raised his eyebrows. He wanted to ask a question.

“Tell me, Rose,” God said gesturing to the report on his desk. “What do you think of this report, this McClachen Report? What do you make of it?”

Behind God, a flock of birds flew by his window. His secretary rushed over to the window and opening it, yelled at the birds.

“They shit all over my car roof the other day,” Rose explained returning to God’s side. “What a stupid invention.”

God laughed with relief. “I can’t be blamed for that. I had almost nothing to do with the invention of the automobile. Noisy contraptions. Never cared for them.”

“I was referring to the birds,” Rose explained.

God winced and smiled sheepishly.

“About this McClachen Report,” he said. “If you could summarize its finding in one sentence, what would that sentence be?’

“If I get the right answer, do I get a prize?” Rose asked sarcastically.

“Rose!”

“You are dead,” Rose responded.

God choked on cigar smoke, almost falling out of his chair.

“Dead!” he said. “That’s not the answer I was expecting.”

“Dead as a doorknob,” Rose added.

God thought for a moment. “A doorknob. That does sound serious. Who is the author of this report?”

“McClachen,” Rose responded.

God winced. “Smart ass broad,” God muttered then smiled.

“Yes, of course it is my dear,” God said sheepishly. “Where did this fellow come up with this ridiculous idea that I was dead?”

“Nietzsche,” Rose responded.

God smacked his forehead with the palm of his hand throwing ashes from his cigar all over his suit.

“Another one of those damn German philosophers! They’ve been a headache for years. Why couldn’t they keep themselves busy building armaments?”

“Nietzsche argued that you were dead,” Rose explained, “and McClachen couldn’t find any ground upon which he could be refuted. McClachen is your champion.”

“A champion. Yes, I’m sure he is. That’s what I need, I suppose.”

God leaned back in his chair thinking. His secretary picked up the papers he had signed from the desk. She waited to be dismissed.

“Will there be anything else?” she asked.

God looked up at his secretary. There was a terrible sadness in his eyes.

“Rose, I have a question of the most delicate nature. Am I losing it?”

Rose nodded. “We’re all getting older.”

God shook his head. “Where is this fellow, Nietzsche? Maybe I could change his mind. A mind can always be changed, Rose. Remember Galileo.”

“He’s not afraid of you.”

“That is unfortunate,” God responded. “Where can I locate this fellow Nietzsche?”

Rose gestured toward the door of the office.

“He’s waiting outside.”

“Outside?”

“In my office,” Rose explained. “He’s been helping me with my filing. He’s very good at it. I’ll send him in.”

Rose slipped out of the office. God stared at his cigar. Losing it? How can I be losing it? Entropy?

A moment later a short scruffy fellow, unshaven, round shouldered, in a tattered trench coat, shuffled into the office with his secretary. God’s head had begun to fall on his chest as his eyes closed. Rose slapped God on the back of the head. God bolted straight up in his chair. He gestured to the chair opposite his desk.

“I prefer to stand,” Nietzsche said.

Rose departed. God offered Nietzsche a cigar from a box on his desk.

Nietzsche shook his head. “I’m trying to quit.”

God sucked on his cigar and released a cloud of smoke that swirled around Nietzsche.

“I understand you think I am deceased?” God asked. “Well, here I am. How long have you been wearing those clothes?”

“Fashion is not relevant,” Nietzsche responded in a gruff German accent. “Truth is important.”

God leaned forward on his desk.

“You’ve upset a lot of people,” God began. “Think of all the old women out there lighting candles for me. And the children. On their knees beside their beds each night. I am the last bulwark against despair. Do you understand that, sir? Oh, it’s alright for you young people to say I’m this or I’m that but wait until your health starts to fail and you’re on a fixed income, and the kids leave, and you find yourself alone in bed and unable to sleep. What then, eh? Where will you be then, smart guy?”

“Mothers and children are not relevant. Only the truth is relevant.”

God winced. Persistent little bastard!

“Without me, there is chaos. The despair of every fleeting moment.” God cried, rising slightly from his chair. Catching his breath, he fell back and muttered despairingly, “What do you have to say for yourself?”

A thin crooked smile wiggled across Nietsche’s face.

“You’re a monster!”

“I’m a…” God responded with anger then hesitated. I’ll bet the girls really love that scowl of yours too. What you need is a good roll in the hay. I could use one myself.

God looked at his cigar and then put it down in his ashtray. Glancing at his desk drawer, he considered another drink.

“Make your case, sir!” God demanded.

Nietzsche began. “If you were a human being, you would be put on trial for crimes against humanity. You have allowed the innocent to suffer. You have permitted monsters to be created out of human suffering, monsters who inflict more suffering. You are the first cause, the first cause of war, slavery, genocide. Must I go through the history of terror that you have permitted? You’re omniscient. Check your records.”

God began to nod off. He jolted himself awake. Whatever happened to all those 78s?

Nietzsche continued. “You are aware of your crimes. You have been tried, and found guilty. Now I will impose the judgment of mankind.”

“Just a minute, sir!” God protested.

Nietzsche pulled a gun out from under his coat. He pointed it at God.

Nietzsche smiled. “This ain’t a cigar.”

A bead of sweat trickled down God’s forehead.

“Have you any idea how difficult it is to run existence? There are so many pressures. So many decisions to make and every decision followed by a million repercussions. You think tax forms are complicated. You ought to try reality.”

A tear ran down Nietzsche’s cheek.

“I have seen the suffering!” Nietzsche said biting back on his lip.

God stood up angrily. “Don’t sulk, sir! I can’t abide a creature that sulks!”

“Where were you when my daughter died?” Nietzsche’s voice rose. “Crushed in an accident. How could you let that wonderful little girl’s life be choked off? Murderer!”

Nietzsche pulled the trigger of the gun. A bullet rushed out of the barrel, bearing down upon God. A moment later it rested motionless, frozen in space in front of God, inches away from his eyes. God lifted his hand and fondled the bullet with a finger. God smiled. I wonder what would happen if I were dead. It might be amusing.

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