I'll Take "Schadenfreude" for Five Hundred, Alex.
Today’s little story is from Prophet Amidst Losses, a collection of tales that deal with—you guessed it—loss. Writers are as unfeeling a bunch of SOBs as you’re likely to meet outside of an insurance claims office. We make our living off the pain of others, and (when not mixing metaphors with seeming abandon) do so as happily pigs in shit.
Hmmmm. It occurs to me that I’ve written something else involving a pig sty; maybe a subject for another post…
Oh Happy Day
Charles Coluccini sits alone in his usual restaurant table in San Francisco. On most days, it is exactly as he prefers it: quiet, with no one to harass him with needy demands for conversation.
He hates conversation.
He especially hates conversations about the weather, the food, and the news of the day. There is nothing anyone can do about the weather, so discussing it wastes time and breath. Food is just food. It provides the required energy and nutrients to sustain life. What more should anyone expect from it? Another waste of time and breath. And news of the day? Anyone who is at all familiar with history has to know that the same tragedies and inconveniences repeat endlessly, with only insignificant variations, century after century. To imagine that the ones currently in play are any more significant than those that preceded them—and to discuss them while Charles was trying to read and eat his lunch in peace—is worse than a waste of time and breath.
It is damned rude.
He has sat, in the same place, with the same lunch, every day, for years on end. The only thing that varies is the book he is reading.
Or tries to read.
Today’s book is about the economic systems of ancient Greece. Even for Charles, it is slow going. He parses the same paragraph three times, and thinks that it is beginning to make sense.
At least he hopes so.
He gradually becomes conscious of some kind of distraction, some peripheral irritation in his immediate vicinity. He looks up from his troublesome paragraph and spots the offender.
A child, seated at the next table, bounces around in her seat. He corrects his first impression. She isn’t entirely in her seat. At least not all of the time. Worse than all that excess energy (which, he assumes, is a consequence of her unpleasantly youthful age), are her repeated vocalizations.
“I got ice cream! I got ice cream! I got ice cream! I got ice cream!” she shrieks. Her pitch rises with every sentence, but—more’s the pity—her sing-song repetitions never move beyond the range of Charles’ hearing.
He makes another fruitless attempt at the obstinate paragraph.
“Christ…” he thinks, “…one would imagine that there was something special about the sweetened and frozen lactic secretions of domesticated bovines. Why doesn’t someone do something about that annoying creature?”
No one does. If anything, the adults at her table seem to share her enthusiasm. If not for ice cream, then for her joy.
“Oh god,” he prays, though—as a lifelong agnostic—he does not admit the existence of any form of deity. “Please stop her infernal vocalizations!”
While trying yet again to crack that troublesome paragraph, he feels a slight tremor. It is followed, almost immediately, by a sharp shock. The light fixture on the ceiling above him sways ominously. It swings from side to side, with increasing fervor, before dropping with a crash. When the dust clears, he sees that the fixture has just missed him.
It fell, instead, on the irritating little girl, killing her instantly.
His first thought is “That could have been me!”
Realizing how awful that would sound—but unwilling to forgo the bien-être he feels in the silencing of the next table’s little annoyance—he says nothing. His peace and quiet is soon replaced by the uncalled-for wailing of the little girl’s parents. Exasperation drives him to seek quiet somewhere else. He uses his napkin to hold his place in the book, brushes off his dusty clothes and departs the debris-field that had been—only moments before—his regular restaurant.
Charles, a master of his own thoughts, soon puts the incident out of his mind. However, there was something from the day that does stay with him. The dust from the ceiling’s collapse is laden with asbestos fibers. They lodge in his lungs, and—over the following decades—metastasize into full-blown mesothelioma. He spends his last miserable years wasting away, racked by convulsive coughing and relentless pain.
His final days in the hospital are terrible. He has no visitors, and his condition is so poor that he isn’t even able to read. That is the worst part. Reading, his only real pleasure, has become impossible. The pointlessness of his existence makes surrender his most appealing option. With a gurgling shudder, Charles breathes his last.
A moment later, he opens his eyes.
There is no sensation of pain. He can see that he is still in his hospital room, but he isn’t coughing. He sits up—the first time he’d been able to do so in weeks. It surprises him a little, but not as much as the fact that he is not alone in his room.
No one, other than doctors and nurses, ever visit him.
Clearly, the old man at the foot of the bed is not a hospital employee. Charles doesn’t recognize the man, but there’s something familiar about him. He blinks, just to clear his vision.
When he reopens his eyes, the man’s appearance has changed. He now looks like Santa Claus. Puzzled by this unexpected metamorphosis, Charles closes his eyes again.
When he reopens his eyes, the man now resembles the Colonel Sanders from old fried-chicken commercials. This is weird. The colonel says nothing; he just smiles at the confused man in the bed. Charles closes his eyes tightly, in an attempt to make sense of this odd experience.
It doesn’t help.
When he raises his eyelids, the man has become a dead ringer for the Uncle Remus of Br’er Rabbit fame. This is entirely too much visual stimulation for the late Charles Coluccini.
“Wait a minute,” he starts to ask, comprehension slowly forming in his brain. “Am I dead?”
“Welcome to the celebration that is the afterlife!” sings the old man, who now looks very much like Walt Whitman.
“Am I in heaven?”
“You’re not much help, you know.”
“Not really my job,” answers the old man, who now looks just like Roy Rodgers’ sidekick, Gabby Hayes.
“And what, if I may ask, is your job?”
“I’m kind of in charge,” responds the guy who now bears an unsettling resemblance to Karl Marx.
“Are you—God?” asks the man who was beginning to question his agnosticism.
“Sure, if that’s what you want to call me, or if that’s what makes you happy.”
“I have the funny feeling that you’re not even trying to make me happy,” muses Charles.
“Again, not really my job,” says the old man, who is now a radiantly smiling Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
“This is getting me nowhere,” complains the recently deceased bibliophile.
“Precisely!” exclaims the winking man who had somehow turned into Albert Einstein.
“So, if this isn’t heaven, and this isn’t hell, where am I?”
“Wrong question. There is no where. There is only a what.”
“And that is—?”
“You’ll have to give me a hint.”
“Fair enough. Do you remember a moment in your life when you experienced an earthquake?”
“I do. A little girl was killed at the next table.” Charles paused for a moment, before continuing. He recalls a question that used to bother him, many years ago. “If you’re God, why did you let that happen to her? She’d done nothing to deserve that punishment.”
“You seemed, at the time, to think so,” replied Blackbeard the Pirate, lifting his eyepatch to reveal a winking eye.
“Wait. Are you saying that I brought that upon her?”
“In a way. Your unspoken wish showed me a way to solve a small problem that had been vexing me.”
“You had a problem? Aren’t you supposed to know everything?”
“Yes and no. I do put things in motion, but sometimes they go in unexpected directions. In her case, I realized that she had been born with a genetic deformity that was going to lead to a long and unpleasant life. I didn’t like it, but there it was.” The old man was beginning to look like the Wotan of Götterdämmerung.
“How did anything I thought, or said, help you?”
“I realized that I could spare her all those horrible years. I could end her life at the very moment when it was happiest.”
“So, her death was a kind of kindness. I think I understand.” Charles sat quietly for a few minutes, before posing another question. “Wait. If her life was short and sweet, why was my life so long and miserable?”
“She got the life—and death—that she deserved.” Leonardo da Vinci sat back in his chair, making an arched dome of his ten fingers, rotating and examining it from every angle. “So did you.”