SHORT STORY: “James (Continued)”

A stylized image of an older, serious man in a suit presiding over a meeting, with others around him.

“Committees should be dissolved,” James stated.

He hadn’t put it that way before, a good summary, though, of how his mind had come to operate. “You mean the department committee that denied your master’s proposal?” I said.

“That’s the latest—my fault for loitering where I don’t belong?” he replied. “Things need to be pure.”


“Yeah, tired word. Can’t think of a better one that captures it.”

“Would an example serve?” I said.

“OK, in the religion class, not just western faith, but several; I told you a little about that over the phone? The professor was classic, recited long passages in translation, his own, in Latin, in Greek, in Hebrew, and other dead tongues.”

“They’re all dead tongues?” I interrupted.

“Well, yes, but…some other time,” he said. “That guy, he mesmerized for a week or two, got me thinking about the spiritual realm as never before. Then reality set in: the long footnoted essays I was to write, after shouldering through dense tombs and dust covered periodicals. I was reminded of how Umberto Eco broke free from Christianity and other regimes while writing his dissertation on Thomas Aquinas.”

“You’ve read Eco?”

“One book, one film approximation, and an essay or two. That class made me feel I’d left that place as well.”

“You were once Catholic?” I said.

“Not that. If reincarnation turns out true, I won’t come back Catholic until rebirth 9 to the tenth.”

I said, “What does fill that place you mention?”

“Whatever. Wait, place? … Place?” James said. “What’s in that place for you? Did you ever take such a class?”

“No, it comes from high school days, from two guys, more adventurous than I was. Like the small rocket they built that in one bang shot up over 700 feet. Like when they grew an acre of tobacco and sold it. The thing that caught my attention was finding an unmarked grave and getting permission, so they claimed, to dig it up.”

“They dug up a grave?” James said.

“I was PO’d, they didn’t tell me when they’d start digging.”

“I would be too.”

“They said all they found was a couple of bones, a jaw, not a skull and, fright or guilt setting in, they stopped digging and refilled the pit. I don’t think I would have stopped digging; well, maybe I would of, definitely if alone.” I said.

“Say more,” James gestured with a hand.

“It was growing up in the `50s and `60s in the South, the boxes of old family remains included many black and whites and their Kodak eight-to-a-roll negatives of wreath topped caskets, several open, some shots nearly close enough to guess who it was. My family’s denomination, Baptist, buried all that was left, embalmed, scrubbed, best dressed, with faces skillfully make up to look breathlessly normal. Sermon and burial complete, mourners walked back to the church entertainment room to share memories, concoct new ones; eat chicken, corn, potato salad, pies, and other joys of the living.

“Resurrection, it was preached, took it from there, at a time after all time, to be judged, according to a script written before time began. Sound familiar?”

“You believed that then?” James said.

“If ‘That’s the way it was’ is the same as belief, I suppose I did.”

“You believe that now?” James said.

“Not close enough for my mother to hold back a quick, light slap.”

“My mom did that with stares; she deployed a vocabulary of stares,” James said. “Her action seemed pure back then, but maybe not.”

“Why not?”

“She copied so much from her mom.”

“And your purity is of a higher order?” I challenged.

“Yes, begs the…” James paused. “The one thing I liked in that class I mentioned was its historical view, learning how church council committees shaped and reshaped and reshaped Christianity, which was divided east and west, Constantinople and Rome, how the side, usually the east, with greater attendance dominated, yielding what, briefly, was held as the way it was to be.”

“Interesting, but back to resurrection,” I said, “bodies are brought back not just whole, but with controllable appetites, bridled appetites, all of them, not just sex and booze. The body passes, the soul, spirit, or whatever—let’s go with ‘soul’ for now—moves on, but why must the body ever return?”

“To plead its case, to the Judge who knows all” James added.

“Good way to put it, but the self-same body? If brought back to physical existence, how can it be the same?” I said.

“I haven’t read if that detail was discussed, certainly not voted on, in committee,” James said.

I continued, “And that Trinity business of three equals one.”

“Yeah, the big T not official until 325,” James added.

“Come resurrection day, what if even one of them was to vote in opposition?”

“Then it’s a hung jury,” James said, smiling.

“Yes, hung jury, the true means of salvation,” I whispered, “and the soul may go upward. The soul having ridden along in the body for its time, now freed from it, why wouldn’t/couldn’t it depart without a word, the body’s last convulsions a farewell gesture to the soul, in a last fit of enlightenment?”

“If there’s some small window through which a gesture might be sent,” James said.

“Reading the Old Testament, I always imagined the many writers were just looking into a mirror,” I said.

“You have moved along,” James said, raising his hands, “but the window, go on.”

“The popular fallback of those denying the Beyond is timely UFO reports. Hollywood and novelists have banked on it; then the high repetition of video games instilling belief in full-busted, boy-waisted females, silly high-tech-Bronze-Age weaponry, and cute robots. At least my take on those games, though my controller, my feet, has kept me clear of them.”

“But the window?” James insisted.

“Hasn’t it been shattered?” I said.

“Many brag they shattered it, brag that they never, ever were hoodwinked into believing there could be such a window. But if it can’t be proven that it exists, it can’t be proven that it doesn’t exist,” James chanted.

“James, you making a joke?”

“Just my logical reflex,” he said. “One thing I didn’t expect in the class was seeing that the longer a religion survives, the more its theologians secularize it, as if to lead the attack.”

“Is this the atheist theologians; there’s no shortage of those?”

“Not just them, but the dead earnest ones as well: a religion won’t survive its theologians or its committees.”

“How does a religion survive?” I said.

“By continuing to practice its early music, by praying in old, likely dead, languages, by whatever elements modernizers haven’t corrupted.”

“You mean their original practices, where the meaning is expressed in the body and hands and voices.”

“That’s better stated than what I heard in class; akin to the way we’ve mentioned, ‘The way it was,’” James said. “In the class, we also touched on other religions. The prof had a way of imbuing, on the level of an actor, a hint of Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam. Curious and a little cautious, I often walked past a mosque near campus. I made a point of passing by each Friday, especially, the Muslim equivalent to Christian Sunday. Up close, the Muslim call to prayer is captivating, as well a show of daunting vocal ability. Soon I was taking off my shoes and entering to witness in detail,” James said, somewhat detached.

“James, you’re now Muslim.”

“No claim of that, but if some window was to…open a crack,” he said, blinking, hearing his own words.

* * *

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