After the improv show, I couldn’t fall asleep. It had been more than 24 hours since my last dose of prednisone, but the drug was alive and well, buried in marrow and fatty tissue, seeping into my consciousness, controlling my thoughts. I slid out from under Emily and passed the night writing at my computer.
Dawn broke. It was a big day, the day I would see The Book of Mormon. With several hours before the matinee, Emily and I climbed out onto the roof of the adjacent building and basked in the sun. The elevated train rumbled past, its passengers visible through grime-smeared windows. I felt like I was living in a movie, an aspiring writer in New York, soaking sun on the roof of an aspiring actress. It was everything I had ever wanted to be.
“I’m sorry,” I said, through half-closed eyes.
“For what?” Emily turned the page on the book she was reading.
“Talking so much. It seems like I can’t stop talking. I want to shut up, but prednisone makes me do funny things.”
“I thought you stopped taking it.”
“I did,” I turned my head to face her, squinting in the sun, “but it’s still there. I can feel it in my blood. Usually I’m not this obnoxious.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Emily. “I like hearing your voice.”
That’s the thing about people, you can never tell when they’re lying. You just have to trust them and hope for the best.
Once our skin was throughly saturated, we headed inside, dressed up in our Sunday best, and took the train to Broadway.
The theater where The Book of Mormon was playing was not what I’d expected. The carpet was worn, the seats small and uncomfortable, intricately carved woodwork covered the walls and ceiling, but the gold paint was faded, cracked and peeling. This was the epicenter of live entertainment, Greece for the modern era, and The Book of Mormon was the hottest ticket in town, but the surroundings were old and crumbling, no polished hard wood, no modern flare, a once-beautiful actress, well past her prime. It didn’t matter, the theater was packed, stuffed to the gills at two in the afternoon, everyone babbling excitedly, glad to be there despite the thrift store surroundings.
“Carol was wrong,” I said, “We made it here with time to spare.” Carol, Emily’s roommate, had been scared that we were leaving too late, that the show would start without us.
“Carol worries about everything,” Emily paged through her program.
“She’ll make a good mom,” I said.
“She will,” Emily laughed in agreement.
The curtain opened and the musical began. It was a profound story, a perfect humanist critique of religion, filled with understanding and devoid of derision. It punched me right in the gut. I wish you could have been there, watching from behind my eyes, wrapped up inside my skin, but even that wouldn’t have been enough. You’d have to be me to understand.
The curtain fell. I sat there, staring at the floor, my body electric, “I’m not a Christian any more,” I said. “My whole life I’ve been a Christian, but I’m not any more.” I had given up months ago, but few people knew it. Seeing The Book of Mormon made it alright to tell Emily.
“That’s great!” said Emily. Her excitement felt like a slap. She didn’t understand. I didn’t hate Christians. They were doing their best and failing, just like everyone else. There was even a chance that the stories they told were true. Emily blamed the failures of her Christian friends and family on their religion, but that was her own agnostic dogma, a way of rationalizing human behavior without understanding it. The problem with the world was not religion, it was people, some of them just happened to be religious.
For years I had searched for the answers to life’s mystery. I studied and argued, honing my doctrines to a razor’s edge. I wanted to know. I needed to understand. Now I realized that it didn’t matter if my answers to the Big Questions were correct, my worth was not determined by the accuracy of my doctrines, but by the contents of my heart. There was room for error. A weight lifted.
• • •
“Jesus said as much,” said Nega Nate in the cave at the edge of oblivion. “He said we’d be judged by our fruit, not our dogma. No fruit and you get thrown into a fire, enough fruit and you make it into heaven.”
I was burying the seeds I’d saved from the scottsberries we’d eaten. I stopped for a moment and looked up at him, “It’s easy to understand that story, but hard to believe. Each of us thinks our philosophies are superior. It helps us sleep at night, believing we understand the universe. People want answers, they don’t like gurus who shrug their shoulders.”
“It’s hard to sell books full of uncertainty,” laughed Nega Nate.
“Why are you planting those seeds?” Asked the robot. “There is no sun. There is no water.”
“Because I told Scott that I would.” My hands were filthy, my throat was dry. We had eaten the last of our food. Only death remained. “The point is, none of this matters, or all of this matters, or some of this matters, but we can’t know which it is, so it’s silly to fight about it. We should focus on being good people and let the chips fall where they may.”
“But what constitutes a good person?” Asked Nega Nate.
“I don’t know,” I sat on the ground, wearily. “Every metric is flawed, every situation requires its own philosophy.” I looked out the cave, at the infinite, glowing bubble worlds. The light they cast was beautiful and inadequate. “But at least I don’t have to worry about it. The universe can be whatever it is. I will live and die, not knowing.”
“In surrender there is freedom,” said Nega Nate.
I scooped a pile of dirt over the final scottsberry, “I wish I’d learned that sooner.”
• • •
After the show, I bought a bunch of worthless memorabilia— buttons, t-shirts and posters— it was my attempt at holding on to the profound insights I had witnessed. Emily was embarrassed, the gift bag my souvenirs came in marked us as tourists. I didn’t care. I had been set free.
As we walked down the street, bag in hand, we passed a guy with a perfectly sculpted body and tan skin. I knew his body was perfectly sculpted and tan because the only thing he was wearing was a red speedo. He smiled at us, as picturesque as a model in a magazine, “How’d you like the show?” he asked, looking at my commemorative Book of Mormon shopping bag.
“It was incredible,” I said. “Have you seen it?”
“Last year, with the original cast,” he said proudly.
I’d never heard of ‘the original cast’ but apparently that was a thing. It made sense. The people who took the stage on opening night had probably been hand-picked by the creators themselves, plus you could forever brag that you had been there first. I wished that I had seen it with the original cast. Then I wished that my body was so perfect store owners gave me money to stand outside their shops as advertisement. New York is filled with excellence. The speedo guy would have been the most eligible bachelor in Denver, but in the Big Apple he was unremarkable, a glorified sandwich sign, stuck outside, begging for nickels. I wondered what that made me.
Emily hailed a cab. We climbed inside, “Can you take us to the corner of 13th and 2nd?” asked Emily.
“Why not?” said the man in a thick, Caribbean accent. His beard was coarse and black, his long dreadlocks peppered with gray. He pulled into the busy street, “How’s life for you?”
“We’re great!” giggled Emily.
“You both look so special,” said the cabbie.
“We just saw a play,” I said by way of explanation.
“What’s your name?” asked Emily.
“You don’t have to go too far to see what my name is,” the driver switched lanes with the confidence of a seasoned professional.
“Let’s see,” Emily looked around the cab. Mounted on the back of his seat was a picture of the driver. Printed next to it was his licensing information, “Eugene Franklin.”
“Yes, that’s my name.”
“Where are you from?” asked Emily.
“Grenada,” Eugene said proudly.
“You’re from paradise!” laughed Emily.
“This is the paradise,” Eugene said, pointing out the window at New York City.
“I agree,” I said, “How long have you been here?”
“I would say about thirty-five years, but I wish I could been two places at once.”
“Where else would you be?” asked Emily.
“Here and back home.”
“So go home,” I said.
“I got everything here, man: family, children, grand children.”
“Aw, fuck them,” I waved my hand through the air, dismissing his family with a gesture. That was prednisone talking, the last vestiges of a filthy weed.
“That what you going to say when this beautiful lady has a child for you?” asked Eugene. Emily and I laughed. “What you gonna say if your parents do that to you? You love your parents, don’t you?”
“No,” I laughed, “we don’t get along.”
“You must have roots in this life, man,” Eugene got serious.
“It’d be nice,” I looked out the window.
“You keep her close,” Eugene looked at Emily in the rearview mirror, “You make roots with her. Sorry, if I offended the lady by saying these things.”
“It’s fine,” said Emily, “I’m never going to have children.”
“Never?” Eugene couldn’t believe his ears, “You got sisters and brothers?”
“I do. I have a lot of them and they’re all having babies.”
“You don’t cherish them?”
“I do, but I don’t want any of my own.”
“I like where Eugene is going with this,” I said thoughtfully. “I should impregnate you. Then I can stay in New York and raise the thing.”
Eugene laughed and joked as the cab crossed town. He was an old man and worked 12 hour shifts to care for his disabled wife who sat at home all day watching television. He didn’t have time to go to fancy plays or take vacations, but he was happy just the same. He seemed like a good man. I tipped him well.
We climbed out of the cab and walked into a swanky New York restaurant. You could tell it was fancy because the menu described the food instead of calling it by name. They wanted you to know how much work had gone into each bite. Everyone was young and hip and the music was bleeding edge. We sat at the bar and ordered. When the bartender found out I couldn’t drink alcohol, he whipped up an elegant juice concoction with all kinds of stuff in it. He even took an orange peel and twisted it over the glass, infusing the brim with a hint of zest. I still remember the shit-eating face he made as plied his craft, pride emanating from every pore. It was all very delightful and unnecessary.
Emily got a phone call from a bar where she was trying to get a job. She went outside and talked for a while. I sat there, taking it all in. “I got the job!” She returned excitedly. For the last few weeks she had been unemployed, so that was a good thing. She wouldn’t have to worry about money any more.
After lunch, we tooled around for a while, ending up at this enormous comic book store. New York still had comic books stores, which was strange because the internet had destroyed them everywhere else. Life moved at a different pace in the Big Apple. The population base was large enough to support the newest innovations as well as relics from golden ages past. The crumbling theaters on Broadway stood proudly next to high resolution, mediatronic billboards; trains rumbled beneath streets covered in taxi cabs and Maseratis. In New York there was room for everyone, you just had to find it.
We headed to a clothing store so I could buy swimming trunks. Tomorrow we would go to Montauk and swim in the ocean. As we left the clothing store we walked past this young guy. His head spun, staring at Emily’s ass. His reaction was instinctive and primal. He couldn’t help himself. I understood. She really did have amazing curves.
That night Emily had another improv performance with a different troupe. “This is a house team,” she said. “Everyone is really good, everyone really gets it.”
“Will Charlie be there?”
“God, I hope not,” she sighed.
We made the trek across town to The Pit. This time we were ushered directly downstairs to a different, grittier room. Wooden chairs stood at attention in ordered rows in front of a grungy stage. People were packed into the room and there was excitement in the air. I found a seat and listened to the idle conversations of the other patrons. It occurred to me that most of the things people said were unimportant, a way to thwart silence, a way to pass the time. Was there a greater meaning? Did our lives and words and actions build, one upon the other, slowly moving towards some unfathomable goal? Were we sentient machines carrying out a creator’s plan, or mold on a sandwich, the unintended consequence of some greater purpose? And what was our responsibility in either case? Should we be quiet and contemplative, or speak constantly, filling the air with words?
The lights went out, the crowd grew quiet, the actors took the stage. A spotlight flared and the story began. It was amazing, hilarious and profound. Emily shone along with the rest of her troupe. The tale that developed involved a cast of characters visiting a prison on vacation. A maniacal jailer imprisoned them. The comedy arose as each of the characters reacted to the situation. Some of them wanted to be there, others fought to get out. The jailer returned periodically to scare and threaten and the characters slowly unravelled. It was marvelous, wonderful and inspired. I began to see Emily’s dream, to imagine her on the silver screen. She was a little heavy, her chin a little too square, but she had talent. Maybe she would rise with the stars, maybe she would make it.
“How did you do that?” I asked as the train ushered us back to her apartment. “How did you guys make up all of that stuff on the fly?”
“Practice?” Emily shrugged. “There are lots of techniques to help you stay in the moment, but mostly it’s just practice.”
“Why didn’t your troupe last night perform as well as this one?”
“I don’t know,” Emily thought about this, “We’re trying to figure that out.”
“Man, that was so impressive. You really have some talent.”
“Thanks,” Emily smiled.
And how many others are out there like Emily, possessed of some artistic talent, but without the right combination of money or circumstance to bring their vision to the public eye? How many great bands, comedians, writers and painters toil in eternal obscurity, their efforts drowned by a never ending stream of mass media? The life of an artist is sad indeed.
to be continued