And another short story from the dark side…ON NOTICE Short Fiction

May 11, 2012

by Raymond J. Steiner


HE WENT DOWN on one knee and eased over onto his side, holding his arm out stiffly to balance himself as he negotiated his weight onto his back.

“A bit old for this,” he murmured, as he stretched his body out to its full length over the warm grass.

He pulled the bill of his cap a little lower on his head to shut out the direct rays of the sun. Now, with the blazing globe situated somewhere beyond the lip of the cap’s bill, he was able to look straight up.

A cerulean summer sky gazed back at him, a few rising cumulous inviting scrutiny off to his right. He let his eyes linger on their impossible lightness, their slowly shifting shapes.

Not rain clouds.

He lay there for several minutes, trying to make his mind blank.

Step through to the right side of the brain.

A sharpness in his right side reminded him that he was lying on the ground, and he shifted a bit to avoid whatever it was that was nudging him from below.

“Too old for this,” he repeated, as he settled once again into the softness of the grass.

Stretching out his arms, he ran his fingers over the yielding blades of grass on either side of him.

Needs cutting.

He let his eyes wander back to the slowly drifting clouds, to the intervening blueness that separated them. He reckoned they were heading on a northwesterly course.

C’mon…imagine nothing.

He lay there for several minutes when the sun’s rays began to intrude, creeping past the bill of his cap, the brightness causing his eyes to squint.

Feel cosmic winds.

He closed his eyes fully then, allowing the brightness of the sun to fall onto his lids, their red veins dancing before his mind’s eye.

            Am I really seeing them … those veins?

When it became too dizzying, he pulled the cap over his face, feeling his warm breath fill the enclosed space.

            Let go…you need to do this.

He tried to imagine his body disintegrating, sinking into and through the grass beneath his back, his body breaking up into particles, sifting deeper and deeper into the warm rich soil … the inviting, warm, rich soil.

“Wouldn’t be so bad,” he mumbled into his cap.

            Would I feel anything? Hear anything?

            “Aye, there’s the rub.”

Thoughts of disappearing into the elements were not unusual for him, the idea of not being — of death — a part of his thoughts for as long as he could remember. Never were they unwelcome or unpleasant speculations. As he grew older, he learned to keep such things to himself, at first surprised that speaking of death bothered people, then, later in life, accepting the fact that most avoided the subject altogether.

He lay still for what seemed like an hour but, judging from the sun’s position, probably not even a half hour had passed.


            “A funny thing, that,” he said.

            Time. Hard to believe that I’ve been around for almost seventy-five revolutions around that old sun up there.

He tried to doze off, but knew from experience that whenever he tried to fall off to sleep that it would always elude him.

“Just like death,” he whispered into his cap. “Sleep can dodge you just like death.”

But he’d been put on notice, and he might just as well be ready.

He pushed himself up off the ground and slowly walked toward his back door.

            “Never wanted a rose garden — promised or not — anyway.”

Imagine silence.


            The doctor pointed to the monitor. “That’s cancer,” he said.

The nurse stood silently alongside the examination table. She looked at him, the vertical lines between her delicately arced eyebrows belying the encouraging smile she turned in his direction.

He turned from her face and craned his neck to the left to see where the doctor was pointing.

He breathed deeply.

“It’s beautiful,” he said.

The doctor paused before saying, “I’m not sure I’d call it ‘beautiful’.”

The nurse, silent, had moved off somewhere behind him, out of sight.


The whole examination had taken less than a half hour.

His eyes still on the monitor, he reeled back the past half-hour or so to go over it in his mind.

“Please pull your pants and underwear down to your knees and lie back on the table,” the nurse said politely.

As he did as he was bidden, the nurse, somewhere behind him, said, “I’m going to put some lidocaine on the head of your penis.”

He tensed.

“It will numb the area,” she said.

Hands touching him; a coldness.

He felt uncomfortable lying there in such a vulnerable position, his private parts exposed before this stranger — a young woman, at that. Before he could blurt out something in his embarrassment, she added, “The doctor will be in shortly,” and covered him with some light, gauzy material.

He lay alone on the table for a few minutes and then heard a soft knock on the door. Before he could say anything the doctor was standing by his side.

The doctor, short, handsome, soft-spoken, said quietly, “Good morning”


He’d met the doctor — Dr. De Soto — for the first time only about two weeks ago. He’d been sent to him for consultation by his regular physician after she had discovered blood in his urine during his annual physical.

“What might cause that”? he’d asked his doctor when she’d told him.

“Not sure,” she said. “I want you to see Doctor De Soto. The receptionist will make an appointment for you.”

That was almost a month ago, and after ruling out kidney stones, Dr. De Soto scheduled the cystoscopy.

            From a few drops of blood, to a consultation, to a cystoscopy.

Hardly a month had passed.


After the “good mornings” were exchanged, Dr. De Soto became all business.

“You’ll feel a little discomfort at first.”

When the nurse returned, she laid her hand on his arm. “Okay?” she said.

He lowered his chin in assent.

“You can watch the monitor up there on your left,” the doctor said.

A T.V. screen with a grainy picture.

            Not great reception.

The image on the screen told him that they were traveling along what seemed to be a narrow, curved tunnel.

“We’re coming to your prostate now,” the doctor said quietly. “A little enlarged, but nothing unusual in someone your age.” A pause. “You might feel some discomfort as we pass through.”

            A little ‘discomfort.’ That’s all I’ve been feeling since this circus began. ‘Discomfort’ that they found blood in my urine — ‘discomfort’ that they saw fit to send me to a ‘specialist’ — ‘discomfort’ that he had to drop his pants in front of a young woman — ‘discomfort’ in lying helplessly on his back while they poked and prodded — ‘discomfort’ in having something shoved into his penis — and, most of all, ‘discomfort’ in the idea that somehow his body was betraying him.

He focused intently on the screen, as much to take his mind off the doctor’s manipulations as to follow what was unfolding a few feet from his eyes.

“Something like that movie — ‘Fantastic Voyage’, or something?”

The nurse chuckled. The doctor remained silent.

            Probably heard that about a thousand times before.

            Once past the prostate, the tunnel slowly widened out to reveal a murky-looking cave.

            Must be my bladder.

            “Now we’re inside your bladder,” the doctor’s voice confirmed.

We seemed to be moving from left to right.

Amazing! I’m looking inside my bladder! I’m looking inside my body! Whoa! What’s that?

            “What’s that,” he said. “Looks like a cluster of mushrooms.”

Dr. De Soto sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of.”

“Like coral. Like something you’d find underwater on a reef. What is that?”

“That’s cancer.”

The nurse pressed his arm once again.

“It’s a good thing your doctor was on top of things. We can scrape that right out.”

Well, I suppose at my age I had to expect something.

He took a deep breath. “It’s beautiful!”


            Scrape it out?

            He played back the reel in his mind once again — it was getting longer — from the discovery of the blood in his urine, through the unreal journey through his urethra, to the declaration that he had cancer.

Scrape it out? Where was it written that such a beautiful life-form must go and that I must remain?

            He set the cup of coffee on the small stool alongside his chair and sat staring out the window. A light snow had fallen overnight.

His mind drifted to something he had read once — a story from the time of the Renaissance about a boatload of soil from the holy city of Jerusalem that had been brought to Pisa and, when mixed with the soil in the Santo Campo, brought forth a beautiful flower — an anemone — that no one had ever seen in Italy before.

The stuff of legend and mini-miracles.

Why should the memory of that tale come to me now?

            He let the silence of the house penetrate his mind. He lived alone — had been living alone for many years now. Alone, but never lonely. It seemed like he never felt loneliness — not since he’d been a boy, at any rate. Too far back in time to really remember the sensation of it.

Well, I’m not ‘alone’ anymore, am I? I’ve got a visitor now…although maybe a bit closer to home than I’d like.

            He sat up straight in his chair.

From what alien shore came the seed — my own beautiful anemone — that had been planted within my body?

His mind flashed back to those few days ago — the day Dr. De Soto told him that he could “scrape it out”.

“The receptionist will set up a date some time next week for the procedure,” Dr. De Soto said.

“Next week?” He’d hardly had time to digest the fact that he had a cancer living in his bladder.

“Yes. You’ll have to stay overnight in the hospital. Do you have someone who can come to pick you up the following day?”

He thought for a moment. “Yes, sure.” Then he added, “To pick me up?”

“Yes. You won’t be able to drive yourself. It takes some time for your body to completely cleanse itself of the anesthesia.”

            Scrape it out. Anesthesia.

            He thought for a moment and then asked the doctor, “How’d I get this?”

“The cancer?”

He nodded.

“Smoking, most likely.”

Smoking!” he said. “Doc, I haven’t smoked in forty years!”

“About how long it takes,” Dr. De Soto said matter-of-factly.

He frowned. “Boy! I thought I held a grudge!”

The doctor smiled and shrugged. “Please make sure you stop at the reception desk to set up an appointment for next week.”

As he turned to leave, he looked at the doctor and asked, “How come not the throat or the lungs, doctor? I mean, if it’s from smoking. After all, I hardly ever smoked through my penis.” He smiled. “Well, maybe when I got really drunk, I might’ve tried once or twice.”

Dr. De Soto returned his smile. “All things considered, you’re lucky to have it there. It’s one of the most treatable cancers you could have.”

He pondered that. “Well, tell you the truth, doctor, I’d feel a helluva lot luckier if you’d found it in your bladder.”

He turned from the window and, holding the cup in both hands, took a sip of his coffee. As he brought the cup to his lips, he focused on the brown spots dotting the backs of his hands.

            Old man’s hands. ‘Liver spots’, he remembered his mother called them.

            He’d arranged with a neighbor for the ride back from the hospital. The “scraping out” would occur tomorrow morning, presumably sometime after his arrival at the hospital at 8am.

“You need to be there on time,” Dr. De Soto’s receptionist had told him. “You’ll have to take an EKG and fill out some forms.” She looked up at him. “Be sure you have a list of all medicines you are presently taking.” Her fingers tapped on the computer keyboard. “And you’ll have to fast.” She noted his growing frown. “Don’t worry,” she said with a big smile. “I’ll be giving you a sheet with all this written out for you.”

Thank God!

            “Good. I’m sure I’d never remember half of it.”

“Not to worry,” she said. “I’m sure you’ve got a lot on your mind to deal with.”

He set the coffee cup back down on the stool and looked again at his hands. He remembered when they didn’t have those spots.

‘Faggot’s hands’, his wife once called them. ‘Your fingers are so long…like a piano player’s’.

‘Sissy hands,’ she’d say.


As he lay in bed, the reel began playing back again, over and over as if in an endless loop, each detail seemingly being etched deeper and deeper into his mind.

I ought to be able to stop this.

            He knew he’d have to prepare himself for going into the hospital. A generally healthy man, he’d only been in a hospital once, years ago as a young man when he was confined overnight for a hernia operation. He’d pulled “something” in his groin on a construction site and the foreman had driven him — oblivious to his objections that “he felt fine” — to the hospital. Other than his objections — and his embarrassment at having to be taken off the job by the foreman — he had little recollection of his hospital sojourn. If memory served right, he was back on the job a few days later and, other than a cold now and then, had never broken a bone or suffered a serious illness in his life.

There were close calls, of course. But these incidents involved accidents, not sickness and, although he was close to losing his life on more than one occasion, had the good fortune to enjoy a robust, energetic lifestyle that mostly involved employment in the manual trades.

He once made a list, and over the course of his working years had been a laborer, a teamster, a carpet layer, a concrete block maker, a lumberman (he topped out trees for a lumber company that specialized in making palettes), a barge captain, a cab driver, a grunt on a highline job in the Everglades, a landscaper, a rough carpenter (he could build passable book shelves but not a fine cabinet), a farm worker, a county laborer, and, in the infantry, an underpaid and highly-skilled, hired killer for the United States Army.

In short, he enjoyed working with his hands and making his living at doing things that showed tangible results — a road he worked on and could drive over, a fresh-laid lawn, a serviceable shelf that held its fair share of books.

On the other hand, he did not think it amiss that he spent a good deal of his time in his head. A loner by nature, he found the company of his own thoughts to be of greater pleasure to him than an evening at the local watering hole drinking with the guys.

By far, it was his silent nature more than anything else that eventually caused his wife to call it quits.

He was just “no fun”.

The daughter of an outgoing, Italian-American, fire-chief father and a hard-drinking Irish mother — as well as the sister of two loud and rambunctious sisters and a timid brother — she and her family simply out-matched him. Right from the beginning, he knew where he fit into the hierarchy — he was the intruder.

The marriage also brought him three brothers-in-law, none of which he could tolerate for more than an hour or so of well-spaced visits. One, her brother, was simply a loser; the other two, husbands of her sisters, were worse to be around, the one, a man frightened of almost everything, the other, haunted by something in his past that no one in the family could ever wheedle out of him.

And, in spite of his lifetime of hard-hat jobs, according to his wife, he still had “sissy” hands, “faggot” hands.

But then, his manhood had been often called into question and maligned by his own second-generation, German-American father.

“Dick-kopf! You don’t even know how to hold a hammer! Hold it here — not up there by the neck as if you’re trying to choke it! Ach! You’ll never amount to anything!”

The middle son, he was constantly on the short-end of any argument with either of his brothers — when it was with his older brother (named, appropriately, like any Teutonic son, after Papa) he should respect his “elders” or, when it was with his younger brother, then he ought to have known better.

Long used to being on the losing side when it came to family relationships, he offered little resistance to his wife’s wanting out of a marriage that was probably doomed from the outset.

What finally snapped the marital relationship was the meditation.

With that memory suddenly surfacing and breaking into the never-ending loop of what he was now calling “the cancer-saga”, he turned his thoughts to meditating himself to sleep.


Most of the answers to the questions on the sheaf of papers he was handed was “no.”

The EKG showed no problem for the anesthetist to worry himself over so all systems were go.

He was moved from his bed to a gurney and wheeled onto an elevator and then down halls into a bright room that turned out to be one room short of the operating room.

“Your name?”

He told them.

“Birth date?”

“Five, one, thirty-three.”

Another voice. “And why are you here today?”

“To have my ears checked.”

Ha, ha.


“To remove a cancer from my bladder.”

“Right. A cystectomy. O.K. The doctor will be here shortly.”

A pat on his arm.

I wonder if they all have to take ‘Arm-Patting 101’ in nursing school?

Within moments, his gurney is moved, shoved through a double set of swinging doors and under glaring, overhead lights.

The operating room.

            A nurse appears at his side. “Are you O.K.?”

He brings his chin to his chest.

An oriental-sounding voice asks from somewhere behind his head, “Ready to go to sleeping?”

Leddy to go to sreeping?

“Uh, huh.”

Now the never-ending reel will get longer.

But now there’s a piece missing.

He wakes up in another room. Several voices. Movement.

Not really awake.

            He dozes.

He re-awakes a bit more fully.

Time. How much has passed? How long was I out? Funny thing, time.

            “How do you feel?”

A pleasant-looking blond is seated at his left.

“A bit groggy.”

A nice smile.

“Am I in heaven?”

Another stupid comment…she’s probably heard that one a million times. At least.        

A new room.

Moaning on the other side of the curtain that separates him from at least one other person.

He shuts out the moaning and dozes.

A dark-skinned minister — or priest — approached his bed.

“Are you awake?”

“Sort of.”

“Are you all right? Do you need anything?”

He thought for a moment.


“Have a good day.”

He wondered what he was — a priest or a minister.

The moaning on the other side of the curtain was still going on. Even more irritating than the moaning, was the cartoon channel that continuously spewed out childish nonsense. Whoops. Squeaks. Crashes.

I don’t even want to know.

In an effort to block the sound of his roommate — judging by the size of the room, he must have been the only other person sharing the room with him — and the sound of the television that hung over his neighbor’s bed — he thought about the clergyman — the minister or priest or whatever he was.

Religion — at least any of the major organized ones — were not a part of his life — not since his youth, in any event. His family had been Roman Catholic and he had attended the Catholic school in his neighborhood until the 8th Grade.

It didn’t stick.

He soon discovered that his penis was tethered — via a catheter — to a plastic bag hanging alongside his bed — a bag that was periodically checked by a nurse named Beth.

Each visit was essentially the same.

“How’re we doing?”



“Any pain?”

“A bit of a headache.”

“I’ll come back with a couple of pain pills in a bit.”

A check of the bag.

“Still a bit red.”


“Blood. When it’s yellow, you can go home.”

He wondered how long that would be. What little peeing he was able to accomplish was sporadic and painful.

Makes you wish it would and wouldn’t.

The moaning to his left was continuous and irritating, only punctuated by his roommate’s periodic fouling of himself, the attendant stench, and then a visit by two nurse’s aids that came in to clean him up.

“Well, shitmeister, we see you’ve done it again.”

A giggle.

How old was this person?

            “What a mess this time, poopster!”

More giggles.

“Look at this pile of crap!”

“Hee, hee.”

He couldn’t see — and didn’t care to see — the two women who were doing the cleaning. He wondered at the vulgarity of their chatter.

When Beth next came to check on his output, she found him with his head under the pillow.

“What’s going on next door?” he asked when she handed him two pills and a small cup of water.

She informed him that his roommate was an elderly retarded man who had been there for some time, but did not tell him what his illness was.

He didn’t really care.

“Would you like to be moved to another room?” she asked.

His eyebrows shot up. He didn’t know he had a choice.

“Yes,” he said. “I’d like that very much.”

“I’ll arrange it as soon as the doctor finishes up with you. He should be in to see you in a few minutes.”

Dr. De Soto strode into the room, his handsome face adorned with his usual smile.

“It went well,” he said. “How do you feel?”

“So-so. A bit of an effort to pee.”

“Well, that’s natural. You should be back to normal by tomorrow.” He looked down at the clipboard he held in his hands. “You did arrange for someone to pick you up, didn’t you?”


“Did you give the name and phone number to the nurse? She’ll call in the morning to let them know to come around eleven.”


“You should be fine to go by then.”


“Need anything?”

“Nope. The nurse — Beth — said she’ll be moving me to another room.” He inclined his head toward the curtain that separated him from his roommate. “I’ll be glad to get away from the Cartoon Channel.”

Dr. De Soto smiled and nodded.

“So, is this it, then?”


“Yes. Now that you’ve — what — ‘scraped out’ the cancer, am I done?”

“For now, yes.”

“For ‘now’?”

“Hm, hmm. In three months we’ll take another look and then proceed from there.”

“And then?”

“Well, if it returns, then we remove it again.”

“Like this time?”


He thought for a moment. “For how long might this go on?”

“Well, every three months…maybe in a year or so, every six months.”

“For how long?”

“Well, for the rest of your life.”


The rest of my life?

            “The type of bladder cancer you have,” Dr. De Soto explained that day in the hospital, “is persistent but not aggressive. It has a tendency to return, but will not appear elsewhere in your body.”

“I’d thought about that when you first told me about ‘scraping it out’. I mean, if I were forcibly evicted from my home, I’d look around for someplace else to settle in.”

“Luckily, this bladder cancer is, like I said, persistent but not aggressive. It tends to remain in the bladder.”


He wondered how much actually was a result of “luck”. It was not that he feared death. He’d suffered enough of life’s “slings and arrows” to often long for that place from which there was no return. He’d seen enough of the world to know that he’d seen enough of the world. As far as not existing anymore, he’d learned over the years to think of the event as neither “good” nor “bad.” Death had no undue negative overtones for him. It simply was part of the process of what becoming “him” entailed. Granted there seemed to be a finality about it — but then he’d not existed for who knew how long before he came on the scene and there appeared to be no lingering bad memories of it.

So, the idea of death didn’t trouble him.

“Persistent” was O.K. by him. He prided himself on his own “persistence”. And when the image on the monitor rose up in his mind, the delicate elegance of the cancer as it grew from the side of his bladder, he could well understand its need to be persistent. Even sympathize with it.

It has as much right on this planet as I do. We’re just trying to occupy the same space, is all. Who’s to really say who was here first?

The nuns in elementary school, of course, tried to make as much fodder out of death as they could, making it into some kind of bugaboo that ought to keep us in line. And, with the threat of Hell thrown in for good measure, it could keep one in fear for a lifetime.

It just didn’t stick with him.

Once he’d been drafted into the service, the overwhelming realization that his parents’ way of life was not the only one practically dictated that he never go home again.

And he didn’t.

And, with what he’d picked up from experience and books ever since, at this point in time death was no longer the bugaboo he once thought it was.

When Beth had set him up in his new room, he was pleased to find that his new roommate was a quiet-spoken gent, who was about his own age and who also preferred not to have a T.V. on.

The curtain that separated their beds had not been closed, so some conversation was inevitable.

“So, what are you in for?” his roommate asked after he had been settled in.

“Some obscure felony against my maker,” he quipped. After he received his expected chuckle, he said, “Cancer. Don’t know yet how long the sentence is, but the doc suggested ‘life’.”

“Me too,” his roommate said.

And who knew just how many years ‘life’ might entail?

He learned during the course of the evening that his cancer was not as “serious” as his roommate’s, and that if he thought he had problems pissing, well he should rest easy because they were still waiting for him to give up a single drop.

“Once I can present them with a bona fide amount of pee, I’ll be able to go home,” he confided.

Neither man spoke for a few minutes.

“You know,” his roommate finally said, “I’m a history professor. I’ve spent a lifetime in poring over the past and trying my best to apply whatever wisdom I manage to dig up to my present life. My point is, with all that stuff crammed into my head, it’s amazing how my whole world is now focused on the simple act of taking a piss.”

Well, Einstein did try to tell us that everything was relative.

            “I hear you, brother.”


Although he enjoyed the intimacy of space at times — especially outdoors, like the small space of lawn that he had stretched out on shortly after he’d been put on notice, or a secluded copse, a favorite spot along a creek — his usual frame of mind encompassed a much wider scope. For some time now, he’d try to put the events of his life on a cosmic stage, trying his best to “see” them in relation to the “grand scheme of things”.

He’d once tried to console a niece — his wife’s brother’s child — when she’d sought him out to listen to her tale of woe. She’d met a young ski instructor during her junior year at high school while on a ski trip at Aspen with her parents and had, in her passion-laden voice, “fallen deeply in love” with him. And now, her “uncaring” parents would not move out to Colorado where she could finish her senior year of high school “out there” where her one and only true love lived.

Adapting himself to the seriousness of his niece’s plea for an understanding ear, his voice took on the appropriate avuncular tone.

Since they were seated outside in his brother-in-law’s backyard at the time, he searched the flower garden and found two small stones that would suit his purpose.

He placed one on the ground near his niece’s feet.

“Let’s say that’s the earth,” he said.

Then he took the second stone, slightly larger than the first, and walked to the end of the yard where he placed it near the fence, which separated it from the neighbor’s backyard.

He pointed to the stone. “And that is the sun.”

He walked back to his niece and sat back down beside her.

She was looking at him quizzically.

“O.K. Got that? This stone here by your feet is the earth — and that one over there by the fence, is the sun.”

She nodded, but still looked at him with a puzzled expression on her young face.

“Now you know by now from your science classes that the earth here,” he pointed at the stone, “travels around the sun over there, right?”


“And that it takes the earth 365 days — or thereabouts — to travel around that sun over there?” He waited for her nod of assent. “So that means — if this stone here is the earth and that one over there is the sun — that its orbit would take it way beyond your yard here, way over into that neighbor’s yard — and probably into some other’s as well before it gets back here — think that’s about right?”


He leaned down to pick up the stone at her feet and held it close to his eyes. He pointed his pinky at a spot on the stone and moved it closer to her face.

“Now, you’re telling me that everything would work out just fine if only you could move from here” —he moved his pinky a fraction to the right — “to here?”

It took but a few moments for her to “get the picture” but he was pleased that she had indeed gotten it.

He thought back to how long it had taken him to gain some perspective. Being raised in accordance with a particular dogma, of course, was poor preparation for such luxuries as other points of view and he learned the hard lesson of “unlearning” only after years of working at it.

When he served as an altar boy during his parochial schooling, he had dreamed of one day becoming a priest — a compelling dream until his first wet dream cast all thoughts of celibacy into serious doubt. In any event, after he had been discharged from the service with the only wound received a serious hole in the bottom of his bag of religion, his first exploratory steps beyond the teachings of the catechism were taken while in Kentucky where he discovered an abbey of Trappist Monks.

While visiting there for a few days, he met a monk who spoke eleven languages — including such exotic — at least for him — tongues as Aramaic and Sanskrit — and a willingness to hear out his doubts and fears.

When he shared with the monk his dissatisfaction with answers to the few questions he had directed at his chaplain while serving in the Army, the monk just shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

“Well, he was probably a parish priest when in civilian life. You have to remember that the church has been in business for over a thousand years and all the questions that are going to be raised have probably already arisen by now. So, if the parish priest is going to be asked question number one-thousand-fifty-four, say, well then, he already has answer number one-thousand-fifty-four at the ready. Truthfully, that’s as far as any parish priest’s education has to go to do a passable job in tending his flock.”

The monk didn’t say it, but the implication was that to be a Trappist took considerably more learning — knowing eleven languages, for instance, including the one that presumably Jesus spoke.

He’d had suspicions about the depth of the chaplain’s mind when he listened to one of his “talks” at a Saturday afternoon TI&E — “Troop Information and Education” — session in which a short film was presented as an introduction to the topic — which was killing.

The film featured a young soldier brought up on a farm and familiar with the use of firearms. He was a crack shot and quickly earned his marksman medal on the shooting range. As his training progressed, however, the usual “bull’s-eye” targets were replaced by cutouts that were supposed to represent enemy soldiers. These human-type forms would unexpectedly pop up as a line of trainees traversed an open field with loaded M1’s at the ready. All of a sudden, the “crack shot” began missing targets and was soon called before his cadre leader.

“What’s going on? You hit the bulls eye over and over on the firing range, and now you’re missing every target that pops up right in front of you?”

“Well, sir, I was taught not to kill and, well, these targets look like men.”

At this point, the film ended and the chaplain launched into his theme, which was the difference between murder and killing during war.

“And so you see, men,” he wound up his spiel, “the difference between murder and killing the enemy in defense of your country is that murder is pre-meditated.”

Oh yeah? Then what did he call sixteen intensive weeks of being taught various methods of slaughtering the enemy?

He didn’t relate this story to the monk, but he felt that he really didn’t have to — the guy seemed pretty savvy and probably didn’t need his private suspicions confirmed.

The main thing he came away with after his visit, however, was that every time the subject of Jesus came up — and what He thought, taught, or believed — the monk would say, “Remember, son, Jesus was a Jew. He probably thought like one and not like your typical, garden variety, parish priest — or Christian chaplain…or, for that matter, a Trappist monk.”

He was apparently ready for this new perspective.

He’d been primed somewhat before his visit to the monastery by his Army experience. Raised in a home without books, reading for its own sake had not been a part of his growing up. It was his fellow infantrymen that opened the door to books and, although his ‘reading list’ was somewhat eclectic during his Army years, the practice had begun and the habit of picking up a book when he had a few free moments not long in being set.

And, whatever he might have missed in his reading along the way, he knew —as he once pointed out to his niece in her back yard — that, cosmically speaking, whether we were “here” or “there” didn’t matter a whole hell of a lot.


His new room brought not only a new roommate, but a new nurse as well, Beth now replaced by Benjamin, a male nurse.

Not quite as pretty, but just as efficient.

            Apparently the color of his urine was beginning to please his watchers, and after an emptying just before his evening meal, Benjamin informed him that he would be removing the catheter sometime that evening.

And what’ll that entail?

            He didn’t voice his question. Sometimes it was just better to face things as they came rather than allowing the mind to run rampant with too much information.

Dr. De Soto — as well as his nurse — would often preface their doings with a “this might cause some discomfort” or “this will sting” or “you might not like this” and quickly follow up such ‘friendly’ warnings with “now, just relax.”


            After gently waking him — he had no idea as to time, but his roommate was snoring gently and he could see darkness outside the window — Benjamin set about removing the catheter.

After pushing back his coverings, Benjamin said, “Coming out now.”

No “this might be uncomfortables” — just a simple “Coming out now”.

He was happy with both the timing and the bare-bones simplicity of Benjamin’s technique. He was still a bit groggy from sleep and had no time to allow his imagination to take hold. It was over in a second.


            Benjamin was gone before he could thank him for not telling him to “relax”.

The soreness he felt in his penis lingered through the night, reminding him of his roommate’s observation of how one’s mind might be concentrated on a single thing or thought.

Why his penis? Why the bladder?

            Although he’d joked with the doctor about never “smoking through his penis”, the question of why the cancer appeared there rather than in any other part of his body loomed as the weeks went by — and the never-ending reel of the “cancer saga” replayed itself at odd moments of his day.

He’d also asked if they had not a better route into his bladder.

“My nose, for example. It’s a lot bigger.”

“If you discover a new route, you’ll become a millionaire,” Dr. De Soto said.

Wasn’t it bad enough to learn that you had cancer without having to suffer the indignities visited upon your penis each time he visited the doctor’s office? He never really took the time to examine the microscope or the contraption to which it was attached, but he knew it had to pass through a pretty narrow — and sensitively tender — stricture. Each examination resulted in the next several times he urinated — either that day or the next — to be a major ‘discomfort’.

Why the penis?

            Once the Trappist monk had tweaked his mind to think along different pathways, he’d started on the track and done just what he’d asked the doctor to do — find a better route — back then, however, not to his bladder, but to a surer understanding of why we were here.

Judaism, naturally, was his first stopover, since the monk seemed to be nudging him in that direction.

“Remember…Jesus was a Jew.”

The monk had said it more than once, and it hung in his mind for days after his visit.

Having made up his mind not to return home after his discharge from the Army, he decided on an itinerant life, working as he needed, earning enough just to get along. He had no master plan; no time schedule; no commitments to anything, any place, or anyone.

Most of his earnings were spent on books — usually cheap paperbacks that he didn’t mind leaving behind when he was off to greener pastures — some novels, but mostly books on religion, philosophy, history — on any subject that took his fancy at the time and that might teach him something new.

He enjoyed his books on Judaism, finding that — at least to him — it sounded a bit more “grown up” than the particular brand of Christianity he had been raised to believe in. He liked that there were no intercessors between a man and his God — no one to “speak” for him in his stead. If he’d done wrong, he couldn’t whisper it into a priest’s ear in the privacy of a wooden box and expect to be forgiven; if he offended God, he had to seek His forgiveness, and if he offended his neighbor, then he had to face him and ask for forgiveness. There were also no airy-fairy things like raising dead people, walking on water, mysterious births, people coming back from the dead and pointing to exposed and bleeding hearts. As far as he could see, Judaism — although it did have its fair share of tall tales — was, well, more adult and threw you more often onto your own resources.

But then, he also liked the books he found on Jewish humor — even more than the books that tried to explain their belief system. Besides, even Jews had difficulty sticking to rules — and you could become orthodox, conservative, reform, reconstructionist, or whatever, and still call yourself a “Jew”. If they keep on going, he thought, they might soon be able to catch up to the Christians and their interminable list of sects and “isms”.

But he liked their humor and the fact that no matter how tough things got, they could always make a joke about it — and more often than not at their own expense. He supposed if that was all you ever got out of your religion then it wasn’t a total loss and often resorted to it himself during awkward or uncomfortable times…as Doctor De Soto was slowly beginning to understand.

From Judaism — which he spent considerable time on before abandoning it, even teaching himself a bit of the language along the way (he could say most of the prayers and read them aloud without referring to the transliterations — after all, didn’t he just take three years of profanity in the Army and become proficient? Why not another language?) — he went on to study the Buddhist — especially Zen — and Sufi masters, giving each their due, each their equal time for persuasion. He particularly liked the humor of the Zen masters, savoring and memorizing their jokey little stories.

A Zen monk is walking along a large lake, head down and lost in meditation. After some minutes, he realizes that something is interfering with his concentration and he stops in his tracks. He recognizes that the noise is a human voice and he glances around, looking for the source. Eventually he notices a small island in the middle of the lake, and there on the shore is a man praying aloud. Then he realizes why he found the voice interrupting his thoughts — the man was saying his prayers incorrectly! A little ways along the shore, he spies an empty rowboat and, climbing aboard, rows out to the man on the island. “Excuse, me,” he says. “But you are saying those prayers incorrectly.” The man looks up at the monk and immediately recognizes him to be one of the most famous wise men in the region. “Master!” he says as he bows his head to the ground. “Please teach me the right way. I would be honored to be your student — even if it is for only a moment.” So, the monk teaches him the correct form of the prayer and, taking his leave, rows back across the lake where he once again resumes his private meditation. Within only a few moments, however, he once again is disturbed, this time by the man shouting to him as he runs toward him over the top of the water. “Master! Master! Please stop! I have already forgotten the correct way. I am so stupid! How did it go again?”

Well, he might as well as come right out and say it — he enjoyed humor, pure and simple. He liked the way it could release tension, but more important, that it could immediately change one’s perspective. That sudden switch in viewpoint, in fact, was often revealed in the punch-line — it was the joke. All you had to do was see it in its proper perspective.

As he read, as he traveled, as he applied himself to learning different tasks, he discovered that, in reality, there was never just one way to look at things. It all depended on what one settled into, what one accepted was “it”. And this was tricky, as the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset once pointed out. He claimed that, at birth, we were all as if suddenly “shipwrecked” — surrounded by flotsam and jetsam such as family, country, language, customs, religion, and so on — none of which had anything to do with who we were, or were meant to be. And, as we floundered to stay afloat, we grabbed out and attached ourselves to whatever came to hand. The trick was to know that none of this stuff was us and we could only learn who we truly were by remaining un-attached. Most, however, don’t get it and identify with whatever flotsam and jetsam they happened to be born into, hopelessly losing themselves in the frantic business of grabbing on and “fitting in”, of “belonging”.

This much, he had already “got” while on the road. What he learned on one job, or at one town, was another ballgame altogether on the next job or at the next town. The trick was not to get ensnared into any one game-plan — and jokes, humor, sometimes helped you to break through the veil…. something that Jews after years of persecution, or Zen monks after years of putting up with lunkheads, learned.

            O.K. So what’s the joke with the ‘discomfort’ I’m having with my penis? How come I’m failing to see the “humor” here?

“What’s the punch line this time?” he wondered.


Three months later, Dr. De Soto’s cystoscopic examination showed that the cancer had returned.

Although he still had to arrange for a ride home after the “scraping”, this time he did not have to stay in the hospital overnight.

A “condensed” version of the first time, everything seemed to go smoother, faster. He could pee almost immediately after returning to his room, and though it was painful, did not show any presence of blood.

He was on his way home before noon.

Home. Kind of a relative term, that. We’ve managed to reduce its meaning in our usual fast-food kind of way: “Home is where you hang your hat,” we say nowadays. A bit more refined — but not much more — than, “Home is where, when you get there, they have to take you in.”

The ancients — or so the Florentines who resurrected them tell us — claimed that “home” was where one felt entirely free to be “whole,” “realized,” “complete.” Sort of a more serious take-off on the more wryly modern, “No matter where you travel, you always bring yourself.”

Who you’ve decided “yourself” to be, however, depended on how well you’ve digested José Ortega y Gasset’s lesson.

Anyway, he was at the house where he had lived for the past twenty years or so and had to deal with the fact that his visitor, at any rate, seemed to be making a “home” for itself inside his bladder.

Trying to ‘self-realize,’ I guess.

            “Philosophically,” he said aloud, “I have to admit that it stands on pretty solid ground, since the idea seems to have been around for quite a time.”



He didn’t have much time to dwell on the idea that he’d have to periodically — every three or six months, depending on his visitor’s ‘persistence’ — to have his bladder ‘scraped out.’ Each time he thought about it — which was more often than he wanted to, since the reel, ever-expanding with added details, continued to play back at odd and quiet moments — images of square-jawed, resolute cowhands with hats pulled down over their eyes running off squatters fluttered through his mind.

Go get ‘em, De Soto!

“I’d like to try a new treatment,” Doctor De Soto said.

He’d been asked to come into the cancer center just a few days after his last bout of ‘squatter rousting’ for a follow-up consultation.

He looked up at the doctor standing before him.

“It’s called the ‘BCG’ treatment and, basically, it entails a form of maintenance therapy that uses a vaccine commonly employed in the treatment of tuberculosis.”

Well, that’s all over my head.

            Correctly reading his puzzlement, Doctor De Soto continued. “It’s been discovered that ‘BCG’ — it stands for Bacillus Calmette-Guerin — has proven effective in retarding — sometimes, even curing — bladder cancer. We are not quite sure just yet why it does, but it apparently works in many cases, and I’d like to try it with you.”

A bit more information — but still over my head.

            “I think we have a good chance, especially since we were lucky enough to catch your cancer in its early stages — before it had a chance to settle in more firmly,” De Soto continued.

There’s that word again — ‘lucky.’

            “So,” he urged. “What do you think? Shall we try it?”

He shrugged.

How much of this ‘luck’ can I take?

It didn’t take long to find out. Turns out that it wasn’t “over his head” after all…more, in fact, like below his belt…again.

The treatment began — as with all of his visits — with his dropping of his pants around his ankles and with lying on his back on the examination table — he was still not inured to the fact that he was lying exposed under the eyes of a young woman.

As before, lidocaine was applied but, instead of a scope, a catheter was inserted through which the ‘BCG’ would be instilled directly into the bladder. The whole procedure — depending upon the nurse — took but a few moments.

The process extended over a period of once a week for six weeks, after which a wait-and-see period was followed by a cystoscopic examination to determine what ‘results’, ensued.

The variable — as indicated — was the nurse. Whereas the first nurse had been “in-and-out” in a matter of moments, her alternate, undoubtedly less practiced in the procedure, took long and painful steps in her insertion of the catheter. During one session with the alternate, she finally gave up the effort after much painful prodding and poking to call in the doctor to make the insertion.

It was all, he discovered, in the “luck” of the draw.

After each session at the doctor’s office, he was instructed to refrain from urinating for two hours, spending the time in bed and rotating his body — from back to side to front to other side — in intervals of thirty-minutes each. This, he was informed, was to ensure that the ‘BCG’ coated all sides of his bladder for maximum effectiveness. When the rotation was complete, he could then go pee. In fact, he was urged to drink “plenty of liquids” to speed up the process of discharging the vaccine, which, apparently, was somewhat toxic, since he was also urged to put generous amounts of Clorox into the toilet after each urination before flushing.

If the medicinal side of all this made little impact on him — his years of reading had not prepared him for how one treated or dealt with the actual “slings and arrows” his body would be heir to — he did find the mechanics of the ‘BCG’ treatment objectively interesting.

A bit innocuous in the telling, the theory of immunotherapy involving ‘BCG’ was not so easy to undergo in the cold, hard world of subjective reality. After the rotisserie-like movements in bed — during which, he learned, the vaccine was not only coating but removing the inner layer of his bladder in an effort to eradicate the locus where the cancer was attempting to set up squatter’s rights — the act of peeing was not so easily effected. Not only globules of blood, but also bits and pieces of the inner layer of the bladder vied for space within the strictures of his penis, painfully blocking the flow of urine as they were being discharged.

Ouch! Ouch! And, again, Ouch!

Although the emission of blood and body pieces eventually ceased and urination gradually became “normal”, when the body quit demanding his attention, his mind shifted into gear. As all this was being “edited into” his ever-growing reel containing the “cancer saga”, he now began embellishing and enhancing it with his imagination.

By mid-week, with the next session looming on the horizon only a few days away, he found himself unable to keep his mind off the next go-around. Like the man in the tale of Till Euelenspiegel who was asked why he laughed and smiled as he pushed a cart of rocks up the mountainside — only to grumble and curse as he freely rode down the other side — his answer was, “As I ride down, I am thinking of the next mountain!”

Although the first six-week session went fairly well — and the cystoscopy revealed that the treatment had in fact prevented a return of the cancer — the following three-month examination heralded a return.


            If the first six-week set brought home his human frailty — the first day of peeing felt as if he were urinating razor blades, the second hot water, the following days increasingly less painful if fraught with thoughts of the upcoming session — the second six-week cycle very nearly unmanned him.


So, with the three- or six-month increments of time that Dr. Se Soto is meting out to me, what am I supposed to do with that?

OK. I get that I’m on notice.

Still, isn’t everyone ‘on notice’ from day one? Shit, we’re all ‘terminal’. Yeats had it right when he said that we — whatever the hell “we” means — are all attached to dying animals.

If there’s a punch line somewhere hidden in all this, I guess I’m just missing it.

Granted that all of the traveling, all of the books, all of everything, is dead weight at this point — flotsam and jetsam, as Gasset would point out — and absolutely of no use in giving me a clue as to what I’m supposed to do — what am I supposed to do?

O.K.? I got the notice. Just don’t nickel and dime me. One straightforward lightning bolt on the top of the head would have served rather nicely. Now that would have been luck!

I guess the upside is that I will finally know what’s me and what’s not me. That’s a good thing, isn’t it?

On the other hand, if I’d have been a bit more observant at the time I was shipwrecked, I might have had this all figured out by now.

Hell! I’m seventy-five years old!

Maybe that’s the downside…all those years wasted on who knows what.


So, O.K. I got the notice. I accept the notice.

Just don’t nickel and dime me!

Let’s not run this reel forever.

All right?



March 21, 2012

…and another short, short from the Dark Side


“You heard what James said, Dear.”

“He said a lot of things.”

The eye roll. “He said, darling, that he was an ‘up-and-comer’.

“Hmmph…at forty-five thousand bucks a pop, he’ll soon be a ‘came-and-wenter’.

“Ohh, you’re simply impossible at times!”

“Well, I sometimes feel the same way about ‘James’, you know. I mean, can’t he speak in any other word forms than adjectives?”

“He’s only trying to explain things, Charles.”

“Well, he might do a bit better at ‘explaining things’, Marsha, if he’d throw in something substantive now and then … you know, like a noun?”

“Oh, God! What do nouns have to do with art?”

“Might tell me just what the hell I was looking at, for one thing.”

“Tsk! You are simply impossible! I mean, really, Charles! James is a dealer. He knows what he’s about!”

“A ‘dealer’.”

“What’s that supposed to imply?”

“A ‘dealer’ — look, Marsha. A ‘dealer’ only means that he’s a merchant. A peddler.”

Massive eye roll. “He knows about art Charles. He deals in art.”

“And I know used-car dealers. They don’t have to know how to build them, or how to service them — or even how to drive them. All they have to do to stay in business is know how to sell them. Has James ever made a painting? James sells stuff.  That’s why he needs all those adjectives.”

“Oh, Charles! You are just…. Listen, I do know something about art myself, you know. I’m not letting James take advantage of me, if that’s what you’re implying!”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot about Mitzi.”

“Well, you needn’t sound so snide about it. Mitzi knew her stuff.”

“Right. I remember those little art-jaunts she took you and the others out on.”

“Well, we learned things!”

“I forget now — was Mitzi a painter?”

“You know perfectly well that she was not!”

“Oh. But she ‘knew her stuff’.”

“Of course she did! She took that art appreciation course at the Community Center — you know that. I remember perfectly well telling you that!”

“’Art appreciation’ — does that mean you have to ‘appreciate’ everything that any Tom, Dick, Harry — or James — shows you?”

“Of course not. But one ought to know what one is viewing. A dealer simply helps you to see what is there.”

“Like Mitzi.”

Yes, like Mitzi. She was not some ditzy blonde, you know. She was educated.”

“But not a painter. Right?”

“Oh, God!”

“Look, all I saw at James’s were walls full of paint smatterings.”

“They were paintings, for God’s sake.”


“We were in an art gallery, for God’s sake.”

“Well, I saw better stuff on the drop-cloths of house painters. I don’t think even James knew what the hell they were. Ergo, all the adjectives.”

“You just don’t know anything about modern art, that’s all — plain and simple. James was merely attempting to explain to us — to me — how accomplished the work was.”

“So, I was looking at the work of an artist?”

“Of course, silly. How else would he get his work into an art gallery? James could tell right away that he had a real artist on his hands as soon as he met him.”

“Oh. So what did all that ‘up-and-comer’s’ stuff have to do with his being a ‘real artist?”

“Really, Charles, sometimes you are just impossible.”


“Well I certainly can’t give you a crash course on art, for Heaven’s Sake!”

“Again, I ask you. What would that ‘up-and-comer’ and art have in common?”

“Charles, Charles…Charles!”

THE BIG BANG THEORY: Short Fiction By Raymond J. Steiner

February 11, 2012

For the past several years, I’ve been venting some of my frustrations in “short-shorts”, little stories that are short on plot but big on my sometimes acerbic take on life. I’ve been calling them “views from my dark side”. Since I haven’t considered them for publication in ART TIMES for our short fiction segment (not fair to the contributors who are vying for space), I thought I’d share them here with my blog fans. Here’s #1: a bit longish for a short-short, but you may find it entertaining nevertheless.

(Author’s Note: My writing of “The Big Bang Theory” was begun on Labor Day Weekend, 2008. Unknown to me at the time was that approximately one week later, on September 9, 2008, The Big Bang Theory would be re-created on a miniature scale by scientists from the European Organization for Nuclear Research in their Large Haldron Collider (LHC) housed in a seventeen-mile underground tunnel under the Alps along the Swiss/French border. An outcry from some corners of the scientific community was almost immediately raised as to the possibility that such an experiment could cause a “Black Hole” that might swallow our earth. The experiment went on as planned. Final results of the test are expected sometime in 2009…unless some Black Hole unexpectedly upsets the applecart.)

SINCE MOST READERS insist on their main characters — even minor ones, for that matter — having given names (if not always surnames), let’s call him Joseph. In ancient Hebrew the name meant “he who adds” — though, in some circles back in Nazareth, he was somewhat snidely known as “he who was cuckolded” — which, of course, is another matter altogether and has nothing to do with this story — except, perhaps, peripherally.

But we’ll see.

And, since it costs nothing to do so, let’s also give our protagonist (sounds a bit more weighty than “main character”, doesn’t it?) a surname. Jones. Yes, that’s it. Jones.

Hardly any connotations there, I should think. “Joseph Jones” — alliterative, too.

Most of the time, however, we’ll just refer to him as “Joe”. Though not as impressive as ancient Hebrew, we call this shortening of names today the “KISS” method — “Keep It Simple Stupid”.

O.K.? So, Joe it is.

(Omniscient Author Aside: I was going to call this the “Prologue” — but then thought better of it. First of all, it sounds a bit pretentious for a short story. And, second, and probably more important, everything is “prologue”, for God’s sake. Someone is bound to have pointed that out before. I mean, think about it. This very instant is a prologue to whatever follows, isn’t it? By the same token, how many times have you read “The End” after reading a book or watching a movie? You’re still here, right? So let’s dispense with “Prologues” and “The Ends” and get on with the story. In any event, if we — or at least I am not so sure about “Prologues”, you’ll know when you get to “The End” — believe me.)

Let’s begin where things ought to begin — namely, with the title.

Joe Jones first heard about the “Big Bang Theory” almost 50 years ago while in college, in a course on geology and astronomy, the course called, rather aptly by the students, “Rocks and Stars”.

Recently discharged from his second hitch in the Army (there was a three-year break between his active service terms of, respectively, two and three years — more about that break in due time), he had entered college by the good graces of that service to his country.

He was a couple of years short of his thirtieth birthday.

About the same age, actually, as the often-pompous instructor of Rocks and Stars.

“And so”, the professor nasally droned on as he came to the close of his lecture, “That is the ‘Big Bang Theory’.”

Sounded plausible to Joe.

Then the professor added, as if in afterthought, “How anyone can actually believe that the world was created by some huge ‘being’ striding across the planet, leaving behind hills and valleys in the wake of his footsteps, is beyond me. This is, after all, nineteen-sixty-seven!”

Two of Joe’s classmates happened to be nuns and, when the Professor closed his loose-leaf notebook, one of them raised her hand.

“Yes?” the professor intoned toward the woman as he looked over his professorial half-glasses at her.

“How does a ‘theory’ essentially differ from a ‘theology’? Aren’t both the result of a belief system?” She glanced around the class. “I mean, who really knows how it all began?”

That sounded equally plausible to Joe.

Sort of.

He’d come back to the ‘Big Bang Theory’ quite a number of times in the course of his life.

And, of course, that nun’s comment.

(Omniscient Author’s Note: ((Get over it; it’ll continue.)) I’m going to cease placing quotes around the theory…it just becomes a cumbersome chore in the writing of Joe’s story. If it needs special clarification, however, I might from time to time resort to the practice.)

Let it be said upfront, that a reconciliation — to Joe’s lifelong frustration — between the professorial announcement of The Big Bang Theory and the nun’s comment cum question would, however, never come about.

It wasn’t because he hadn’t tried…believe me, he did.

He never took it as a simple “part of a course” kind of thing. The idea of everything starting with some kind of explosion in space (if ‘space’ existed at the time — or even now, for that matter) made a certain amount of sense to Joe…and, as I said, so also did the nun’s opposing query.

And, although he could sympathize with the nun’s consternation, he could more readily picture such a thing as a Big Bang actually happening — as opposed, say, to the Adam and Eve thing.

He did enjoy Michelangelo’s famous near-touch between God and Adam on the Sistine Ceiling, but could never quite get the idea out of his head that God was saying to Adam — in stentorian terms, of course — “Pull My Finger!”

Sounded a lot like a pictorial rendition of the Big Bang Theory to Joe, anyway.

But still — Michelangelo’s stunning talent notwithstanding — not quite a satisfactory reconciliation between the professor and the nun.

In any event, that moment in his Rocks and Stars class was never truly erased from Joe’s memory banks.

In fact, not a great deal of what he had learned in college ever strayed too far from his thoughts. He was, as noted, about ten years older than his fellow students (as were, presumably, the two nuns who, incidentally, shared another class with him, a Media Course that featured on its reading list, of all things, quite a few of the then-current cult comics which, to Joe, were kind of racy — especially Crumb’s work — and he would entertain fantasies as to how those two nuns would read their homework back at the convent by the aid of a flashlight while huddled under the blankets) and took his studies quite seriously. Where five reference texts were required, he would read ten — or more. And though not a note taker — or perhaps because he was not a note taker — he tended to keep a lot in his mind.

Joe’s last year of active service was spent at a Canadian Air Force Base up near the Hudson Bay. He — along with about two-hundred other GI’s  — were there as guests of the Canadian Government and their task involved testing various weapons under arctic conditions (our government was still concerned at the time about Russia using the Bering Straits as an entryway into our space). It was, despite the bleakness of the landscape and the bitter temperatures, not onerous duty, and Joe found plenty of time to visit the well-stocked library during the 365 days he was required to spend there.

The library, for Joe, was a new thing, and he read a lot without really keeping track of what he was reading.

Since this was his second tour of active duty, he found himself (as he did in college) somewhat older than many of his fellow servicemen. Some were college graduates — or at least, had some college under their belts — and it was they who introduced him to the concept of opening books. Serious books.

He had, of course, read comics when he was a kid and, when he had to, whatever textbook was thrust at him in elementary and/or high school. Coming from a home where learning for its own sake did not count for much — learning a trade was what real men did — Joe became a mediocre pupil and, having a certain amount of native intelligence, did just enough to get by without overly dog-earing his schoolbooks. It was probably back then that he fell into the habit of non-note-taking.

Anyway, he pretty much devoured the library at the base, sometimes guided by his educated fellow-soldiers, and sometimes not. His only criterion was to pretty much stay clear of fiction.

It was, clearly, as a result of all this book-opening that Joe decided, upon getting discharged from active duty this time, that he’d go to college.

But first — as promised — a word or two about that three-year break between his terms of active service.

Upon his (first) discharge from the Army, he quickly discovered that he could not go home again. Having never heard of Thomas Wolfe’s book, You Can’t Go Home Again, he thought that his situation was unique.

It wasn’t.

Joe, like most of his fellow GI’s, just had simply grown a bit since leaving home to climb aboard the bus that would take him to Fort Devon, Massachusetts — not intellectually, really, but certainly in experience. It came as a shock to him to learn that his fellow inductees came from homes and cultures that varied considerably from his own…some better, but also some a lot worse.

In any event, different.

So, seeing the world through new eyes, so to speak, as his fellow trainees-in-killing traded stories about home, Joe decided — somewhere along the line — that he did not have to — could not — go back to his parents’ home and simply pick up where he left off.

Leaving his duffle bag at a bus station not too far from Fort Dix from where he was discharged from active duty, he wrapped a few sets of underwear along with a toothbrush in a clean shirt, and set off for the South, figuring that not having to deal with cold weather was at least one thing he would not have to worry about.

From the South, Joe went West, then along the Canadian/American border back East, then back South, then West…and, well, you get the picture.

He went from state to state, job to job (menial ­job to menial job), picking up — well, experience — as he criss-crossed the country over the next three years.

Joe grew wiser — as in “wise guy” — and, at times, a bit reckless in his judgment calls as he traveled on, re-inventing himself as he went along, happily not giving a shit where he went or what he did — or who or what he left behind.

“Can’t you ever be serious?”

“Well, I was serious once…it was sometime back in 1949.” Joe looked up at the ceiling. “Was the worst ten minutes of my life, so I never tried it again.”


He shrugged.

“I mean, really. Can’t we just have a simple conversation over a cup of coffee?”

He gazed into her hazel eyes.

“O.K.” he said. “Have a good day,” and, over his shoulder, “I’ll get this.”

She looked at him in exasperation.


He’s impossible! she thought.

She was pretty, he thought, and shut the café door behind him.

There came a time when Joe realized that his luck would not hold out forever and there was a good chance that he would either wind up in prison somewhere or, perhaps, even dead. And, although he lacked bookish knowledge, he was smart enough to know that enough was enough.

He knew where he could get three meals a day, a roof over his head, and, most important, a re-introduction to discipline.

So, Joe re-enlisted in the U.S. Army and, as noted above, this time discovered the library.

So, when he got to college, compared to many of his fellow students, Joe was well-read — but a somewhat muddled well-read.

Grabbing books willy-nilly from the library while up in the arctic, he came away with such fuzzy notions  — to cite just one instance — as Kant and Plato being contemporaries — they were all “in the now” for him as their works sat there on the shelves, and he never bothered to read introductions and such. Who knew that they lived thousands of years apart?

Joe certainly didn’t.

What college did for him was to put things in chronological order, and what that did was to make him see that it was the evolution of ideas that mattered — that Plato came before Kant, for example — and that had to be true since the mind-set of one necessarily followed the other.

Same with Literature, Science, whatever.

For Joe, college meant things falling into place.

He liked the logic of it all…the steady progression of ideas.

The tricky part was trying to keep track of which ideas mattered and which to let keep falling out of place. The simple truth was, that some people thought “backwards”, duping unwary readers into a retrogression of thought that simply took up time and led, well, nowhere. He quickly learned to ignore them.

What he learned in science classes — like Rocks and Stars, for instance — was that he couldn’t take a whole lot of what he was being told too seriously since, already, today’s scientists were snickering about the howlers made by Copernicus, Newton, and so on. What was the point in keeping this stuff in his head, if twenty or fifty years from now, people would point and say, “Look at the crap they believed back then! Can you imagine?”

So, a certain amount of sorting had to be constantly attended to as he sought his reconciliation between the classroom utterances of the professor and the nun.

The other thing he learned in college — and this was important — was that you had to be really, really careful about making sharp distinctions between books that were labeled “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction”.

Oh, yeah…real careful.

His ace-in-the-hole, though, was what he had learned prior to his years in college: namely those easily slipped-in-to-and-out-of personas that he underwent during his years on the road.

He learned to be very, very careful never to take himself too seriously — who knew who he’d be next week, or month, or year?

Because he had no clue — his background was distinctly hard-hat — when they asked him what major he was going to pursue at college, he had to stop and think. All he knew — all he was versed in, he learned to say — was lower-class Brooklyn culture, a series of menial jobs as clerk, laborer and carpet layer, followed by his first (involuntary) military service, his three-year itinerant life with a string of more menial jobs, and then, his second (voluntary) military service, so what did he know about “declaring” a major?

Well, he could draw…he always knew how to draw.

“Art,” he blurted. “I want to be an Art Major.”

“Wow,” Joe would say later in life, “now that was some blunder — a major blunder!”

Two sessions in a studio art class were enough to let him know in no uncertain terms that he knew nothing about making art.

Hell, according to the Professor — a Mondrian aficionado, Joe would later learn — Joe’s skimpy sketchbook of drawings — of trees, of mountains, of brooks — wasn’t “art” at all.

Zhis is art,” his Professor said, as he pressed a piece of paper against a clear pane of glass on which he had squeezed out a few blobs of paint.

“Huh?” was all Joe could muster.

“Id’s how you sqveeze the baint…id’s how you brezz der baber!”


Joe quietly first moved into Art History — if only to learn about how the past masters went about “sqveezing und brezzing” — and, eventually on into Philosophy and Literature.

Oddly, the Big Bang Theory seemed to happily fit in with whatever courses he took…and, I might add, without any undue “sqveezing” or “brezzing”. In a way, it was comforting to know that something remained in his day-to-day mind-expansion.

In any event, the professor and the nun always found room in his thoughts.

They’d just finished dessert and were sipping white wine from slender-stemmed glasses.

It was a pretty posh restaurant for Joe, but — well, she was pretty nifty, and he was trying to impress her.

They had shared a philosophy class, and Joe had some fancy balancing acts to perform as he tried to concentrate on what was being said in front of the class and stealing glances at her as she sat in a seat to his left. Her honey-colored hair and finely-sculpted features finally got the better of him and he’d asked her out.

He gazed over the rim of his wine glass at the few freckles that adorned her nose.

“Penny for your thoughts,” she said with a smile.

“Just mulling over how much José Ortega y Gasset was really influenced by Schopenhauer.”


He shook his head and waved his hand airily over the still un-cleared dessert dishes.

“You know,” she said, “you think too much.”

“Oh, hey! I told a joke once… it was back in 1949. Hmmm, let’s see if I can get the punch-line right.”

She still was pretty nifty, though.

When Joe left college — with more of a hodge-podge of learning then a real “major” under his belt — he did what most graduates do who have no clue as to what direction to take in life: he taught.

He taught English in Junior and Senior High Schools — where he learned immeasurably more from his pupils than he had ever taught them — and, later, English Composition and Literature at a community college. Other than being a bit larger and older than his 7th through 12th graders, he didn’t find much difference in his college students — the dull ones would forever remain dull and there was no amount of pedanticism that could ever diminish the intelligence of the naturally quick.

The classes he most enjoyed were at both ends of the spectrum — the so-called ‘honors’ and ‘slow-learner’ kids. Those in the middle — called the ‘regents classes’ in the New York State School Systems — were largely unchallenging, obediently doing their homework, reading their assignments, and keeping their thoughts along the proper and prescribed ruts promulgated by our “education” programs.

Most teachers preferred the ‘regents’ kids, probably because not many of them knew the literal meaning of ‘education’ and went the way they were led by college student-teacher courses.


He dated a few colleagues during his tenure as a teacher, but found that they invariably came from the dull side of their own student rolls and quickly dropped that habit.

He brought up the Big Bang Theory in the faculty room one day during lunch one time.

Big mistake.

“I had a “big bang” once, said a fellow teacher. “She must have weighed three-hundred pounds!”

Haw, haws, all around.

It wasn’t that Joe was a prude — far from it. But this was a science teacher and Joe was really looking for information.

But then, he should have known. The same science teacher once asked him how come he was growing a beard.

Joe looked at him.

“How come?”

The science teacher looked at him.

“You’re a science teacher, and you ask me ‘how come I grow a beard’?”


Joe stared at him. “How do you imagine I do that? Sit around, hold my breath, and squeeze my face outward?”

“What d’ya mean?”

“Well, I don’t grow a beard on purpose! It just comes. As a science teacher it seems you ought to know that. You ought to be asking me how come I don’t shave, you lunkhead!”

“Jeez. English teachers!”

If only to counteract whatever bad influences they might have been experiencing from their science teachers, Joe once asked his ninth-grade honors class if any present would like to go aboard one of NASA’s spaceships, to travel in space.

Most of the boys eagerly responded with a resounding “Yes!”

Not all of them, of course — some were a little hesitant to sign right up on the dotted line. Or, perhaps they were just a bit wary of the question, having gotten used to Joe’s often “off-the-wall” class openings.

When the noise settled down, he then asked them what they thought they were doing right at that moment.

Rows of questioning eyes met his gaze as it swept over the classroom.

“Don’t you realize that we’re traveling through space right now?” he asked.

A chorus of “What do you mean?”

“Well, the earth is moving, right? Spinning and turning on its axis as it travels around the sun. And the sun is moving right? On its own path through space…right?”


“So, here we are, right now, sailing through space that we’ve never been in before.”


“So, our planet here is really just a great, big spaceship, isn’t it?”


“O.K. astronauts. Let’s get on with today’s lesson. I want about a one-hundred-fifty-word composition on…”


It took a while, but he eventually came to see that he was fitting right in to the “dull” thing himself.

His constant thoughts about the Big Bang Theory, however, saved him from perpetrating further damage to his charges and, though it came back to bite him in the ass in the form of a diminished pension in later years, he was pleased with himself when, after fifteen years, he quit the Public School System in mid-year.

When he left teaching, he did what most failed English teachers do: he decided to become a writer.

But, now’s a good time to talk a little about The Big Bang Theory.  I’ll set it forth in its simplest terms since, as I said, much of what passes for science today — i.e. “truth”, “fact”, “reality” — is eventually pooh-poohed by later, presumably more savvy scientists. So we’ll leave out whatever flourishes have been added to the original concept.

Note, please, that I said, “talk a little about” The Big Bang Theory. I say that because, although fairly simple in the saying, the knotty part is the “why”…but then, isn’t that always the case with important things? So why, or how, or when The Big Bang Theory began is still pretty much up for grabs.

What is theorized is this: an initial point in space gathered together (remember, don’t ask why, how, or when) and compressed into a critical mass with enough energy to cause it to explode, sending it out in all directions. As bits of energy traveled through space (whatever that is) and put distance between themselves and their source, they slowed, transformed, and congealed into lumps of stuff — called “matter” by the cognoscenti because it sounded better than “stuff” — first miniscule lumps (“molecules”, “photons”, “electrons”, “neutrons”, “protons”, “particles”, etc. for you science majors, and “bits”, “pieces’, “globules”, “jots”, “iotas”, “specks” and whatever for the rest of us), then merging into larger and larger chunks — even unto bulky planets like Jupiter.

Along with all this moving about — or, at least, out — there exists here and there “Black Holes” into which some of that energy/matter falls into and disappears. More on that coming up.

Somewhere, sometime, during the course of projection through space, slowing down, and making “something” of itself, some of that energy became us.

            (Aside: What we’ve managed to do with “us” is a long and often sad story — too long and too sad to go into at this time.)

Now to many, this rendition of how the Universe started is a bit sterile, a bit devoid of — well — a sentient touch. But then, bits of stuff called “humans” came on the scene a little late to start claiming some kind of seniority and first-hand knowledge…and Joe Jones felt, that on the whole, it was a fairly objective take on the whole thing.

Sure, he could see the nun’s point…but then her take had been pretty much larded over by explanations that sounded a lot like human invention. Some of it, in fact, a little too inventive, like walking on water, rising from the dead, magical healings, changing wine into water — you know, stuff like that.

Joe could see where the nun’s beliefs could be comforting, of course.

I mean, who wants to see him/herself as a random piece of slowed down energy making its way through space? Or falling into Black Holes?

Joe certainly didn’t want to. After all, he was just as human as the nun.

Consequently, as he hurtled — well, strolled or meandered, maybe — through his particular bit of “space” (still, whatever that is), he spent a good part of his life trying to reconcile the two views.

Especially after he found that, so far, he was pretty much striking out in the male/female thing, and as a true “major” of anything, and as a teacher, and, well, in just about everything he turned his hand to. Not that he did things badly — just that however he was doing whatever he was doing, was just not “his thing” — as his students used to put it. Going through the motions just didn’t seem like a purposeful life (as the nun might put it) to Joe.

Writing, then, seemed just the thing…and, from the outside anyway, he could look busy as he sat with his fingers poised over the keys of his typewriter, staring out the window, and “reconciling” things.

The trouble was, Joseph Jones had already been hurtling — (oh, right; meandering, strolling — through — oh, shit! — what is this stuff, anyway? God, how I hate this word “space” — Omniscient Author intruding here…again) — for a little over fifty years now and, as any Literary Pundit can tell you, a little late to begin a career as a writer.

Well, maybe not — as the girls might put it — a writer writer. Joe Jones never figured to become, like, a famous novelist or anything. Who’d read a book written by someone named “Joe Jones” — even knowing, perhaps, that “Joseph” meant “he who adds” — or “was cuckolded” — or whatever? Even “Joseph Jones” sounds a bit lightweight, doesn’t it?

Anyway, Joe envisioned himself as more of an essayist than as a novelist. Essayists could noodle around ideas and stuff…state opinions, for instance, and then glibly defend them through fancy word-smithing.

Geez…his head was always full of words and stuff. Why not write about them?

If only to get rid of them…

Like for example:

•Why was Aristotle so sure that Plato was wrong when he leaned toward mysticism? Was he around when The Big Bang started? Wasn’t he as much at sea as Job was? (Or was it Jonah who was at sea?)

•What in hell did Kant mean by “pure” reason?

•Why did Schopenhauer put women, cows and Christians in the same category? (What did he have against cows?)

•How close to the truth was José Ortega y Gasset when he said that we were all “shipwrecked” at birth?

•Would anyone ever really come up with a good definition of “art”?

•Do we care that Heraclitus could never manage to step into the same river again?

•Why did God tell Abraham to sacrifice his son and then, at the last minute, say, “Hey, hold on a sec. I didn’t mean to (as the girls might say) kill, kill him. I just wanted to see if — heh, heh — you really, really, loved Me.”?

•Was Thales given enough credit for being the first philosopher when he stated, “All things are water”?

•And, speaking of water, how come it’s made up of hydrogen and oxygen,

two of the most flammable (or is it inflammable) elements on the planet?

•Are dreams actually a form of wish fulfillment? (Yikes!)

•If Nietzsche claimed that God was dead, does this mean that he thought that He once lived?

•If Nietzsche was full of scheiss and God is still around, Can He create a rock big enough that He can’t lift it?

•Why is it so uncomfortable to read Johann Gottfried Herder when he points out that about 99% of what we know is “second hand” knowledge?

•Was Otto Rank correct when he called pre-historic artists spiritual seekers?

•On a more mundane level, how come so many liberal Democrats live like Republicans and then cheat on their taxes so as to avoid ponying up when it comes time to pay the piper for all that stuff they claim we all need?

•And so on and so forth…

Of more immediate concern to Joe was what he was doing here and just why and how and when his own personal little clump of energy was going to peter out. Hence, his continuing predilection to continue opening books ever since his college days.

He’d read, or read about — if not always understood — all of the above, and then some, hoping to find some way of making sense of The Big Bang Theory — at least insofar as it affected him.

So why not try his hand at writing essays — if only to make up for his not taking notes for all those years of reading and studying?

Although Joe did have a smattering of religious upbringing as a child, he usually credited the nun in his Rocks and Stars class with sending him down a long and twisty path through a number of different belief systems along the way. Books about Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam (and other more esoteric faiths) were sporadically interspersed with books on philosophy, physics, art, ancient history, and gardening. He didn’t much care about architecture, science fiction (there was enough of that in the so-called real stuff), politics, psychology/psychotherapy, and sports. In fact, he hated the latter three with some passion.

Politics was too oily, too slippery, for serious thought-grappling, while studies of the psyche interesting, but in the end, a bit airy-fairy. As a teacher, he had to take psychology courses and was always a bit annoyed (and suspicious) that the first chapters of such “psych” texts always tried to pitch themselves as a “science”…whereas anyone living on this planet for more than a few years knew that we still couldn’t even predict the weather, which was infinitely less complex to figure out than what made up a human mind. As for the “therapy” end of it, he had strong feelings that most therapists were themselves identity-sufferers, hanging out shingles in the hopes of finding company to share the misery they wallowed in. Perhaps it was just the fact that he’d spent so much of his life in trying to understand himself — especially vis-à-vis his untangling of the conundrum concerning The Professor and the Nun — (Omniscient Author Again: I like that. “The Professor and the Nun.” Sounds like something from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) — that he was unwilling to dump the problem on some stranger that did not — that could not — trace his trajectory through life.

Which leaves sports — and that’s what Joe always said: “Leave it” — since, as far as he was concerned, “Sports” — with a capital “S” — had no legitimate business taking up room in a mature mind.

Joe was smart enough to know that, on all three counts, he was stereotyping; he was also smart enough to know that all stereotypes, no matter the distortions, had deep roots in truth.

In any event, he carried little guilt over harboring those particular stereotypes.

He met her at the entrance of an espresso café where he could sit in a corner, nurse a cappuccino, and scribble away in his notebook without being overly bothered by either waitresses or other patrons.

She smells nice. Like cinnamon and oranges.

“You first,” he said, as he opened the door.

“Thank you.”

He smiled and took note of the way her black turtleneck sweater filled out in front.

The upshot was that they decided to sit together.

Things were going swimmingly as they slowly sipped their cappuccinos.

He noted how gracefully she held her knees together, hidden under a long plaid skirt that came to the middle of her calf-high boots.

Then: “Well, obviously you’d been abused there.”

He’d just shared with her the fact that he had no distinct memories of the inside of his home…not the living room, the dining room (if they even had one), the kitchen — not even his own bedroom.

“I find it odd,” Joe had said. “I mean, I lived there until I was twelve years old.”

That’s when she delivered the line above.

He looked at her. “Abused?”

“Of course! Why else would you block out your memories of your home?”

He shrugged. “Because I have a bad memory?”

“Come on! Get real!” She twirled her plastic mixer delicately. “It’s not so unusual, you know. All of us have bad memories of one kind or another.”

“I remember a good memory…it was when I was about five or so…”

She smelled nice, though. Kind of spicy, like.

He wondered if Aristotle, Plato, Kant, or Schopenhauer could remember their early bedrooms.

(Since Heraclitus couldn’t re-locate that stream, he wouldn’t even entertain that notion.)

Joe wasn’t really sure why he thought that it was the nun who sent him down the various religious paths, but he was pretty sure — at least, at first — it was because of the “Black Hole” thing. Along with The Big Bang Theory came a rider that posited the possibility of something called a Black Hole (note, I’ve already dropped the quotes) into which, at times — who knew when, where, or how — matter might be swallowed up and disappear.


Not that this necessarily bothered Joe — it was just that the idea of nothingness left him — well — kind of empty.

Of course, the nun had her own version of a black hole — and hers had the added attraction of fire.

But was fire really a better alternative to nothing?

As the years went by, however, the Black Hole part of The Big Bang concept far outweighed whatever alternative any of the religions seem to offer if only because it didn’t seem to have any pain or suffering attached to it.

I mean, a Black Hole would accept you whether you were good or bad.

Didn’t matter.

What is there about emptiness, nothingness, or non-being, anyway that is so distasteful to the sensitivity of most? Joe certainly had no desire to experience a horrible death, to die of something long, drawn-out and painful, something too abhorrent for others to have to witness.

But is not-being a horror? Some Frenchman long ago referred to the concept of nothingness as la grandeur du rien.

Could it, in fact, be something grand? (Or was Joe perhaps giving the French a bit too much credence here?)


Besides, there was a distinct possibility — according to some scientists — that falling into a Black Hole might mean that — because all that stuff was being changed back into energy and — here’s the kicker — was being compressed when it reached the bottom — or the end — or whatever you called the other side of a Black Hole — which sounded pretty much like the beginning of another Big Bang and some serious re-cycling of matter — us, incidentally, along with everything else.

So, falling into a Black Hole didn’t necessarily mean — as you-know-who might say — empty empty.

And, who knew? It could be a good thing with all that “sqveezing und brezzing” going on as the Black Hole was being crammed full, right?

I mean, not everybody saw pressure as a bad thing.

Sara Robbins, for example, once wrote about how such pressure could be bracing — at least for some — in her book of poetry, “Crushed for Better Wine”.

And, Joe certainly knew a few who could stand to gain by a little deflation, if not downright compression.

For a while there, art — and especially artists — took up a good part of his time after he left teaching, and that, because he had an inkling that art and artists might hold some clue concerning his search for — well, for meaning. At least in his own trajectory through spa… — through life.

If Otto Rank was right, and the early image-makers were some kind of Ur-priests, then perhaps they had an inside track into the mystery of beginnings — especially since they were working at it before language was invented and the various “Wise Men” began their embroidery sessions while sitting around campfires.

Art, after all, was — is — a language (like music) and Joe felt that perhaps if he could only learn to “read” it, then he might make some headway into reconciling the Professor and the Nun.

So Joe, somewhat of a pilgrim himself, turned his attention — and his writing — to art and artists, sometimes reviewing or critiquing exhibitions and sometimes profiling living artists.

He made a small income in critiquing/reviewing/profiling for a number of publications, eventually even flying in the face of his Art Professor’s admonition that what he was doing wasn’t “Art” and — dare we say it — doing some of his own painting along the way — you know, just for the hell of it.

Joe never really took his painting seriously — he painted “pictures” rather than “paintings” — and always secretly admitted to himself that “Herr Brofezzor” was probably right on the money. What he did, no matter how you sliced it, wasn’t “Art”, and he knew this in his heart of hearts because, no matter what he painted, none of it ever brought him one iota closer to solving his dilemma of reconciliation. In fact, like a good deal of his writing, it was merely another way of expressing his frustration at finding answers.

More about “answers” directly.

He’d already noticed her when, to his surprise, she seemed to be coming his way.

He was at an art opening and, as she approached, he pretended being absorbed in the swirl of colors smeared over the canvas hanging in front of him.

“Hi,” she said.

He pulled his eyes — now only three or four inches from the surface of the canvas — away and faced her, trying to appear lost in thought.


He liked the shape of her ears.

“So, are you satisfied with the conventions so far?” she asked.

“Uh…what ‘conventions’ are we talking about?”

“The Democratic — the Republican!” She rolled her eyes. “Duh!”

“Oh, them.” He rolled his eyes. “I haven’t been following them.”

“So how are you going to know how to vote?”


Big eye roll, this time. “Don’t you vote?”

Joe shrugged and turned back to the painting — which, as far as he could see, persisted in remaining just a swirl of colors.

She stood her ground.

He turned to face her again. “I did vote once…sometime back in…”

But she’d already stomped off across the room.

            Nice ears, though.

So, now we move on to answers.

Joe learned — way too late in life — that it was not the answers they gave, but rather the questions they asked that determined a person’s intelligence.

He grew wary of confident people — and particularly, now that so much of his attention was drawn (no pun intended) to it, wary of confident artists, for it was they, who among all peoples who ought not, could so seductively lead you astray, who could lead you into blind alleys, stony cliff-faces and bottomless oceans…albeit pretty alleys, cliff-faces, and oceans.

If The Big Bang Theory told Joe anything, it was that answers did not lie in the latest work of art. Out of the scores of artists he’d met, he could count on one hand those who were true artists, those who did not point at their latest creations but at their continuing struggle. Their energies, they knew, were still in trajectory, still moving towards an end that they could not envision. They knew that all works of art were but mere way-stations, temporary stop-overs, simple interludes, in an as yet not finished symphony of Big — and now — Little Bangs. A never-ending series of little bangs. Pops. Whispers. Even a few whimpers.

There were days —many days — that Joe felt his mind was itself a Black Hole. A Black Hole into which his thoughts, his learning, his writings — all that made up his inner world — were falling, falling, being “sqveezed und brezzed” into smaller and smaller bits of compressed energy.

And, let it be baldly stated right here that, from time to time, Joe had even entertained the idea of initiating his own rendition of a Big Bang — in the form of a gun to his head…but what would that result in but just one more piece of energy hurtling into nothingness?

A tiny echo of the real thing.

A ricocheting footnote to what was already an aimless path through time.

Creating his own Black Hole through his cranium — though it strongly appealed to him at times — flew in the face of everything he’d done, every hour he’d spent reading, learning, unlearning — everything.

As an answer, it would only engender more questions…and not even good questions at that.

As a work of art, it would hardly be original.

The bigger picture eventually began dawning on Joe.

Writing was no surer way of reconciling his professor and nun than any other. In looking back at his words, he found them as insubstantial as any other work of art he had so far encountered.

“His words”. His indeed. Most of the time they came unbidden, coming when they wanted to come, demanding to come whether he willed them or not.

Words, when you came right down to it, were just one more form of congealed energy on their way to — who knew where?

And when they did not — would not — come, he felt exactly what it was like to be in a Black Hole.

If he could point the finger at false artists, he could now point it at false writers as well — whether they be poets, novelists, essayists, philosophers, preachers, politicians — all words were, at bottom, empty sounds signifying nothing.

And whether that bit of energy congealed as a planet, a mountain range, an elephant, a human being, a gnat — or a work of art — that’s all that it was: a congealed bit of energy that still held on to the secret of its origin.

He noticed her standing at the buffet table, quietly talking with another woman. Her profile, classically formed, was near-perfect. Her gray-streaked hair was pulled back in a pony tail that trailed down over her back.

“Who is that?” Joe asked an acquaintance.

“Oh, her? That’s Janet — Janet McClain. I think she’s a poet.”

He slowly made his way toward her, casually lifting a glass of white wine from the tray of a roving waiter, stopping a few feet from her to carefully choose a cheese-covered cracker.

He turned to her and brought his eyebrows together.

“Aren’t you Janet McClain? The poet?”

“Yes,” she said, then turned away and moved across the room.

There were times, when quietly slipping over into a Black Hole — self-made or not — seemed very, very tempting indeed to Joseph Jones.

I mean, how much more reconciled can you get than being all lumped into one compressed ball of energy?

Who knows? Maybe on the other end he would be “sqveezed und brezzed” into a bottle of fine vintage wine next time?

Now that would be a work of art!