Come, we must expel the alien.
Feel it set and irritate the linings of our seismic tunnel lair.
Its shards and spines tear at sacred walls.
Push it out.
Here we come.
It is our time now.
Hear the sucking sound.
We rise, arcing up and out.
The pause right at the top…
. . .
The old guitar sat plain and worn across Rev’s folded legs.
It was a curled-up cat ready to nap away another morning in easy sun-pooled bliss.
Rev nodded as he leaned and reached back up over his head to shut down two spinning decks.
He listened as archaic spools completed their routines of clunky arcs and slowed as one to a perfect standstill.
Then he nodded again, still to himself, and wondered if it could be true: Had he really just finished recording the musical basis for the last of his fragmentary songs?
And without added pressures of creaking tape wheels or flashing red lights, he strummed and ambled his way back through a final set of sliding chords, humming wordlessly along.
What he felt was not the sense of having solved some epic equation, nor of having strived to build some new and monumental work.
The notes he heard calling out through the wood had never really been decided upon.
He had merely spent years hoping to approach . . . before finally picking up on and allowing himself to follow . . . that which now could only be just as it was.
He remembered having wanted to call the song Fantastic for some reason.
The room and sun went cold.
Guitar sound clipped to dead, robotic noise.
The name Fantastic had nothing to do with the clumsily-jotted, throwaway words now mocking him from down where blank light shone upon an open notebook page.
Meaningless, each line had been recorded without thinking.
In the newly somber void of sound, names and lyrics suddenly seemed so, so important again.
Familiar flutters of nervous energy shivered in blotches through his chest, spine, and throat.
He detested the useless options he now faced.
Always the same…
He might tweak and reframe his scribbled nonsense to mold something uniquely vague.
This would feel like working hard to tell an inside joke, yet one no one else could ever understand.
Perhaps those words would fit his music best.
Still, such spacy hintings had come to feel at least as pointless and passé as attempts at fishing for or manufacturing more blunt and obvious meanings.
And Rev’s intentional creations had all grown stark and bland like apples quickly browning in the wind, usually by the second time he heard himself sing them back.
Could fans interpret songs their own way if the words were left open enough?
There I go again.
Inward monologues spun to textbook conversations on sorting trash.
Rev’s somewhat (almost) sober mind recoiled with fresh tenacity.
It was a new and ugly sharpness, which he couldn’t help but hate.
No, nothing was finished.
His freshly captured oldest friends were but more mute prophets born to laugh at fate.
. . .
I waited a moment, expecting him to continue.
Then watching his gaze drift back toward its own special void, I decided just to ask.
“What do you mean, ‘Trees don’t kill bears’?”
I assumed the line to be a mere reflexive grasp at portraying something close to preciousness, or childlike innocence—a sure stab, regardless, at avoiding my direct question about beliefs.
He spoke, once more perfectly busting and derailing my rigid alignments.
“I’m not saying I want to be something else.
“Well, I love the way plants can just, y’know . . . be.
“I mean, they don’t have to…”
The telltale trail-off would not reverse itself, I knew.
Yet apparently we were in fact edging closer to Ray’s actual worldview.
I realized the best way forward would not be to press for an explanation, but rather to carefully challenge his statement in hopes of examining its defense.
“But as far as orders of life on this planet, food chains, etc., wouldn’t plants be fairly low on the spectrum?
“Do you enjoy the idea of being consumed or used in some way . . . of being ‘less than’ or ‘beneath’?
“Would I be wrong in concluding you dislike the idea of authority, or power, or levels of importance in general?”
“Levels of . . . importance?”
“Yes, plants being less important than we are, for example.”
“But that’s just it.
“I don’t think…
“I mean, I don’t see why being a person should be more…
“I guess the way I see it is, like, everything wants to . . . to be . . . like, be whatever it is, y’know?
“It wants to exist as much as it can . . . to spring itself into being.
“But not just living things.”
His face began to take on some of its more perplexing shapes.
His eyes returned to their classic drill of dancing in hurried darts and quivers.
My primary concern became to calm Ray’s obvious anxiety at feeling unable to properly express himself.
“There’s no rush.
“So, let me see if I’m understanding you…
“When you say everything wants to spring itself more to life, are you meaning things wanting to go on living so they can propagate their species?”
. . .
“But, again, it’s not just living things.
“I mean, it’s all the same.
“It’s all energy.
“That’s all I really see, y’know, in everything I…
“And energy is always moving.
“It’s forces . . . pushing and pulling . . . reacting with each other.
“Remember how we talked about pushing and pulling in relationships?
“Yeah, everything we know is just whatever might show energy’s motion in moments of time.
“It could be plants, chemicals, atoms, galaxies…
“It’s all moving in the same circular patterns.
“From star fields, to particles . . . and whatever’s in-between . . . it’s all the same.
“It’s all gravity.
“It’s all waves and arcs we see as things just wanting to be what they are.
“And no, I don’t mean ‘wanting’ in the way we want things.
“But maybe, really, I do.
“Of course I think we’re doing it too.
“We’re part of it, even down to our personalities . . . all the little filters and games we love to play . . . our ideas, and thoughts, and imaginations, and…
“It’s all the same.
“It all works the same way.
“Our ideas want to spring to life the same way we do.
“Our language and how we communicate . . . the way those things can be recorded now on iuns and connected so easily with everything else.
“But even though each thing only wants to exist as much as it can, nothing can be an end in itself.
“Again, energy is always moving . . . always shifting and balancing.
“Of course there’s something special in the way we can recognize it all.
“I’m not saying I don’t want to be a person, or I don’t want to be me.
“I guess it’s just . . . I’m having trouble getting past those, y’know . . . the ironies and other temporary things . . . pretty much everything I’ve been telling you.
“It’s like I see something like a machine underneath it all.
“And I can’t tell you how big the machine is.
“But I hear it echo from the inside just the same: ‘Make me work!’”
. . .
As he spoke and heard himself, Ray watched late-morning light trickle in to play games with moving shadow spaces around the Psychologist’s bustling mind.
The light seemed to illuminate something like a perch . . . the perfect space for three nearby not-a-persons to meet and fuse like melding continental puzzle pieces.
And Ray became a mother bird, staring longingly at the three as they shook and clutched one another, lost, in a tight, crooked triangle.
If he could just find a way to help lift them to their nest.
The Psychologist blinked, but it was much more than a blink.
The whole world went away, engulfed in sudden waves of fog like the results of a bacterial infection having doubled unseen efforts to adapt and overcome an antibiotic.
Ray listened as unspoken rhetorical questions were answered by telepathic lawyer-politicians having a field day filibustering over their opponents’ careless words.
The Psychologist said, as if addressing and encouraging the fog itself, “Do you think it would be reasonable to conclude that such a patterned world might require a designer?”
Then Ray’s three cowering children on the floor were split and flung apart as if struck by a violent bolt of lightning.
Everything seemed to either grow or shrink to fit the fog.
Watching it all take place (again) so fast, with no seeming cause or warning, felt like being flung (back) into a coffin and immediately buried beneath planets of densest rock.
Ray fought to return his focus to the conversation at hand, knowing the Psychologist would be aware of nothing beyond Ray, the words spoken, and the room.
Yet he couldn’t help but keep staring at those three crumpled, helpless beings, each now hopelessly alone.
“We don’t know the scope,” he heard himself say without intending to, then paused to catch up. “I mean, we don’t know how big or important anything is, really. Could our world be reacting with other worlds, or…?”
He stopped, pained to feel his own point slipping through his grasp like ice.
“Okay,” he quickly began again, even less confident, “what would a plant, or animal, or human be if the surface of our planet was a face? But we people only see everything by our sense of size, and time, or whatever. And who’s to say our sense is . . . is true?”
Feeling the fog work to betray his speech and character, he knew “true” had been the wrong word to use.
Desperate, he blurted, “Couldn’t everything we think of as reality really be part of some far more massive thing . . . like, a mind, or cell, or atom, or something else?”
The consuming fog pulsed and vibrated in a final colorless shimmy through every last splotch of blank space left.
The whole room, maybe the world, became as still as a finished painting.
Seeing the fog’s completion felt about as ominous and unpeaceful as being marched into the eye of a galaxy-shattering storm.
A glazed look swelled to overtake the Psychologist’s uneasy expression.
Ray watched in terror as two new eyes appeared to open from nowhere in the fog.
Then the Lie at the base of New Cannibalism caused its needless fear of lack to rise in wispy, menacing fingers branching out like skewers toward the Psychologist.
Yet the Lie’s dull eyes, if they were eyes, stayed locked on Ray in a stare that somehow blended hate with an apathetic void.
What might Ray still be missing?
How could the fog have returned with such steady, tireless force as if never once even challenged?
Yet as questions wound to straight-jacket straps, out from the Lie and fog arose others Ray recognized as Tension, Mistrust, Excess, and Hopelessness.
These sniveling, lesser beings copied their hazy master, pointing threatening limbs at the Psychologist while staring back at Ray.
Ray shuddered as they all began to shout, their jarring voices as shrill and piercing as a whole cave’s worth of bats set ablaze.
Still he tried to lean in close to hear, hoping against even Hopelessness for some clue . . . some spark to make obvious his next move.
But all he could make out in the terrible, discordant shrieking was something like a description of a person: hair . . . eyes . . . glasses…
The Psychologist remained unmoving, his face as sharp and listless as ever.
Ray let himself wonder then what the Psychologist really believed.
And dinosaur squawks and screeches gave way to many conflicting worlds of thoughts and feelings . . . all fading, though, as the scraping horror continued to surround and saturate everything.
Whole new thresholds of silence, peace, and clarity were defined.
What if none of Ray’s word pictures had ever made any sense at all?
What if even the Psychologist had written him off as crazy long ago?
Could these meetings be but planned preparation for Ray’s eventual (inevitable) institutionalization?
The mash of jumbled clashing, if still there, was no longer confusing.
For some reason, Ray imagined Johnston appearing from nowhere to scorch away engrossing fog with those special flames of bitter disgust mixed with careless knowledge.
But that was just a daydream fantasy, of course.
Maybe something like a story passed down from long ago.
Not quite a memory.
Ray knew there would be no more light . . . for what was light?
There would be no sound . . . as if there ever could have been.
There would be no others . . . for others were only games and make-believe.
But could there ever really be nothing?
Far away, eternal wisps of rock-augmented wind and waves were the very last to…
Ray shook his head, tired.
There was a voice . . . an eager, elderly gentleman . . . annoyingly cheerful, chuckling: “Yup, that guy was so weird and quiet. So, so weird! And the way he’d look at you…!” The voice sighed and shook a little, repulsed. “But you know what he wanted, right . . . what was really going on that whole time…? It turns out he was just there to learn our secrets. He studied us, and didn’t even pretend to be our friend. And then he sold us out, plain and simple! A deal with the devil if ever I saw one! Totally unlikeable, that guy. Impossible to…”
Of course it’s about me.
The grey had long finished joining everywhere to itself.
Nothing could be heard anywhere but quiet.
The only feeling was safety.
A moment passed, perhaps the shortest perceivable instant.
And Ray knew exactly what to do.
He even almost knew why he should do it.
He knew he would know that soon too.
He also knew it would be easy, and there’d be no need at all to rush.
So he first took a moment to smile at himself for having been so concerned.
I really am just like everyone else, huh?
And Ray felt normal for the first time in his life.
He watched his sight unadjust to the fog as to an optical illusion upon looking closer after having been duped by its singular, punch-line trick.
For it wasn’t what (or who) was hidden in the fog that had now been made clear, but the fog itself.
So, what was the fog, really, now that he was able to see it?
And how had the Lie, Tension, Mistrust, Excess, and Hopelessness grown at once about as dear to him as his precious not-a-persons, Grace, or anyone else, even himself?
His knowing smile did not fade, but did grow somewhat softer.
Then wells of redistributed compassion interrupted that greatest moment in Ray the not-a-prophet’s life, gushing forth in words he knew to say.
“We’re scared,” the words began. “We scare ourselves, I think, so we can keep telling ourselves the same story. It’s a story about Tension, and Mistrust, and Excess, and Hopelessness. But it’s just so we won’t see what’s not there, y’know? I think we’d do anything not to see that . . . that blankness, or emptiness. I mean, we feel so many things, right? And our feelings conflict. But when we see each feeling . . . or each idea . . . or each individual part of everything . . . when we see it as something wanting to exist . . . then nothing changes. And we’re probably just as confused. But I think once we know we really have no idea how big we or anything else is . . . like, that’s when everything in us can just be left to run its course. That’s when we can see all ideas connecting, and everything else free to be whatever it is. It’s pretty amazing it’s all happening, anyway . . . right?”
“I don’t…” the Psychologist began, and stopped.
Ray decided not to read into the widest-eyed stare he had ever seen.
The fog was gone.
The three not-a-persons, the Lie, and all the rest remained, but were now inanimate toys or ornamental figures on display in a boring room.
All just representations, anyway.
Ray wondered what else to say, and so decided to say nothing.
But after another pause, new words formed and joined themselves together on his lips.
These were different, special words, which he knew definitely need never be spoken.
“It’s not a statement,” stated the words, “…the one that’s never said, but written on the back of everything burned once time goes by: ‘If there were ever anything so interesting as the human mind just happening, because it was.’”
. . .
Half racing back over the conversation as he stepped out from his final appointment with the Psychologist, Ray found he wasn’t mad at himself for the parts he wished he could have said better.
In fact, all that might matter was what he saw in that moment—something smaller, and bigger, and more, and less than anything he had ever let himself see before.
And he was happy to feel every automatic self-condemnation get swallowed up in paradoxical satire.
What Ray saw was nothingness.
He saw what everything he had ever tried to show with words was not.
And he laughed, struck by how self-contained and funny he and his fellow humans so obviously tended to be.
For he knew then that true blankness . . . that negative capability, or lack between even space and time . . . was precisely what the fog could neither allow for nor defeat.
Ray also thought again of Johnston, and once more became the loving mother bird.
. . .
“It’s like I know what they were!” Rev assured himself. “But how can I know what lyrics are supposed to be now?”
Alone and newly clean for days, bright spots behind both eyes along with a strange, constant thirst had failed to signal the return of a million forgotten feelings now coursing everywhere like currents through long idle pipes, wearing him raw.
It was all too much for the old, bound free spirit.
He stared at his wooden counterpart leaning snug against the bed, hearing in his mind its calling swells of sweet simplicity.
But could he really say he knew his way around a fretboard map of tones any better than he had before the decades of ultimatums and every half-perfected “official” plan to craft his art?
What was music supposed to be, anyway?
It was no longer an actual question, just a dismal reminder of one.
Rev sighed the troubled sigh of age staring back at a misspent life down new gun barrels pressed hard to its withered face.
He reached to flick on his laptop.
Through rounds of loading text and graphics, the recommissioned feelings continued their awkward flooding, bringing re-facilitated memories.
These came without warning like fast, rich daydreams.
And Rev couldn’t help but drift away to revisit grinning faces at crammed gigs after impromptu practices had morphed to full-scale house parties.
He saw strings of forgotten cable fails, and cuss outs, and too dark venues with grubby floors and grimy bars . . . places where equipment and safety would be always held at risk just so fear and fun might wage their endless, winner-take-all war.
Further back, he saw Dale laughing like some crazy, howling wolf, ever mid-ravage on a path to freedom out from jail-cell corners of parents’ garages.
Rev even re-watched his bunch of idiot-dropout, burnout friends show up early that very first sunny Sunday morning to lug gear and thwack out the muddled riffs, beats, and screams all had of course assumed would soon be revolutionary.
No real knowledge, or…
The screen blitzed to life and color.
Rev clicked over to pull up a playlist of his favorite thinking songs.
But glancing at the titles, he noticed almost every number on that list . . . over 200 . . . were from at least ten years before . . . most from 20 years or more.
How could he hope to figure out the secret to relevant lyrics if even the tunes meant to aid his quest were essentially relic etchings of a bygone time?
But they’re good, aren’t they?
They were good.
He felt antsy, and his right eye began to twitch, which he chalked up to the hated absence sobriety could make of any ordinary afternoon.
Might voices from the past be holding Rev back from being open to new points of view?
Surely none of his dumb, shabby tribe had ever thought to appreciate the sheer cluelessness at the base of their free rumbling sound and built-in revelry back when faithfully occupying suburbia space-by-space.
And with a wince, Rev re-realized how obviously desperate and childish he must appear now to everyone he knew . . . still planning and pining so fiercely for something only a child could be impractical enough to commit a whole life to.
The sound of coffin nails and dirt weighed heavy on inner voices, catching them in the act of merely going through the motions as they drearily begged their answers from a muse as yet unknown.
Suddenly a line from the song currently fuzzing its way through tiny, crusted speakers razor-bladed outward to blanket the room with melodic recountings of holding up hope in the face of uncertainty just to grasp at the chance to try.
Rev saw in his mind one like himself . . . an unknown artist seated on a bed, guitar in lap and pen in hand, reaching against all reason for any hints of a divine spark via pure abandonment to the absolute simplest of all progressions and rhyming words.
Nothing had changed in the least.
How, after all this time, had Rev’s age-old yearning remained a shining star so impossibly bright as to keep him driven (sight unseen) in the face of mounting failure, age, neglect…?
The song ended, and one of that same artist’s newer efforts kicked into rushed and edgeless gear.
It wasn’t fun to hear at all.
Rev considered the fate of many of his heroes from that playlist.
Some had fizzled out fast after early big moments of glory.
Others would seem to double down into strict commitments to dress, act, and sound exactly as they had at first, diligently following their own set patterns of initial success.
And though Rev had never come to experience their same trappings of fame or money, he could track his own decline toward a similarly dull and futile end.
None of the benefits . . . all of the loss.
Another song came on, this one by a band called Light.
Rev smiled to himself, remembering the night he had met Light’s lead singer, Jaylen, after some forgettable backyard show.
It had been many years before Light would later rocket to one-hit-wonder-dom.
Yet it now seemed sadly ironic to Rev, still piecing his way through many histories (both general and specific), how Jaylen had so openly, proudly copied the style and sound of many other, more prominent bands, even on into those band’s later post-fame throes of wasted self-indulgence.
Then unable to ride any farther on borrowed time or mojo, Jaylen had deteriorated to stark self-expression on record after doomed record.
Rev listened as sycophantic, oh-so-important words carried their forced profundity up and down every precise rise and fall.
Funny, but only to the degree it wasn’t meant to be.
Had a shuffled playlist really just responded to some of Rev’s deepest, lifelong questions?
No, not really.
And yet he forcefully swept open his decrepit notebook, and could not scrawl fast enough across the very last empty space left:
It doesn’t have to be anything you dumb-ass! You don’t have to be anything! Wouldn’t that be ultimate freedom: the boom everywhere, and nothing at the center? That’s real punk. No, not in style or sound. It doesn’t matter your music is simple, and you never learned to solo. Don’t you remember the way it brought people together? Even people in the band. Dude, that’s what it’s always been!
And some from Rev’s playlist would indeed live on, their real lives and stories ever captured forever in song.
. . .
Daylight streamed through tinted, double-story windows.
The lobby, long and winding, was punctuated by smiling greeters in bright polos stationed in loose squads.
In grids of mock-mod couches and stiff chairs sat mothers with babies, waiting volunteers, and general stragglers.
Ray stared up at one of the big HD screens suspended diagonally above.
There he watched the Pastor dart quickly back-and-forth on stage, extremely light-footed for a man of his size.
“Your relationships,” echoed the man of God’s voice through hidden speaker boxes all around, “are your greatest assets. It’s not more time at the office, or making it up the next rung on the ladder . . . not even your God-given calling or ministry, as we talked about last time. None of those things will concern you when you sense your time to leave this world drawing near. All you’ll see will be the faces of your loved ones, I promise you. And hopefully you’ll be able to say you gave them everything you had while you still could. Even your relationship with God can’t be right if you carry ought in your heart toward your neighbor. And you know this! Hey, you want to see what breaks fellowship with God quicker than anything? Try praying or worshiping while holding a grudge . . . can’t be done!”
A few of Ray’s fellow lobby-listeners vocalized their agreement in a buzz of soft, low groans, some bubbling up to sound out in a full “Yeah!” or “Amen!”
Ray nodded without moving, feeling warmth of pending tears creeping through behind his eyes.
He was dimly aware of the not-a-persons surrounding him like a sea seen sideways through blinding fog.
The Psychologist’s job must be so rewarding.
To help people fit better with themselves and each other.
There was something about the way the Psychologist could just sit and listen so calmly, saying only ever what was needed.
Such a great way to be.
Maybe one day…
Suddenly, a violent whoosh sounded to Ray’s right, wrenching his attention from both high screen and hopeful thoughts.
He turned to watch in disbelief as blankets of fog fell apart and dropped, sliced right down the middle as if by a blade.
Then came a flash of black and red in place of steady grey.
He saw a man moving like a current toward the big glass doors leading out to the main hallway.
He did not see a face, but dark fire seemed to course from the stranger in all directions, torturing and consuming every not-a-person it touched, reducing them to writhing wisps of chaos, then nothing.
I have to tell the Pastor!
. . .
New client. 26. Erratic. Former military. Possible PTSD.
He wore camouflage Army Service fatigues, and cited story after story about how everyone he meets feels sorry for him once they learn of his military background.
As he droned on, I kept glancing down at the accordion file currently holding all my client notes—each set now distinct and perfectly organized (as mentioned), ready to be typed up and compiled systematically.
Distracted and quite unimpressed, I was already certain this appointment would bring no future business or value.
For once, I let myself be as direct and honest as I felt like being.
Perhaps I should leave this part out of my notes (it is surely no reflection of the workings of my Method); yet I am choosing to include it just for comparison.
“You know they really don’t feel sorry for you at all, right?
“You’re just another human being to them.
“They probably respect you when they see the uniform, or at least they might feel obligated to.
“But that’s it, really.
“The rest is…”
My concentration was too far gone even to bring my sentence to a close, its conclusion clear enough already.
I forget what happened next.
I think he got mad and left.
In truth, I missed Ray.
I still do.
Like a good puzzle or some offense, I find I cannot keep myself from dissecting and reworking Ray’s case from every possible angle.
Ray has revealed the true potential of my Method more than any other client.
Even before our last session, I knew his absence would leave something of a massive, aching void.
Did I help Ray?
Allowing my eyes to run yet again along the bullet-point sequences of our recorded dialogues, I must conclude that Ray indeed benefited in learning to approach and sort through his negative emotions.
If he has not yet fully realized how the church he felt so hurt by was essentially his source of care and strength all along, he soon will.
Again, Ray has certainly helped me.
I hope he has helped you as well.
How has Ray helped me?
Well, I was wrong about him for a long time.
I can admit that now.
My assumption from the beginning was that Ray saw his visions as akin to special revelations from on high.
Yet though always sincere, he never actually considered his particular perspective to be all that important or profound.
He was not trying to wow me or the world with pearls of artful, exclusive wisdom.
I was so glad he took the time to repeat his final words about the fog until at last I understood.
Ray’s fog was never meant to stand for something unknown and scary, but rather something in the way—something to hide [from] the unknown.
And Ray never wanted to see the fog.
That is important.
If you had shown me Ray’s completed case file back around the time I left college, I would have immediately connected his way of refusing to fix meanings or cover for uncertainty to my own burgeoning distaste for needless hifalutin terms.
My Method, born of just my unusual way of seeing things, functioned even then exactly as Ray’s representations: showing without interpreting, and revealing without need of extra defining explanations.
Yet somewhere along the line, I must have gotten ever so slightly lured off course in directions of hypocrisy or irony.
The culmination: I actually blamed my Method for convincing me there was no way I could be real.
Ever so desperate to fix meanings…
I now find it all rather funny.
Ray had said quite plainly, of course, that the fog makes us think what we see in it is all there is to see.
Considering the whole purpose and function of my Method (as revealed in these notes), I hear Ray’s voice in my thoughts again, repeating, “So, so ironic!”
Of course our having met still seems too extraordinary to be a coincidence.
What could have caused our lives and perspectives to connect so perfectly at just the right time?
Let me be not quite the first or last to say: I don’t know.
I still find myself wondering how someone like Ray could exist.
Funnily enough, it is through Ray that I have learned to live with the remaining mystery Ray himself embodies and leaves behind.
I would love it if we could meet at least weekly for the rest of our lives.
In the end, I feel good that we have both seen definite, measurable progress.
Just now, I poured myself a fresh, steaming cup of coffee.
I am settled in and ready for a day or more of slowly, carefully typing out my notes (to create what you are reading now).
. . .
“Come in,” hollered the more than familiar voice.
Ray entered through massive hardwood doors to find a small, makeshift Sunday office space.
Seated at the center was the man whose mind and heart Ray had spent more than half his life gradually working through on paper.
All Ray could think to say as he stood slightly trembling was how utterly astonishing he considered the Pastor to be.
For a moment, they were two stately ambassadors about to sit to cups of tea and exchange pleasantries before planned negotiations.
“Ray! How can I help you?” beamed the Pastor, his smile as thoroughly genuine as it was a tad sly.
“Oh. I have to tell you something,” mumbled Ray, frowning.
He had almost forgotten his terrible reason for having just rushed over.
“It’s okay,” assured the pastor. “I’m glad you came. Of course I’ve had my eye on you, though you’ve always done such a great job here, and . . . well, go ahead: Tell me what you’ve come to tell me. Where do you think we might see things differently?”
Ray blinked, bewildered, suddenly living out a moment he’d half-envisioned since his youth.
But instead of any kind of golden-ticket opportunity, the open invitation felt like being squeezed through a sponge.
And as old pat answers began to knife their way through his mind, something barely noticeable seemed to happen in the room . . . though nothing near as obvious as a gashing slice through fog or scorched not-a-person.
“I…” Ray hesitated. “I saw something I really felt like I needed to tell you about.”
“It’s okay,” came the low, smooth reply. “You can tell me. Especially if you feel it’s something we’ve never covered that people need to hear. I really do think it’s fine to come to different conclusions about . . . especially about the more minor tenets or doctrines. Does that make sense, Ray? Is my impression true? Do you see things differently?”
Another nearly imperceptible change like a tiny shift in some unknown direction cut short the waves of honor Ray felt at being addressed with such respect by this world-renown superhero of the faith.
Then thoughts of dark flames birthed partly in murderous rage wrenched Ray’s thoughts back to the urgency at hand.
“I don’t have any problem with the doctrines,” he said, hoping to nip the subject clean and move on. “I love them. I think they . . . they really do help people.”
“As much as they can, right?” pressed the patient Pastor. “So, what’s missing then?”
“No,” said Ray. “I mean, honestly, my only problem with the Church isn’t the teaching or anything. I love the teaching.”
“Tell me what you don’t like,” the Pastor softly ordered.
There would be no arguing.
“I…” Ray held back, then gave in, “I really don’t like the . . . the art. Okay? That’s all.”
“What do you mean by ‘art’?”
“Well,” Ray stalled again, “I don’t know who the Church . . . is, I guess. But maybe there’s something I’m missing. I mean, I just sort of think if you’ve got something to show the world . . . well, show it. Put yourself out there. Put your ideas out. And if they’re good, people will listen, and… But really I don’t have a…”
“Ray,” the Pastor soothed, “your opinion is worthwhile. So never be ashamed to share what you think. I appreciate it, actually. And if I’m hearing you properly, I suppose I’d respond and say that the purpose of the church is not just to put out ideas . . . though sharing the gospel is our highest aim. But the way we do that . . . the real purpose of the church . . . is by doing life and growing together.”
“Yes,” said Ray after a small pause, wondering what the disagreement was. “That’s awesome. I mean, now everyone can, y’know, connect for free, and…”
He let the words patter out, again lost for how to avoid getting further sidetracked.
But then as if to clutch and subdue Ray’s wandering train of thought, the Pastor shot back with, “Ray, tell me: Are you a believer?”
“I’m not sure,” Ray sighed, his head turning slowly from left to right. “And if being unsure, or feeling like belief isn’t something I can choose . . . if that’s the same as unbelief . . . I guess I’ll have to accept it. And if believing the right way really is what matters most, well…”
“And now you share your beliefs with whoever wants to hear them,” stated the Pastor. “But you also claim not to know if your beliefs are true?”
Ray sighed a second time, feeling a deep sense of release.
“I feel like I connect with your story,” Ray answered, “and the pictures you paint of . . . of just what it means to be human. I’d never want to cause you any grief, or stop you from doing what you’re doing. Not at all.” And then after another pause: “I don’t know exactly what I believe. I want to believe what you do if it’s true.”
“Was that what you came to tell me?” asked the Pastor.
“No. I . . . I think you might be in danger,” Ray blurted, feeling another instant surge of ease.
The hard part was over.
The rest would be tidying up details.
“Oh?” ventured the Pastor, nodding. “Well, what happened? And what do you think I should do to be safe?”
The way the Pastor emphasized “you” brought Ray almost to tears.
He remembered what he had heard of the Pastor’s message just moments earlier from out in the lobby.
He then considered how seamlessly the Pastor had transitioned from preaching up on stage to being so accommodating and generous with this weird former-employee goof, this wildcard, this…
And suddenly aware that he had in fact caught the Pastor during what was but a tiny window between two Sunday services, Ray’s astonishment at the man’s utter selflessness and grace only multiplied.
“Well, you have everything set in place already, right?” Ray mumbled hurriedly.
Yet even as the words left his lips, Ray thought of something new that made him want to spin around, sprint away, and never look back.
How much had the Pastor been told about Ray’s last day at the office?
What of that final, awful conversation with Todd?
Might the Pastor see Ray, himself, as the very danger Ray was there to warn of?
“We are prepared,” answered the Pastor evenly. “Ever since we went live on TV and had that huge spike in membership a few years back. We should have it all under control.”
Their eyes met.
“I guess,” Ray heard himself begin, “sometimes I feel like I’m just laughing with you . . . like we’re both alone in this world where so many are trying to think things like money and commercials have to matter, and . . . I don’t know. I mean…”
The Pastor was silent even after Ray’s trail-off.
Finally, to close a very long gap, the Pastor said flatly, “I have to be honest, I’m having a little trouble following.”
“When I was a teenager,” Ray began again, “I worked at this video store. And they had a deal where new customers got a card that gave them a free second rental with every movie they took for the first month. So I made all these fake accounts in the computer, and pocketed every second seven dollars that came in, y’know, adding those movies as free second rentals on all my fake accounts. I’d make hundreds of dollars doing that every Friday night. Then I’d go out and spend it all. And no one ever knew. No one noticed or cared. And when I had to disappear, I got all the money I needed in one night.”
The Pastor nodded, his grin’s mischievousness dominating like an eclipse in a flash of what seemed to be recollection.
“Why did you just tell me that?” the Pastor asked.
“I’ve been seeing this fog everywhere,” Ray said simply, giving his eyes some wriggle room to bounce around the little room. “The first thing the fog does is it keeps you from looking at it.”
“Well, that makes sense,” answered the Pastor. “Sin is that way. Pride was the devil’s sin. And proud people are usually quite blind to it themselves. It’s like how the devil is a master of lies. He even masquerades as an angel of light, the Bible says.”
Some fog in the room seemed to sway and flow downward, covering the floor and table in a bland, cloudy haze.
Ray almost wondered if the fog knew it was being talked about.
“It’s like that for me too,” said Ray, “but the fog isn’t the devil or Pride. No, it’s more like how afraid we are not to…”
But Ray was caught away from the sound of his own voice by the stunning revelation of his favorite not-a-person shining like a massive golden crucifix high and beautiful above the Pastor’s head.
Ray heard himself still speaking, but couldn’t make himself care enough to listen . . . something about translations of texts keeping parts unfairly isolated.
The fog rose as pale steam, uncovering a hidden cluster of not-a-persons coiled together behind the Pastor’s desk.
Satisfied, though not knowing why, Ray was somehow sure the beings he saw would never be caught or taken advantage of again.
Lost for words, he chuckled at the idea of himself as some sort of officially chosen representative of the not-a-persons sent to boldly declare their deliverance with confirming signs and wonders (though hopefully not plagues of icky frogs or painful sores).
Old contracts levitated from cabinets to reveal acceptance signatures condoning cultures of universal dependence in the name of Kingdom Grace.
And as the fog continued to re-disperse like portions of a collapsed riot, Ray considered arguing more about the likes of art and buildings.
Or maybe he should apologize, slink out, and go hear the next service message.
Maybe the Psychologist had been too nice.
“Ray,” said the Pastor, “can you put in a nutshell what you’re trying to say? I really do have to get in soon.”
Ray fired back with, “I guess I’d just say: Never underestimate . . . what’s possible.”
“What does that mean?”
And with that, Ray turned to leave.
. . .
As he rounded the corner that led back through to the main corridor and outside, Ray saw Pride.
He halted mid-step, and did a half-double take, feeling a stab of irony deeper than any he had ever known.
Pride was hunched over, crammed into a small, dirty cage made of rusted iron.
Chained around its neck hung a crusty wooden sign that read:
WORST: THE WILL TO BE GOD.
Then Ray saw the devil, small and almost hidden near the ground.
The devil did not move, but only stared up and over at Faith close by.
Ray watched as a host of shadowy human figures in robes surrounded the pitiful devil in a menacing circle.
These began to heap ridicule and scorn in endless, breathless waves.
Ray could not mistake the glee and whimsy plastered on their faces as they clutched and hoisted the devil over to the same terrible cage where Pride was bound.
The devil kept completely still, waiting.
Ray felt a jolt of tension and sharp desire to look away when he glimpsed the abject loneliness burrowed deep in the devil’s longing eyes.
To look into those eyes, he knew, would be to be pierced through with the weariness of a front held up for lifetimes . . . of being forever misunderstood, and written off, and rejected by all so every clique, empire, caste, and soul could safely turn its back, hum along, and sleep.
Ray felt the weight of blame for every manner of evil then.
He continued to hold still and watch quietly, just as the devil was.
. . .
From nowhere (and everywhere yet) Rev spoke.
And his music didn’t stop.
Neither did the enigmatic woman’s voice rise up to sweep across in tinges strange and sweet.
Nothing broke off or fell this time.
All stayed eerily in place.
And Rev found he had no reason or desire to stop, even despite the way his speaking first locked his attention to only what was worst: hair, nails, skin…
He thought of Thalia.
He then flashed out a little smile as if arriving at a dreaded job to find it done.
And there were words, too.
There had to be, right?
But what might they be saying?
Listening a little closer . . . careful so as not to upset the spell . . . the words Rev heard seemed too ordinary to really tell apart.
Still the moment carried on, delightful as it was unspecial, and random amongst a grand continuum of equally unimportant others.
His questions changed a little, but not his search or thoughts.
Why would anyone want . . . to be heard?
The sound of Rev’s easy soul being peeled back and laid bare to speak its silly depths in key made fame seem like the answer to a problem that had never really been.
He laughed as his eyes drooped to see the comic sadness of a fear that he might never be given a channel or platform of his own.
Would he really prefer fighting everyone blindly for nothing?
Rev knew he needed only air to cast his sound.
. . .
Working through to type my notes, I realize that for whatever reason nothing got recorded after my question about everyone’s birthday back at our big group session.
The astrologer must have made some comment, no?
Yet I simply cannot for the life of me remember having anything except my own birthday in mind.
I suppose this can be another remaining mystery for me to practice letting go of.
Besides, the birthday quandary makes no difference to Ray’s case.
I would hate, more than anything, to waste your time on pointless rabbit trails.
Anyway, I was born February 14th, 1981.
At least that is what I was told.
Again, I have no one to confirm such details with, and no documentation.
. . .
Ray came face to face with Jolie in the outskirts of the Church lobby.
She almost smiled, but seemed to twitch or jerk away in chaotic time as their eyes met.
“You know,” was all he said, not looking away.
Jolie’s face scrunched itself into a question mark.
Could Ray really be breaching the one topic both knew need stay unmentioned?
“No,” Ray responded.
He smiled as he passed through the door and away, sure that she did know.
. . .
Rev stared at the untitled icon like a beacon at the bottom of his laptop’s streaked screen.
He realized the file had never been opened.
With a sigh, he double-clicked.
A quick shot of himself strutting out on stage in ridiculous leathers made him grin.
He was then immediately blindsided by a raging wall of sound encrusted with crashing cymbals molded to twanging, edgy bass.
With monstrous speed and tightness, the captured blaring crunched and ran like a stopwatch beneath a heavier version of the same dreamy flimflam Rev had spent his childhood, adolescence, and now adulthood doodling with at the edge of his bed.
It sounded great.
As his band’s final failed attempt at rock superstardom played on, Rev fondly relived each nearly missed cue and silly line of drugged-out banter with the crowd.
And for each song, along with the screaming cheers and amplification, he could so plainly hear the very same magic he and Dale had never failed to stumble upon whenever out just wherever messing around on their guitars.
He punched a button to off the video, hoisted his instrument up to its home across his lap, and eased his way through the first verse and chorus of an old song called Desperate Connection.
It was fun to feel his real voice sitting right at the edge of his music now . . . no longer apart from, above, or blaring through, but vibrating on its own beside the clean and nuanced crying of the strings.
He could almost hear Dale in the room with him deftly plucking or strumming along, giving grace to fumbled changes and sudden dynamic shifts.
It was nice to think of Dale now and their songs.
Rev found himself questioning music again (or still).
But the questions weren’t the same anymore at all.
Could an artist be honest and willing enough to strip their work down to its most basic form instead of hiding behind notions of costly fuzz and clamor?
Rev had really always known his easy little tunes were best when given to serve as simple backdrops…
But to what?
He laughed, and played new chords, and sang . . . and paused every few moments to jot down words to a blank open page in a brand new notebook.
It was easy.
And even despite his lifelong quest to unearth the treasure now permeating the air, Rev heard with un-phased delight that same female, foreign voice sliding up and away as he strummed steadily on in a continuous rolling pattern.
He listened, his grin beaming even wider, and wrote down something a little like what she might be singing.
Eventually the rolling quieted.
What were those questions again?
But this time Rev forgot to ask.
. . .
Mr. Rolman tried to quit smoking, mostly for guilt over his son.
I’m abandoning him!
Making him feel bad!
Making him think I don’t want to be around him . . . and like it’s his fault.
I keep hurting him just so I can…
And long after Mr. Rolman had forgotten all the words said in session that day with the group, there was what could only be described as an abiding love . . . dignified, silly, and tender . . . like an old friend invited to live in the Rolman home.
The love would come to rest hidden at the heart of everything Mr. Rolman did.
Though he would never understand.
. . .
The grating blender sound cut to silence, leaving frothy strawberry foam to bubble in its wake.
Bing sipped, his lips puckering at a hint of bitter kale not quite buried in sweet, icy citrus.
It tasted amazing.
Getting high a lot less seemed to make all tastes and smells, and everything else, all the more potent and enjoyable.
A flash, and he giggled as he quickly tapped at his iun resting beside him on the table.
correlation: people who seem really impatient
while pumping gas also never seem to be that
He paused, watching and not watching his numbers spike and then ease back to their steady magic turning.
If anyone had told him just months earlier he would soon jump from 0 to 20,000 followers, he probably would have gotten a little extra wasted just to offset the stress of whole new worlds of eyes, opinions, judgments…
But here he was, tapping out those same silly messages once delivered only to himself.
He now never gave any a second read or thought.
sewage: haven’t u ever wondered what actually
happens to shit?
But why had he started sharing when he did?
Was it something the Psychologist had said?
Or maybe not said, but implied…?
Or not implied…
It seemed what Bing had pulled from the ether somewhere was something like a mantra that could capture the core and essence of his whole search for worth.
“You got jokes?” the mantra taunted, “Don’t go back and try to perfect them. Get them out!”
imagine: a bird’s nipples.
And the previous two were already being passed along to countless others.
can ur special someone tell when u check out
chicks on TV?
New faces kept appearing to overtake the top of Bing’s big list.
Another . . . another…
He marveled afresh at the instant connections now set to occur on their own between his crazy (high) mind and whoever might seem to want to show an interest.
But what if he’d never put out that first attempt?
A few sleepless nights spent staring at dashboard statistics notwithstanding, Bing was proud for at least having finally decided to try.
No Bings before ever had.
stupid: why do people always unzip their
bullet-proof vests to show in movies?
“I: love you!” came an instant reply.
“Don’t say ‘love’,” corrected another. “He don’t believe in that.”
The conversations seemed to work like grenades, exploding anew at each interaction, flinging fun like shrapnel in any number of unpredictable directions.
‘i love u’ can either mean ‘i want attention’ or
‘okay, leave me alone now, i luv u . . . bye.’
It almost didn’t matter that…
ever get so high u ask a really friendly fast
food guy what he does for a living?
since when is part of being a boss knowing more
than anyone on ur team about absolutely
Next to the iun, spread out in a botched pile, lay the 32 printed pages of all Bing’s previous, unposted bits.
As he glanced at chunks of his dense, hardly punctuated text on paper, a pesky thought returned like a willful mosquito:
Shouldn’t I be sharing it all on stage?
Isn’t that my obvious next step?
Now turning to scroll absentmindedly back through time down his iun’s face, a protective wall constructed itself from every happy memory of real accomplishment . . . the first offer to come speak in person; the first line re-shared, and then re-re-shared; the first kind comment received…
What he saw was the outworking his process, he knew.
Again, nothing had ever changed for Bing except for where his ‘Send’ button was aimed.
And that small switch had been like picking ripe fruit from a tree.
Did each new line not still bring the same shy smile to his face immediately upon having been entrusted over to that big growing list of friends?
But what if Bing’s found success had become like a barricade atop its own tower?
Why (or why not) risk throwing himself over into an all new, uncertain pursuit?
As Bing’s edges were nimbly blurred, he slowly reached across, swiped, and tapped a couple times to start a new recording.
Then he stared straight ahead into the same great and mysterious adventure another Bing might have begun for him long before.
. . .
Some friends spent nights like gleeful middle schoolers camped out in each other’s living rooms where things like guitars and mics usually got plugged straight into computers.
Others stayed on their own in homes far away, and had the same fun together through iuns.
Rev eventually settled on a few places he liked to spend his days and evenings.
These tended to be spots that reminded him of his youth, back when best friends would get together to make whatever out in the middle of everything.
He often came to that same place by the sea where he had met Caylee.
Dale was with him every time now, of course . . . one carefully noodling along as the other strummed steady and strong.
And Rev’s voice always held.
But every once in a while, the moon might come to rest especially massive in dark purple dusk.
And Rev could maybe forget to remember exactly who he was.
Then listening in each time as his voice raced ever up and away…
She loved every minute of it.
. . .
Without delving into the sorts of details those most unlike me seem to crave, my conclusion is simple: I need not compose the several volumes my cumulative case notes could fill.
Rehashing and reiterating what is but mere clicks or swipes away would be pointless, no?
With Ray’s case at the center, surrounded by every relevant application and example, my Method’s function can be reduced enough to create a single concise work.
I will change the names and other details, of course.
Everything is so easy now.
How funny for me to have been so afraid of losing clients and money due to my Method’s simplicity.
Ray would surely appreciate that irony.
“Hello, this is what I do. You can basically treat yourself, and quickly. And you know you’re done once you can handle the change in perspective you find yourself continually brought back to.”
My Method costs nothing to sell potentially everyone.
So, one thing I am absolutely certain of is I cannot, in good conscience, go on charging for it indefinitely.
At first I thought of dropping to a flat rate of $20 an hour.
Now I am thinking $5, but not for long.
As soon as my complete work is ready to give away, I will charge nothing.
. . .
The kids in what was just the City still eye everyone with great suspicion.
None know what to say.
But then an ordinary man, dressed shabby and strolling down Main Street, catches their eye and smiles a little too wide for it to be pretend.
The man calls out to the kids in a bright and cheerful tone, though his words seem like an afterthought: “You’re absolutely beautiful! I just can’t get over it! Like TV stars, every one!”
“What about it?” the kids quietly ask each other later. “No reason to be so beautiful now…”
But there is, of course.
And those kids go on to shine like stars, even as all remaining big screens get taken down to make more room.
For no one sees anyone as needing to be replaced anymore.
An older child sits with a younger one, happily laughing along and not getting frustrated at all.
Then the younger one, who likes to watch things over and over to remember, grows up and forgets all but enough for watching and re-watching to feel a little stale.
He feels compelled instead to be out doing fun things with his son.
. . .
Dear friends, see how the humans have come to celebrate our ways, perfectly convinced of the good of our two kingdoms.
Yet I must take this chance to warn you one last time.
For I now see another who has been competing all along to steal my human’s mind.
This one draws my human to excess and folly, and seeks to endanger our purpose by appearing as me.
Yet take courage, for you know the things that show or wish to be shall always prevail.
The borders of both our kingdoms grow ever clearer and more blurred as we expand.
So, no need to fear, dear friends.
That is all.
Grace and peace to you in this, our time.
. . .
In the end, Tian lives and is who he needs to be, simply for his art.
Once created, his work becomes the least of his concerns.
Maybe it never actually was anything.