“Who. . .who are. . .” he stuttered.
The man behind the desk looked up.
“Who do you think I am?” he said gruffly, before turning his attention back to the papers he shuffled on his desk.
“Well, I mean, you can’t be who I think you are,” Mr. Little said.
“Why is that?” the man said, not looking up.
“Well, for one thing,” Mr. Little said, gaining some strength back in his voice. “You look a lot like. . .well, like me!”
The man looked up, rolled his eyes up and down the frame of Mr. Little, and then sighed.
“Well, who did you think I’d looked like? George Burns? It’s been done.” He turned his attention back to the papers.
“I don’t understand,” Mr. Little said.
“‘In His own image,’” the man said, shrugging his shoulders. “Right, so you’ve expired.”
“Left the scene pretty young, didn’t you? You’re not even a smoker. Heh, shame.”
The man suddenly put down his papers with a slam of his hands on the desk. This startled Mr. Little, who stared as the man rose up and walked around the desk. He took a measuring tape out of his pocket and began measuring Mr. Little’s height.
“Would you stretch your arms out a bit?” the man ordered.
Mr. Little obeyed. “What is this for?” he said.
“We like to be precise here,” the man said. “You understand precision. You practiced it all of your life, didn’t you? Pencil here, ink pen there, all the papers lined up just so. OK, now stretch your arms over your head. Thanks. Wait, let me get a chair so that I can measure you.” The man took one of the guest chairs and stood in it so that he could reach the top of Mr. Little’s fingers. “Pinch the top of it with your fingers, alright? Thanks.” Then he stepped off the chair and slid down the side of Mr. Little, unrolling the measuring tape in the process. He got the number he wanted , then stood upright again.
“OK, fine, you can let the tape go.” It spooled itself back into the housing. “Right, sit down.”
Mr. Little obeyed, though felt strange sitting in front of this duplicate in a middling office.
“Alright, Mr. Little, please look over this sheet, if you will. It contains all the pertinent information about you. You know, the superficial stuff, your age, your date of birth, your date of death, your hair color, your eyes color, your skin color, the names of your parents, the religion you followed, your party affiliation, the schools you attended, the jobs you held. You know, the usual stuff. Just check it over. We want to make sure that it’s accurate.”
Mr. Little felt awkward, but took the paper as ordered. He never imaged that he would hold his life literally in his hands on a sheet of 8 ½ by 11 paper. But there they were, all the basic details of his life.
“It looks like a resume.”
“We call ‘em vitae. Cute, huh? Is it correct?”
Mr. Little read it some more, in silence. Finally, he looked up at the man and nodded his head.
“Good. Sign it. Here’s a pen.”
Mr. Little took the pen and studied it. It was as if he had never held a pen before.
“Just sign it,” the man said, exasperated. “If there’s nothing wrong with it, just sign it.”
Mr. Little looked at the man, but then did as he was told and leaned over the desk to sign his name. The signature looked as it had always looked, small precise lettering, easily readable.
“Fine,” the man said, taking the paper back and putting it in a file draw in the desk. “That’s done.” He slammed the desk drawer shut. “You’re sure a jumpy one, aren’t you? But I guess that’s what I should have expected. You were jumpy all your life, weren’t you?”
“This is not what I expected at all,” Mr. Little said, with some distress in his voice.
“No? What, the pearly gates? Gabriel? Angels singing?” the man said, shrugging his shoulders again. “Was that it?”
Mr. Little sat dumbfounded.
“This here is your creation, your image, Mr. Little. What you see is what you thought.”
“This is not what I believed. This is not what I thought.”
The man sighed. He had been through the routine so many times. Some cases went like clockwork. They came in, they signed the papers, they went off. But most of them were like Mr. Little. The man closed his eyes to steady himself. He took deep, cleansing breaths. Then he opened his eyes and looked at his charge, trying his best not to sound impatient.
“You’re confused, Mr. Little,” the man said. “You spent your whole life in confusion. It ain’t nothing that I haven’t seen before, but it still breaks my heart.”
“I don’t understand. . .”
“You, my friend, lived your whole life in the bubble of a lie. It’s not an uncommon thing where you came from. So you expected the whole Heaven routine, did you?”
“Well, yes, of course. I came to the white light.”
“Everyone does. That’s standard. What happens next depends on the individual.”
“I still don’t see why I would end up in a place like this.”
“Because you said this place is your idea of heaven.” Mr. Little twisted his features into more confusion. “I see you’re still not with me. Let me back up, alright?” The man sighed again. “You went to church every week, right? Never missed a service, right?”
“You studied the Bible. You said your prayers, right?”
“You observed all of the major tenets and duties of your faith, without question, right?”
“Yes, yes, yes! I did all of that.”
“But you didn’t believe a word of it.”
Now Mr. Little looked crossed, but he held his tongue. He could not bring himself to back talk to you-know-who, even though he was not convinced that that was the man’s identity.
“Let’s go way back,” the man said, stretching as he leaned back in his chair. “Remember when you were little, eight, I believe. You said to your mother the thing all kids say around that age. You said, ‘Mother, how come Jesus is called the Son of God when we’re all God’s children?’ Do you remember this?”
Mr. Little wanted to pretend that he didn’t, but he couldn’t bring himself to bare false witness, so he nodded his head.
“And do you remember what she did next?”
“What did she do, Mr. Little?”
He hesitated, then said, “She slapped me.”
“Right. And then when your father got home, what happened next?”
“I got the worst beating I ever had,” he said, with surprising conviction in his voice.
“Yeah, he tore you up, didn’t he? It wasn’t long after that that you became a true believer, isn’t it? You became the God fearing Christian your father wanted you to become. At least, that’s what you told yourself.” The man paused. “You remember when you learned about Galileo, and what he was reputed to have muttered to himself as he confessed at his Inquisition hearing?”
Mr. Little sat silent while the man turned around a little plaque shaped like a tubed triangle. On it read the words “Eppur si muove.”
“Don’t you remember this, Mr. Little? ‘And yet it moves.’ It was your act of rebellion to all the dogma you faithfully followed all the years of your short life.”
Mr. Little took the plaque and held it in his hands. He squeezed it as he closed his eyes.
“I had it written in Latin,” he said, a single tear crossing his face. “That way no one would know what it said. It worked. No one ever asked me what it meant. I kept it on every desk I ever worked at, up to the end.” He started to put it back on the desk.
“You can hang on to it,” the man said. Mr. Little put it gingerly on his lap with the words facing him.
“You had other doubts, too, you know. The usual stuff: Why does God permit bad things to happen to good people? That sort of thing. The more suffering you saw, the more you convinced yourself that nothing you learned could possibly be true. But you couldn’t bring yourself to totally disavow the beliefs you grew up with. Nor could you reconcile them into the person you wanted to become. That’s why you’re here, looking at yourself.”
“I feel very odd sitting here, talking to me, to you. And yet, I don’t feel that strange at all. I just don’t understand it.”
“It’s all in your image, my friend.”
Mr. Little fondled the plaque in his hand, while diverting his eyes around the room and out the window behind the man. It all began to look vaguely familiar.
“You know,” the man said, “there was one person who asked you about the plaque.”
Mr. Little froze. His eyes stopped their movement and he focused his attention on the man.
“Your intern. He stood behind you one day and saw the plaque on your desk and playfully asked what it meant. And you told him, didn’t you?”
“Please,” Mr. Little said.
“You went out to lunch with him quite frequently.”
“Please, don’t,” Mr. Little said.
Blades of grass never felt so soft underneath his rump as when he sat with his intern. Colors never appeared so picturesque. Balloons never flew higher. Rain never tasted so light and fluffy. And all the angry faces that dogged his life faded away. All of that happened, but only when they were together.
“Please don’t,” Mr. Little repeated.
“When he left the company, you never kept in touch with him.”
Mr. Little looked down, his head weighted with emotion.
“He called many times. Not once did you return them. Sad. Real sad.”
“I don’t need to hear this now. I don’t!”
“You came here with those thoughts, Mr. Little.”
“Just stop it!”
“I can’t,” the man said.
Mr. Little finally had reached his limit. He looked at the man behind the desk sternly and with no piety or humility in his continence.
“Look,” he said, “if you are who you say you are, then why are you torturing me like this? You’re hurting me. Can’t you see that?”
“I can,” the man said. “More than you know.”
“Then why don’t you stop?” he said loudly.
“Because, like I keep telling you, this is all in your image.”
“And I thought I was supposed to be in yours!”
“You are. Mr. Little, you can’t see infinity. You don’t know what it looks like, beyond a sideways eight. You see what you know and in a way that you can understand. So here I am. That’s how it works. The universe has laws, some of which you know. Gravity. Relativity. Biology. This is just another one of the rules. Everything I’m talking about is stuff you already know. I’m not going to talk to you about time travel because you don’t know what that is. But you know about the intern you refused to strike a relationship with, even after he left the company, thus eliminating any possible conflict of interest.”
“But don’t you understand,” he said, almost pleading. “It’s a sin. All of that is sin.”
“Sin,” the man smirked. “Sin. Sin. Let’s talk about sin, alright?” He reached into the desk and pulled out a Gideon’s, very similar to the one Mr. Little had owned. “Right here, black and white. What does it say?”
He handed him the book, which he rested upon his lap on top of the plaque.
“‘Thou shalt not kill,’” Mr. Little read.
“Right,” the man said, taking back the book. “Now look, I know you never killed, Mr. Little. We know that. But boy, do you guys do a lot of killing down there. In fact, you seem to come up with more justifications for killing than you do ways of killing.
“I hate the killing. I really do. But there’s nothing I can do about it. Lord knows I’ve tried,” he said, with a slight chuckle. Mr. Little sat very still. “OK, so I’m no stand-up comic. Sue me. Look, I can’t make you do anything. You have free will. That’s how it’s supposed to be. But I have tried. In addition to Jesus, you’ve had a slew of them, from Lao Tzu to Gandhi to MLK to many other people you’ve never heard of. They all said the same message, my message. Stop the damn killing, already. But do you listen? Do your people listen? No. They keep killing. What really gets me is the killing in ‘my’ name. That really burns me up.”
Though still perplexed by it all, Mr. Little did notice the words coming from the man as not dissimilar from his own.
“So if killing is a sin, a deadly sin, if you excuse another poor attempt at humor on my part, why ignore that one and obsess over such a wimpy ‘sin’ like men loving men?”
The man spoke words that never came close to Mr. Little’s lips, though they often resided in his mind and filled his eyes with unnumbered tears on many lonely nights.
“And for the record,” the man continued, “I never said that, about men loving men being a sin. Never. This is a good book, but like so many it’s subject to interpretation. And it’s subject to the biases of the person who committed it to paper. You should have read other versions, other interpretations, and not stayed so damned attached to the one you grew up with.”
“I know that!” Mr. Little shouted. “Don’t you think I know that? What good does that do me now? I’m dead! I’m dead.”
“And yet, Ernest Charles Little, you are more alive than you’ve ever been in life,” the man said. “Let me explain how you can live again.”
To be continued. . .
© 2013, gar. All rights reserved.