__MAIN_TEXT__
feature-image

Page 1

AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

DECEMBER 2020

ABRA STAFFIN-WIEBE

Vol. 1, No. 6


After Dinner Conversation Magazine – February 2021 This magazine publishes fictional stories that explore ethical and philosophical questions in an informal manner. The purpose of these stories is to generate thoughtful discussion in an open and easily accessible manner. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The magazine is published monthly in electronic format. All rights reserved. After Dinner Conversation Magazine is published by After Dinner Conversation in the United States of America. No part of this magazine may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission from the publisher. Abstracts and brief quotations may be used without permission for citations, critical articles, or reviews. Contact the publisher for more information at info@afterdinnerconversation.com . ISSN# 2693-8359

Vol. 2, No. 2 .

Copyright © 2021 After Dinner Conversation Editor-In-Chief: Kolby Granville | Acquisitions Editor: Viggy Parr Hampton Design, layout, and discussion questions by After Dinner Conversation Magazine. .

https://www.afterdinnerconversation.com


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

Table Of Contents FROM THE PUBLISHER .................................................................................... - 4 PEOPLE USED TO DIE EVERY DAY .................................................................... - 5 PANDORA’S DREAMS ................................................................................... - 23 THE LIBRARY OF GROMMA .......................................................................... - 32 THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE ............................................................................. - 52 SIMON.......................................................................................................... - 64 FATHER DALE’S DRIVE-THRU EXORCISMS ..................................................... - 74 COMMUNITY OF PEERS ................................................................................ - 91 ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ........................................................................ - 98 FROM THE EDITOR ....................................................................................... - 99 -

***

FEBRUARY 2021

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

From the Publisher ***

After Dinner Conversation believes humanity is improved by ethics and morals grounded in philosophical truth. Philosophical truth is discovered through intentional reflection and respectful debate. In order to facilitate that process, we have created a growing series of short stories, audio and video podcast discussions, across genres, as accessible examples of abstract ethical and philosophical ideas intended to draw out deeper discussions with friends, family, and students. *** Enjoy these short stories? Purchase our print anthologies, After Dinner Conversation “Season One,” “Season Two,” or “Season Three.” They are collections of our best short stories published in the After Dinner Conversation series complete with discussion questions. *** Subscribe to this monthly magazine for $1.95/month or $19.95/year and receive it every month!

FEBRUARY 2021

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

People Used To Die Every Day Chad Baker *** “Okay, so tell me the truth: why couldn’t I get a hold of you last night?” Samir folds his arms and stares at Peter across the little round table in the bar. “I know you have class on Tuesday nights, but you get breaks. And it’s not like you couldn’t answer a text from class,” Samir says. He has not yet taken one sip of his martini. “So. Where were you really?” Peter feels a red rush of shame. He never meant to lie to Samir. At first, he rationalized not telling his boyfriend on the basis that he was just trying it out, experimenting, curious. Maybe he wouldn’t even like it. Maybe he’d only do it once—in which case, it would hardly be worth mentioning, right? But he had done it eight times. Eight wasn’t experimenting. He did like it. And he didn’t want to stop. So now it was time to come clean. Peter glances at the tables near them. It’s just before midnight, and FEBRUARY 2021

-5-

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

the gastropub is filling up with Chicago’s young professional crowd: carefully tousled hair, sleek bodies, explosive laughs. On weekdays, this bar runs a happy hour special from 11:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. to bring in the afterwork crowd just off their second shifts. Samir likes this place, but it makes Peter’s head swim. His eyes keep getting pulled away by the 12 screens affixed above the bar and on the walls, which show a football game, music videos, a series of amateur clips in which people try to do a backflip and fall down. Peter doesn’t think anyone is near enough to hear them, but still he lowers his voice and hunches over the shiny, faux-onyx tabletop so that his nose is almost in his beer stein when he says: “I was sleeping.” Samir’s stony face gives no reaction except for a hot flare behind his dark eyes—or maybe Peter imagines that. After almost a year together, he is still not very good at reading Samir. “Look, I wanted to tell you, but I—” Samir holds up a palm to stop him. “I’m not going to talk about this here. Let’s just finish our drinks.” They drink in their painful bubble of silence, sealed off from the commotion of the bar. Peter has never downed a beer faster. *** When the revolving door spits them out, Samir marches down the avenue of shops and restaurants with long, quick strides. Peter has to jog to catch up. His health implant pings his phone to tell him he’s reached .07 BAC and it will now release an alcohol antagonist. He had drank two swift beers before he came to the bar, trying to muster the courage to confess. “Was it the first time?” Samir asks. “No.” Samir opens his mouth but closes it again when he spots the couple with a toddler approaching on the tree-lined sidewalk. The little girl picks up burnt red maple leaves that just began to fall this week, collecting them. FEBRUARY 2021

-6-

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

The incandescent street lamps bathe everything in a metallic white (they redid the lamps on this street last month, upping the wattage even more). Samir turns down a less busy side street. “How many times?” “Eight.” “Oh God, Peter.” There’s pity in his voice. Peter had been prepared for anger, surprise, maybe mild concern—but this, Samir’s sad embarrassment for Peter, is much worse. “It’s not that big a deal. A lot of people do it.” “A lot of losers. Fat, unemployed losers who live with their parents and—” He stops, puts a thumb and forefinger to his closed eyes. “Which is not you, obviously. That’s not what I mean. I just—I never expected this from you.” They pass one block of two-story homes and orange-leafed oaks in silence. Living room windows frame families and couples on couches, awash in the flicker of screens. Peter breathes in the dry, crinkly scent of autumn. “You’ve never been curious?” Peter asks, once he can’t bear the quiet any longer. “What it’s like?” “No more than I’m curious about what’s it like to have tuberculosis or shit in an outhouse. We’ve solved those problems. Why would I want to go back?” Samir and Peter are both in their late twenties, so they were born years after the neuro-pharmacological team at China’s Tsinghua University first synthesized somnephrine and discovered that, in combination with a cocktail of other stimulants, proteins, and reuptake inhibitors, it will do everything for the human brain and body that sleep used to do. At first, the compound had to be taken daily, in pill form, but after the rise of permanent health implants, somnephrine became a mandatory ingredient in everyone’s monthly cartridge. “So your new leadership class,” Samir says. “These Tuesdays and FEBRUARY 2021

-7-

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

Thursdays for the past month—that was all bullshit?” “I’m sorry. I needed, you know, a reason. That we weren’t hanging out those nights.” “That’s what you’re doing instead of actually taking a PCC?” Samir, like most people in the couple’s circle of ambitious twentysomethings, is perpetually in a Professional Certification Course. He’s racked up five different PCs. “It’s not like I’m being irresponsible about it. I haven’t missed work or anything. It’s not affecting my life.” “But it did! I got huge news that I worked really hard for and you weren’t there.” Yesterday, at the end of his shift, Samir learned that he had been promoted to Account Executive at his consulting firm. “Shu-chen took me out for drinks and a bunch of our friends came out to celebrate with me and you weren’t there because you were...” He can’t bring himself to say the word. “I’m sorry. I really am. Obviously, if I had known you were going to get promoted—” “That’s not the point.” “What is the point?” “God. I need another drink.” After two more blocks, they arrive at Samir’s building. When Samir approaches the front door, Peter lingers awkwardly on the sidewalk, unsure if he’s supposed to follow. “Well?” Samir holds the door. “Are you coming up or what?” *** Samir’s apartment is in a new high-rise, built in the modern style: a small wardrobe room instead of a bedroom, a larger living room and dining room. He keeps the living room lightly furnished, preferring a wideopen space for entertaining and VR gaming. Peter sits on one of the backless metal stools on the edge of the room while Samir makes two FEBRUARY 2021

-8-

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

drinks in that cocktail machine some friends got him for his birthday. Samir hands Peter an old-fashioned. “Have you thought about what could happen, Peter? Really thought? That shit’s illegal.” “It’s decriminalized, in Illinois. Nobody actually goes to jail for it.” “You mean people like you don’t go to jail for it. Nice upper-class white people. And what about your job? Don’t they hair test?” “I think I signed some consent thing when I started, but they’ve never tested me.” But he has heard of his supervisor Terri selecting employees for “random” hair follicle samples if they showed signs of fatigue: yawning, reddened eyes, lower call closure rates. “But they might. You’d lose your job.” “I really don’t care,” he says, and Samir’s eyes sharpen in shock. “It’s an awful job, babe.” Peter works for a customer service contractor, where he’s currently assigned to placate upset users of the GoZenga streaming media service. For instance, today he was harangued by a woman who had been “permanently scarred” after GoZenga’s recommendation algorithm suggested, based on the woman’s habit of watching cooking shows, that she would enjoy Hard Boiled, a GoZenga original series about a spunky chef who solves crimes. After she witnessed a grisly murder in Ultra Def virtual reality, her stress hormones spiked so high that her implant had to release a sedative. She screamed at Peter for 19 minutes and 53 seconds (they are not supposed to let any call go over 20 minutes without manager approval; he came in just under the wire). “Well if you started a Leadership PC,” Samir says, “Like actually started one, instead of lying about it, then you could probably move up.” “I don’t want to move up. Not at that place. Sometimes I wish I’d get fired.” “Uh-huh. And how would you pay your rent? Or eat? Or pay your media subscriptions?” Samir stands with one hand in the pocket of his FEBRUARY 2021

-9-

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

slacks, sips his drink, and gazes out the bay window at the street below. “So is that what this is about, you’re unhappy at work? You’re trying to escape or something? That’s what going out is for, Peter. You could have escaped by doing shots at the Indigo Room with our friends. With me.” “We went out with our friends the night before. And then the wine painting thing the night before that. We’re always doing something. It’s sort of relentless. Don’t you ever want to just do...nothing?” Samir gives him a sideways glance. “No, I don’t. My time is precious enough as it is. Especially with the way they’ve been working me lately.” Samir used to work traditional hours: a first shift 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., a four-hour break for midday, then back for the 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. shift. But in the past few months, he’s been cutting into his midday and working past midnight, then rushing off to his PCC three nights a week. For a moment, neither of them speaks. Peter gazes, for the millionth time, at the three paintings that make up the only ornamentation on the wide opposite wall. They are abstract and minimalist; in the center painting, three vertical streaks of violet run down the left side of the canvas, with only a small blue dot in the sea of white on the right side. Today, the dot looks to Peter like a body falling from a building. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t realize it would bother you this much.” “Are you going to keep doing it?” He shrugs. “I think I want to, yeah. I like...I don’t know. I like the way it feels.” “My parents always said it doesn’t feel like anything. It’s just hours you don’t remember. Right?” “Not exactly. There’s something really peaceful about it. It’s hard to describe.” But he tries anyway. As they finish their cocktails and Samir makes two more, Peter tries to describe the beauty of lying still, waiting for the FEBRUARY 2021

- 10 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

strong, dark tide to sweep you away. He tries to describe the liminal zone that marks the gateway to sleep, where your thoughts expand and dissolve like billows of smoke. He tries to describe the tingly, confused afterglow of waking. But for some reason, he cannot bring himself to admit, much less attempt to describe, the part he likes best: the dreams. *** The odd thing is, it’s not as if the dreams are always—or even usually—pleasant. Take, for example, the dream Peter has the next night, the night after the big fight with Samir. In one fragment of this dream, Peter comes home to his apartment, only to find an unfamiliar young man and woman cuddled together on the couch. When he steps through his front door, they freeze and gape at him, like he’s the intruder. Then Peter remembers that he fell behind in the rent and got evicted (this is not true in real life). With prickly horror, Peter realizes that this rosy-faced couple in their matching tracksuits are the new tenants. He’s trespassing. He must have kept his key and gotten confused and come back. “You need to go,” the woman says, but Peter is already scrambling for the door. Then, as he’s leaving, he finds a bag of ChedHeads, the poofy cheese snack, on the end table. “But these are mine, right?” he asks the couple, who are now on their feet, backing him out the door. “I think I left these here? They’re my favorite.” The woman looks at him sadly and shakes her head. Either that’s the end of the dream or the rest disappears when he’s awoken. A bell sounds on the apartment speakers, followed by a gentle female voice that says, “Samir is at the front door.” On the living room screen, Samir stands on the sidewalk in his black coat, leather satchel snug against his hip. The corner of the screen says 12:33 a.m. At first, Peter doesn’t move from the nest of couch cushions and blankets he’s made on the floor. He tries to recall the dream. It alarmed him, the first few times, how easily the dreams slip from you (such a strange contrast to those first waking moments, when you not only FEBRUARY 2021

- 11 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

remember the dream but believe it; for a few dizzying seconds, Peter thought he actually had been evicted). He has found that by the time he stands up and takes even one step toward the bathroom, so much of a session’s fragments and figments have vanished. Now, when he wakes, he makes sure to lie perfectly still and review the images, to store them in a more secure part of his memory. It’s like trying to clutch rainwater in your hands. “Helloooooo,” Samir says, and the word reverberates through Peter’s apartment. “Open lobby door,” Peter says, his voice thick with sleep. He scrambles to replace the couch cushions and fold the two blankets before Samir reaches the third floor. When Peter opens the front door, Samir has a bottle of red wine held out like a game show prize. Peter takes it, surprised. He hadn’t expected a peace offering. He hadn’t expected to see Samir at all tonight. Maybe not for a while. The wine is a good sign, and it sends a trickle of relief through Peter. “That will go well with Ethiopian, which is on its way.” Samir breezes in, slips his coat on a hook, seats himself on the couch. “I had a good talk with Karen today.” Karen is Samir’s therapist of six years (“longest relationship of my life,” he likes to joke). “She helped me reframe your, uh, confession.” “You told her about that?” “I tell her everything. She helped me remember that one of the reasons I love you…” Samir stops, holds up a finger. “‘I love you’ would have been a good place for me to start. Let’s pretend I started with that. Karen and I are also working on expressing my feelings directly. I love you because you zig when other people zag. Because you’re true to yourself above all. I wrote down a bunch of these, we did an exercise, but the point is—wait, what’s wrong with you?” Peter realizes that his eyes must be bleary, his lids drooping. “I FEBRUARY 2021

- 12 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

just...I just woke up.” As he says it, a yawn sneaks up on him and he can’t stop himself in time. “Oh.” Samir’s nod tries too hard to be casual. “Well, what I’m saying is, I reacted too harshly, last night. I want to understand where you’re coming from.” “Okay. Thank you.” “I want to try it.” “What?” “If this is something that’s important to you, I want to share it with you. Expand my horizons.” “You want to sleep?” He can’t suppress a chuckle. Samir scowls. “What? I can be illicit. Remember, I’m a veteran of the club scene.” Samir has told Peter stories from his wilder youth that involve party drugs Peter had never heard of. “Besides, I’ve decided it could be romantic.” “Romantic?” “Sleeping in each other’s arms. All tangled up in bed. Like the couples in the old movies you make us watch.” “I don’t have a bed.” Some people still have them, for streaming media and reading and having sex, but Peter and Samir have found that the couch works fine for all of those things. “Whatever, we’ll make do.” Samir cocks his head. “Do you not want me to do it with you?” The truth is, Peter doesn’t want that, not really. He’s warmed by the gesture, but he’s not sure he’s ready to share this new corner of his world. “I just, this is a big turnaround, from your attitude yesterday.” “And I said I was sorry about yesterday.” “You didn’t, actually.” Samir squints, trying to remember. “Did I not? It was supposed to FEBRUARY 2021

- 13 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

be in my opening speech. Anyway. I’m sorry, I’m trying to be more open, and before I change my mind, give me the, you know, the stuff. You have the stuff, right?” Peter retrieves, from a drawer in the coffee table, the plastic baggie with little green capsules. His sand. “Sand” as in Sandman. Samir cups his hands together, then cups them the other way, then back again. It’s a nervous tic of his. “Are you sure it’s safe? Like pure and everything?” “I trust my guy.” “Who’s your guy?” Peter hesitates. “It’s Keshi.” A mutual friend. Samir falls back into the couch with a sigh. “Keshi sleeps, too? I’m surrounded by bedheads, and I had no idea.” His head snaps up. “I’m sorry. Is that—is that okay, that word? Is that offensive?” Peter shrugs. He takes a seat next to Samir on the couch. “I don’t care.” “So how does this work?” Samir’s voice shakes a little. “I just take one and then...what?” “No, you don’t want to take it now. It doesn’t work right away. What it does is, it neutralizes the somne.” It would be easier, of course, to just suspend your implant’s flow of somnephrine, but only your Health Needs Provider can do that. “You want to take it during your midday tomorrow. Then you can come over after work, and by then you’ll be ready.” “Okay.” After a big, anxious breath, Samir accepts a green capsule into his palm. Peter never finds him more adorable than when he’s nervous. He gets this way on airplanes before takeoff, too. “You really don’t have to do this, if you don’t want.” “I do want.” Samir lays his head on Peter’s shoulder. It’s the first time they’ve touched since the confession. They hadn’t even hugged FEBRUARY 2021

- 14 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

goodbye last night when Peter left. “There’s this part of you I don’t know, Peter. This faraway part. The part that hauled me off to Iceland to freeze our asses off staring at the sky. I want to know that part, touch it. I think this might help.” Peter tries to figure out what to say, how to help Samir understand, but then the bell chimes and the delivery woman from the Ethiopian place appears on the screen. *** Peter tries to make the place nice. He leans into what Samir said, about the romance of it. He puts extra care into his makeshift bedding, moving the coffee table and pilfering cushions from both the couch and the dining room chairs to make a plush sea in the living room. Then he drapes it with their favorite quilt, the one with the purple and green Bargello needlepoint that they bought on their trip to Reykjavik to see the northern lights. He lights candles and cues up something rich and spiced called “Hayride” on the scent-diffuser. He paces while he waits. He smiles to himself when he realizes how much this feels like a first date. When Peter opens the front door at 12:10 a.m., Samir drags himself across the threshold and collapses into the recliner. He is still in his office getup: slacks and a slim-fit umber button-up. One arm hangs off the chair, fingers almost to the floor, and his head droops to his chest. “I feel like shit. I felt like shit all through my last three meetings. It was like someone was draining my life away.” Peter grins. “Yeah, you’re tired.” “Why would anyone want to feel like this?” “Because you’re about to get to the good part.” “God, I hope so.” First, they eat. After the rigatoni Peter made (which turned out well; Peter is getting good at this recipe), the two of them enter the living room and stand expectantly before the bed area, awkward as teenage FEBRUARY 2021

- 15 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

virgins. “Okay.” Samir claps his hands together. “What now?” “You’ll probably want to change into those.” On the coffee table, Peter has laid out a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt. Peter is a size bigger than Samir (and is in danger of making it two sizes, the way he’s been padding his waistline lately), but the sweats should fit. “You want to be comfortable.” As he watches Samir undress, Peter’s heart beats faster. He almost turns away. Despite the many times that he has seen Samir naked, this exposure feels different, more dangerous. Samir puts on the sweatpants but remains shirtless, the lines of his body graceful and smooth in the flickering candlelight. Before Peter can suggest it, Samir lies down, settling into a spot on the awkward Pangea of cushions. Peter sinks down and unfurls his body alongside Samir’s, one arm encircling his bare chest. Their heads rest on the couch’s blue throw pillows. “So what do I do?” “Nothing, really. Just close your eyes, try to relax. It’ll come.” Peter’s nose is pressed against Samir’s thick, wavy dark hair. He can smell the sweet chemical bite of hair product. “Don’t you worry about the time it takes up?” Samir asks, after a minute. “Like, don’t you think about the overtime you could have made tonight if you had picked up an extra shift? Or we could be at the gym.” The mention of the gym feels like a subtle reprimand. Samir goes at midday almost every day. Peter has to wrestle with himself to make it there twice a week. “But now we’re going to lose these hours. Just wasted time.” Peter thinks of the anti-sleeping government ad currently in rotation on the screens at the train station. It shows a fat man splayed out in sleep, hairy belly hanging out of the bottom of his stained t-shirt, mouth gaping, slobber trickling out. The text below says “Don’t Waste Your:” and a bunch of words in big block letters flicker in succession to complete the FEBRUARY 2021

- 16 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

sentence: TIME; POTENTIAL; MONEY; NIGHT; OPPORTUNITIES; DAY; and finally, it ends on LIFE. With one finger, Peter traces the rivulet in the middle of Samir’s chest, teasing its small tuft of hair. “That phrase never really made sense to me. Wasted time. What are these other things I’m supposed to be doing with it? And why does everybody else care so much?” Peter can feel Samir’s shoulders tense. “I care because we’re partners. Because we’re supposed to share a life.” “I didn’t mean you.” Peter listens to the twin sound of their breathing. He tries to match Samir’s rhythm. “I don’t think it’s working,” Samir says. “Is there something else I should be doing?” “Stop trying. You can’t make it happen. Think about something else.” Taking his own advice, Peter thinks about their trip to Iceland. Maybe he thinks of it because it was the last, the only time they lay together side-by-side like this, doing nothing. They don’t linger after sex. Samir is up and off the couch within minutes, redressing, checking his phone. In Iceland, they laid together for hours under this quilt and watched the aurora borealis. Green mist billowing, crashing into itself. Purple waves dancing through the black. In the weeks leading up to that trip, Samir had cracked caustic jokes about how boring it would be, but there, under the lights, he became very quiet, and Peter knew then that they were both under the same spell. Peter could have watched that sky forever. Soon, he drifts off. In his dream, Peter bobs on a small, inflatable raft on a lake. Boats shoot past him, propelled by vast, swollen sails. He understands—this fascinates Peter, how in the dreams he understands all sorts of rules and conditions about the landscape without being told—he understands that the boats are in a race, the biggest race of the season. FEBRUARY 2021

- 17 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

Suddenly, the blasting winds bring massive dark clouds and lashing rain. A sailboat blares a deep, bone-rattling horn at Peter. His raft is obstructing the race. A long, slick white bow bears down on him. But Peter only has a plastic oar, like the kind he used as a child when his family went canoeing. No matter how hard he strokes, it is maddeningly difficult to move through the water. Peter just barely avoids the boat; its wake picks up his raft and tosses it into the path of another racer. This new boat dings a bell at him. Sails whip loudly in the gale and men shout commands over the roar of the storm. The rain feels wonderful running through Peter’s hair, soaking his shirt, falling into his panting mouth. The depressed center of the raft, where he kneels, fills with water. He dodges more boats. He has to get to shore. After more frantic paddling, he nears the shoreline, and the weather lets up. A three-story Victorian house looms on the bank, with a long wooden dock leading to its front door. He understands that there is something mystical and very precious in the house that he needs to see. He digs at the water, heaving with breath, until he is almost at the dock. *** But he’s jerked awake by a hand grabbing his wrist. Samir has turned toward him, eyes huge black discs in the candlelight. He’s breathing heavy. “What is it?” Peter asks. “What happened?” “I didn’t, I didn’t like that.” “Did you fall asleep?” “I think I—yes, or I started to. I—” Samir struggles to his knees and then to his feet, wobbling on the uneven cushions. He dashes to the kitchen. “Babe? What’s the matter?” A minute later, Samir returns, clutching a glass of ice water with both hands. He orders the lights on. Peter shields his eyes against the FEBRUARY 2021

- 18 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

bright. “I really didn’t like that.” Samir’s eyes are still wild and frightened. Peter props himself on his elbows, mind still cloudy. “Didn’t like what?” “At first, I was just lying there, thinking ‘when is it going to happen?’ Then I said something and you didn’t answer, so I knew it had already happened for you.” He takes a shaky sip of water. “After a while, I got distracted, and then all of the sudden, things got really...weird. I couldn’t hold on to my thoughts. It felt like melting away.” “Yeah. Then you just go with it.” “Go with it?” Samir’s fear flashes to anger. “How could you just go with it? Why would you want to? It was like, I knew that in the next moment, I would be gone. Just, not there anymore. Gone.” His breathing gets rapid again, his shirtless chest filling and collapsing. “Like dying. It was like what dying must be like.” Peter thinks about this. “I guess, yeah. Before, it was like people used to die every day. Close their eyes, let it all go, reappear in the morning.” He leans back, head in the basket of his hands. “But it’s not quite the same, because you don’t dream when you die. Or maybe you do. I don’t know.” He sits up and waits until Samir looks him in the eye. “I think the dreams are why I do it.” He asks Samir to sit down next to him, and he tries to describe the dream of the boat race. “That’s it?” Samir asks. “That’s all it was? Does it mean something?” “Maybe. I don’t know. I think they’re sort of like the paintings, the ones in your apartment. Like they mean something, but you can’t say what.” Samir sweeps his hand toward the two VR headbands on the entertainment center. “You could be on any boat you wanted, whenever FEBRUARY 2021

- 19 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

you want. These sleep dreams, you don’t even get to control them.” “I think that’s what I like about them.” He reaches for Samir’s hand. “Maybe we could try again. Maybe if you got all the way under, if you dreamed—” “No.” Samir rolls off the cushions, stands, and starts to dress. “This isn’t for me.” He buttons his shirt. “You didn’t have to try. I didn’t ask you to try.” “I know. I wanted to. I wanted this to work.” He wriggles into his shoes. Peter tries to think of something else to say, something that might stop this, might turn things around. He considers: “I love you;” or “I’m sorry I don’t know how to explain it better;” or “Do you remember Iceland?” But none of these seem right, so he says nothing. Samir walks out the door and eases it shut behind him. He lays his head back down on a pillow. Even as he tries to convince himself to get up and go after Samir, Peter is angry with him for ruining the dream. Now, he’ll never know what was in that house on the shore. He closes his eyes and focuses on the dream: the rainwater running down his back, the warped, moldering wood of the dock. He tries to fall back into it. But he knows it doesn’t work that way. A dream interrupted is gone forever. He wraps himself in the Iceland quilt and lies still. He wonders what it would be like to go back to Reykjavik alone. Would the lights look the same? Would the spell be as strong, with only one person lying under the quilt? Or maybe he’ll go somewhere else in Iceland, away from the tourist parts. He’s read about a village there where no one takes the somnephrine, where everyone sleeps away their nights. He’s seen pictures. It looks quiet there. Maybe he’ll go visit that place and maybe he won’t come back. He tries to imagine that life, but over and over, his thoughts circle FEBRUARY 2021

- 20 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

back to Samir. He will be on the train by now, swaying back and forth with its jostling, clinging to a hand-strap, exhausted and scared. Peter thinks about trying to call him. He doesn’t. There’s nothing left to say. He flips the pillow and turns onto his side. His arm is pinched uncomfortably, so he rolls onto his back again. This doesn’t feel right either, so he tries the other side. He closes his eyes and waits. He waits for a long time. As the minutes become an hour, Peter finds that something is happening that has not happened before: He can’t sleep. ***

FEBRUARY 2021

- 21 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CHAD BAKER

Discussion Questions 1. If you could take a pill and give up sleeping, with absolutely no side effects, would you do it? Why or why not? 2. Regarding whether he’s curious about dreaming, Samir says, “No more than I’m curious about what’s it like to have tuberculosis or shit in an outhouse. We’ve solved those problems. Why would I want to go back?” Is that true? Is dreaming simply a “problem” to be solved? 3. If falling asleep were made illegal through a democratic process, would you give it up? Do you think illegally sleeping could be a gateway action that would lead you to do other illegal activities? 4. Would you be willing to take part in an illegal activity that your partner was doing so that you could share the experience with them? 5. Do you think dreaming (both good and bad dreams) serves an important role? If so, what role is that? If you could stop sleeping (and dreaming) with no side effects, do you think it would change the choices you make? If so, how? ***

FEBRUARY 2021

- 22 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

PETER BEAUMONT

Pandora’s Dreams Peter Beaumont *** Five years ago we opened Pandora’s box. Blinded by hubris, we didn’t foresee the problems that would arise. Only later did we realize our work would have such horrible implications, and as the story of Pandora goes, it’s too late once the bad stuff gets out of the box. Now things are a mess and I guess we are to blame. You would be right to judge us harshly, and I won’t hope for your forgiveness, but perhaps you might eventually understand how we got here and where we might end up if something isn’t done. I still remember the day well. It was early Spring. A tang of vitality hung in the mild morning air as I climbed out of my car and walked slowly to the lab, weary from the late night and stuck in a loop of thinking I couldn’t escape. Why wasn’t it working? Where had we gone wrong? What had I missed? We had been working late all week, sustained by a stubborn, almost desperate self-belief. We knew we were close. Close enough to believe the next day would be the breakthrough. Or the next. We just had to keep at it and ignore the poisonous doubt lurking in the long pauses FEBRUARY 2021

- 23 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

PETER BEAUMONT

between conversation; the doubt that it actually might not be possible to achieve. None of us wanted to walk away from the years of work. From the years of sweet-talking potential investors and cajoling skittish board members. From the years of telling each other and anyone else who would listen that if we couldn’t make the biggest advancement in neuroscience in decades, then no one could. We had run the latest version of the program seven nights in a row without success. Each morning we had grimly accepted the disappointment and sent the volunteers on their way. Each morning our frustration accumulated like weeds choking a garden, and I wondered which of us might crack first under the pressure. Then something changed. On the eighth morning the result for two of the subjects was different. The quality was poor, and there was no sound, but irrefutably and quite remarkably we had finally succeeded in recording and playing back a human dream. There was a reverent silence for five, ten seconds, then the room burst into life. People were shouting, laughing. Someone slapped my back. I stood rooted to the spot, eyes still focused on the wall-mounted screen in stunned disbelief. Someone called out to replay it, and as we watched again, the significance of what we had achieved began to sink in. I still feel a flicker of the awe from that day. Like the small tremors that continue long after an earthquake has struck. Looking back, I know we should have paused during those first heady days to consider the implications of what we were doing, but if you can imagine the excitement we experienced that day then you might understand why we didn’t. We had persevered and been rewarded, and were doubly determined to stay the course from there on in. To say all the possible implications were unknowable is FEBRUARY 2021

- 24 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

PETER BEAUMONT

inexcusable, I know. Just as I know all we could think about on that day, and for many after, was the startling, beautiful things we could do with our discovery. And if we were honest – at least with ourselves – some of us were also imagining fame and glory. We were only human after all. You won’t be surprised to know that once we fixed the bugs in the system and moved to the full trial phase, the first participant was a rich entrepreneur. One of that infamous group rich enough to build private spacecraft and a boldness that could mesmerize millions with a grand vision of the future. Some of the team weren’t happy about blurring the boundaries between science and capitalism, but given our benefactor was prepared to donate a sizable portion of his wealth to the trial it was impossible to say no. And let’s face it. Science doesn’t happen unless someone pays the bills, and compared to the stifling bureaucracy of the university system we worked in, his proposition was beautiful in its simplicity. All we had to do was allow him to be the first to use it. Beyond that he wanted nothing, and in return he gave us more than enough money to make our dream project real. What reasonable person could refuse that? So there we were. We had worked out how to record dreams and play them back. I was almost going to say play back at our leisure, but five years of viewing the confused, disturbing, even horrific creations of the unconscious mind has been as far from leisure as you could imagine. The project was originally conceived with a noble intent. We had theorized that the roots of mental illness, trauma and certain cognitive disorders lay hidden somewhere within the deep, dark folds of the unconscious mind. Dreams were a manifestation of this little-understood function of the human brain, and we were confident that if we could capture and analyze them, we might be able to tease out the causes of these afflictions, and just possibly, find a cure. There was so much we could have achieved, but – and I’m FEBRUARY 2021

- 25 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

PETER BEAUMONT

ashamed to say this now – we allowed commercial interests to override our therapeutic goal. Once news got out that we could record and play back dreams, people clamored to get access to it. And those able to pay the hefty price were more than happy to do so. Overnight, orbiting Earth as a space tourist dropped to number two on the must-do list of the mega-rich and would-be famous. After that there was, as they say, no holding back the tide. With that, our research unit was transformed into a corporate entity, and in the eyes of some – ourselves included – we stopped being scientists and became salesmen. Soon the researchers and technicians were outnumbered by the marketers, lawyers, accountants and the quickly despised band of executives who cared only for profit and growth. A year after that we made the next important breakthrough, improving the technology so that it could be housed in a portable unit and used by our clients at home. We had to install some seriously large computing hardware in our new facility to be able to handle all the incoming dream data, and then hire loads more technicians to keep it all running, but it’s what the customers – and therefore the shareholders – wanted, so no one balked at it. The units were clunky at first, and a little unreliable, but that was fixed in time. More problematic was some of the early client feedback. A number of people were confused and shocked by what they were confronted with, and a few couldn’t handle it at all. We did our best to reassure them, sometimes cajoled them, and where necessary, directed them to a discreet counseling service to work through the more unpleasant stuff. The lawyers had also insisted we get all clients to sign an indemnity absolving us of any responsibility for harm should it occur, and a few clients had to be reminded of this as a last resort. Despite all this, enough clients continued on to tell their friends and social media followers about the FEBRUARY 2021

- 26 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

PETER BEAUMONT

miracle of their captured dreams – with perhaps some judicious selfediting in the telling – which fanned the flames of envy and drove enough demand on which to base a business. Eventually, anybody prepared to pay the charges could sign up for a week, a month, even a year of recording, and have their dreams polished and sent back before the end of each day for them to view. It should have been a great success story. But then the problems began to emerge. It didn’t take long before people realized they could sell their dreams. Or worse, that recorded dreams could be stolen and sold on the black market for a good price if they were entertaining enough. Humanity has always had a hankering to be entertained, and here was a new form just waiting to be exploited. Sexy, terrifying, disturbing, poignant, mystifying, thrilling: dreams offered it all, and there was always someone somewhere prepared to pay to watch it. More than one of our critics described our business as producing just another form of pornography. Then came the more entrepreneurial activity. Someone worked out that here was a wonderful means by which to blackmail the rich and vulnerable. They would threaten to make public a stolen copy of a more problematic dream if the targeted victim failed to pay a significant sum of money. Needless to say, the willingness of victims to pay increased markedly after the blackmailers released the dream of one notable public figure who tried to call their bluff. We couldn’t work out how the dreams were being stolen. We tried beefing up system security, but to no avail. Much to my anger and disgust I eventually had to accept that at least one of our own staff was involved. It seemed that not only were the rich happy to pay for our unique service, but sometimes those wanting to be rich were prepared to break the rules to join them. It’s fair to say the clients weren’t impressed. Most of them received FEBRUARY 2021

- 27 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

PETER BEAUMONT

sizable and discreet payments from the company for their trouble. All part of doing business, according to the company executives. As troubling as this was, it was far from the worst of it. The government took an interest in our system, seeing it as a potential tool in the fight against crime and terrorism. Why wait until someone is stupid enough to let slip their plans, or to act on them? Why not catch them in the act of dreaming about it and use it as preemptory evidence against them instead? Now I’ve nothing against public safety, but using our technology in this way leaves us in a difficult situation. Are we obliged to report any dreams that might be suggestive of criminal intent? What if poor old client X had watched a particularly violent film the night before, and then had a dream influenced by it? What if client Y had suffered an intense trauma and their unconscious mind played it over and over again in an attempt to make sense of it? Would these dreams be sufficient to warrant intervention by the authorities, and therefore require us to report them? And whose job would it be to try to interpret and justify the dreams as being a reliable indicator of criminality? Or for that matter, to explain how an unconscious desire will invariably lead to conscious action? The libertarian lawyers and philosophers have had a field day with it so far. Dreams are private property they argue, and shouldn’t be interfered with or used against someone, regardless of the circumstances. They decry the trampling of human rights and question the morality of this newfound omniscient justice. And where might it end? There are rumors the government will soon mandate that everyone have a unit installed at home to record their dreams and transmit them to some government agency for monitoring. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to what that might lead to next. Perhaps I’m imagining the worst, but I’m not alone. There’s a small but growing protest movement speaking out these days. Much of their FEBRUARY 2021

- 28 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

PETER BEAUMONT

effort is directed at the government, but not surprisingly, they have also taken aim at us. Online harassment of the company is now a daily occurrence, and I’ve read more than my fair share of nasty emails and social media posts directed at me. They’re mostly demanding the technology be banned, claiming it’s dangerous and that we don’t know what we are doing. Worse are the suggestions that we are part of a government conspiracy which can only be fixed by violent revolutionary means. Several of my colleagues left recently, spooked supposedly by the more unpleasant attacks. I heard one or two were offered considerable sums to work for dream recording outfits starting up in countries with less stringent regulatory controls. So be it. I have no right to judge them. Others can. The time of my own reckoning is now close. Yesterday I dreamt I was standing in the vast processing vault beneath our lab that houses the row after row of computer servers. In the dream I walked over to a terminal, logged in, then hesitated as I looked around at the quietly humming machines that store a million dreams and more. I knew what I had to do, but what person wouldn’t pause at the thought of destroying their own creation? Then cold certainty took over and I entered the command, ignored the alert that came up, and re-entered it. A moment passed, and then it was done. The servers powered down and left me sitting in an eerily silent space. I felt a pang of sadness, followed by a growing sense of dread, then the dream ended. That was yesterday morning. Today I sit in my apartment under house arrest, awaiting the arrival of the authorities. No reason was given in the notification, but I know my dream must have been the cause. I should have known my dreams would be monitored when I FEBRUARY 2021

- 29 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

PETER BEAUMONT

recorded them. I had found watching them a strangely cathartic experience after focusing intently on those of others. Naively, I overlooked the prospect of the company and the government being interested in them as well. Now I wait to be judged by some government inquisitor, and, I suppose, by you in time. I wonder what advice Oppenheimer would have for me if he were here today. In moments of despondent clarity I have wondered if we were meant to fully know our dreams; whether we opened a door to the unconscious world that was never meant to be opened. Perhaps we should just accept the notion that dreams serve a useful purpose and leave it at that. To accept that there are some things that will and should remain unknowable. After all, do we really want to confront the proposition that part of our brain is working autonomously, almost like a separate mind of its own? Based on some of my own dreams it seems my unconscious mind is more than ready to cast harsh judgment on me for my role in this. Enough for now. There’s little hope for me, but perhaps it’s not too late for someone else to act. For someone to not just protest against the sinister future we are hurtling towards, but to lead a movement to prevent it. For someone brave enough to try to do what Pandora could not; to put the evils of the world back inside the box. ***

FEBRUARY 2021

- 30 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

PETER BEAUMONT

Discussion Questions 1. If you could buy, and watch, the dreams of others, would you do it? Why or why not? 2. Would you allow your own dreams to be recorded? Would you allow them to be sold, or watched by others? What do you think our dreams reveal? 3. If you could buy and watch (or have) a particular dream, what topics or stories would you want to try out? 4. Do you think people who have (or want to buy) violent or deviant dreams are (or will become) violent or deviant people? Do you think dreams should be used to provide cause for believing a future crime will take place? 5. Do you think there are areas of scientific research, like atomic bombs, viruses, human cloning, or dream recording, that should be banned from ever being researched? ***

FEBRUARY 2021

- 31 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

The Library Of Gromma Zeph Auerbach *** Zac was sweating and panting as he reached the top of the hill. The crooked beams of the library loomed over him. He dropped the buckets of water, swore at the few drops that spilt, and escaped the piercing morning sun in the shade of the library. He walked through that vast, tall chamber. He pictured himself and Bernard, when they’d been small, ducking and diving and climbing through the web of containers, pulleys, cogs and gears. Bernard confidently shunting wooden switches and cranking metal levers, swinging from the iron scaffold to reach the highest contraptions in the up, up, up. Zac himself clambering after his older brother, pretending to do the things his brother could. He looked at the guts of a broken contraption strewn across the floor. Hours and hours he’d spent, and he still had no idea how to put the pieces back together. No idea how to get the memories back. Mr. Adamson with the bushy beard could fix it. Perhaps he was the only one left who could. Had he really returned, like the villagers had said? FEBRUARY 2021

- 32 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

As usual, Zac had been up early to collect water from the meager stream in the valley. He took it into the shed where he and Gromma slept. She was already sitting there on the side of the bed, her hair all up on one side, a deep frown across her wrinkled brow. “Robert?” she greeted him, squinting. Robert had been Zac’s dad. “It’s Zac, Gromma,” he said, smiling and patting her hair down. “Zac, that’s right. And will Rebecca be along soon?” Rebecca had been Zac’s mum. Zac knew Gromma didn’t really think she’d be along soon; it was just that Gromma got cloudy outside of the library. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, she will be here any minute.” Gromma smiled and her thoughts soon drifted onto something else. “Don’t forget, Robert,” she said authoritatively, wagging a finger in the air, “I met Rebecca’s father – Joseph Bauman – in a library. He would be proud of what we’ve achieved here. He was… now what was he doing? Tell me, what were we talking about just then?” She rubbed her frail fingertips together anxiously. “Groppa – Joseph Bauman,” Zac said, which encouraged her to smile and keep talking. Soon she was hopping and skipping onto other topics, and she was never going to stop, so Zac stood her up and helped her wash. Her skin felt like cold wet cloth draped loose across her bones. Lifting her up was one of the few things that got easier day by day, since she grew smaller while he grew bigger. He was now 11 (and threequarters). Helping her wash and sorting out her toilet troubles was not nice work, but who else was going to do it? Mum had shown him and Bernard how to do it all, only last summer, when she’d been growing weaker. He’d had to do it for her too. He could still hear mum’s voice, telling him not to be scared. He wanted mum to be proud of him. Was asking Mr. Adamson to help with the library the right way to do that? FEBRUARY 2021

- 33 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

She used to tell him she was proud of him all the time. Bernard will be the head engineer and you’ll be the head librarian, he heard her saying in her voice that’d gotten all wheezy. I’ll be the only librarian! he remembered replying, half with humor and half with fear. Her laugh. Zac lifted Gromma to her rusty zimmer. She tilted her head at it quizzically. “Are you sure I need this thing? If you say so, dear.” They shuffled to the library. Everyone in the family had always called it a library, but Zac had seen pictures of an olden library and it didn’t look like that at all. There were no books you could hold, for a start. He had always seen it more as a tree – a huge, ancient tree. A broad canopy of green tarpaulin was supported by trunks of iron and timber scaffolding. There were all kinds of ropes and cables running through pulleys and wrapped around the trunks, like vines growing and criss-crossing to reach the sun. The trunks branched out over cogs and axles, budding off into all manner of strange and complicated contraptions: Boxes within boxes, gadgets and gizmos, magic and mystery. All he knew was that without all this, Gromma had no memories to share. He set Gromma down in her chair in the heart of the library. She almost purred with contentment as she snuggled in and adjusted her giant magnifying glass. She snatched instinctively at a wooden keyboard, swinging it towards her and tenderly stroking the hand-carved keys. “Joseph Bauman,” she said, savoring the words. She typed something and yanked on a grubby lever. The library whirred into action. Click, thump, whoosh, zrrrr, bmmbmmbmm, clack-clack. A tightly bound scroll, suspended from a pulley and a cable in a high-up nest of the library, whizzed and whooshed all the way down, ending up smack bang in front of her magnifying glass. As Gromma pumped away at a pedal a spool started spinning, and under her magnifying glass a short stretch of scroll was drawn out. She read the words into an olden copper megaphone and her voice FEBRUARY 2021

- 34 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

– clear, confident and strong – came booming out. “It was the spring of 1986. Spring reading week at Nottingham University. The Hallward Library. It must’ve been my third year of Architecture and it seemed like it was never going to end. I just wanted to build. This handsome chap walked in, looking completely lost, saying he was searching for a book of love poetry. I told him I knew where to look. This was a lie; I just wanted more time in his company. And that was that. We used to say he went in looking for love and he came out with me.” Gromma laughed and nestled deeper into her chair. “Came out with me!” she repeated, adding off-scroll, “Our little fairy tale.” She closed her eyes. “Joseph Bauman,” she said, deep in reverie. She

pressed

some

keys.

Click,

thump,

whoosh,

zrrrr,

bmmbmmbmm, clack-clack. Another scroll came before her eyes. “So there was this time with Joseph,” she started. But Zac didn’t listen because he had heard these stories so many times. Besides, he hadn’t even met Groppa. A knock on the door. Gromma didn’t notice. As Zac walked over to the door, he found himself desperately hoping there would be loads of visitors there, like the old days, bringing tasty food donations. At the moment it was looking like a can of chickpeas for supper again. Drink the goo, it’s good for you. He remembered how the villagers and outsiders alike would come in big groups. His whole family would be ready for them. Mum and dad at the door to welcome them in. He and Bernard perching up by the contraptions. Gromma in her chair. The buzzing crowd would push in, then they’d gaze up in wonder and gasp at the machinery. They’d gather around Gromma in hushed reverence, eagerly awaiting the answers and the memories to come. Zac opened the door now. It was just four people: Old Hattie, as always, Gerald the One-Armed Pig Farmer, and two outsiders. For the sake of the outsiders – a skinny, shawled lady and a little girl – Zac began mum’s FEBRUARY 2021

- 35 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

spiel. As he spoke, Gromma repeated the odd word, sometimes hitting the timing just right to create a sort of harmony. “The Library of Gromma Atop the Hill offers you boundless knowledge of the world we know and the world that was. Ask Gromma questions of history, technology, philosophy, and every other -ology and -osophy. Hear memories of the fallen. Listen to the past and speak to the future.” You don’t need to tell them that about half of the library is just Gromma’s personal memories. “Is it true?” the shawled lady asked the villagers, gazing up at the library with that wonder that still made Zac feel proud. “Will she know?” Old Hattie and Gerald nodded. “We have travelled so far,” the lady said, exhausted. She was clutching to her side her young daughter, who clearly wanted to run off to play with the levers and buttons and dials on display. Just outside the door, Zac caught a glimpse of someone else, and at first Zac didn’t recognize him because it’d been so long and his beard had grown even more, but it was Mr. Adamson with the bushy beard. So it was true! Zac had thought he might never see him again. Zac’s thoughts raced through repairs that needed doing. “Mr. Adamson!” Zac called out. “Hello again, little Zac,” he said in a gravelly voice. “I’ll be back later. I’ll just have some time with my thoughts.” Zac suspected why. It was seeing the young daughter; she must’ve reminded him of his own. The shawled lady stepped forwards. “O wise Gromma, it is a fine honor to meet you. We have been traveling from the West for eight long days.” Her daughter tugged at her trousers. “You said the old woman knows lots of fairy tales?” “Quiet now, Lily,” her mother snapped. “Oh yes, lots of fairy tales,” Gromma said, giving Lily a cheeky wink. “Yes, but we have come to hear about m’ ma.” She looked sternly at Lily. “Your nanna, like I told you. That first, so. Wouldn’t you like to hear FEBRUARY 2021

- 36 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

what she was like?” Lily nodded because that was what was expected of her. Zac never understood why adults couldn’t see that children wanted new things, not words about old, dead people. But that was what the library had become famous for. “Here,” Zac said, retrieving from a cabinet a large bundle of well-thumbed sheets of paper. The outsider leafed through the long list of names, photos and faces. “So many,” she whispered. Then all of a sudden she called out, “There! And I don’t believe it. The handwriting! It’s Connor’s!” She looked around her, but nobody knew what to say. Zac noticed a tear on her bony cheek. “It’s only m’ brother’s handwriting! He must’ve come here before he...” She looked to Gromma. “Did you meet my Connor?” Gromma simply grasped the lady’s trembling hand and stroked it, as if that was enough. “What’s that you say, dear?” she asked, turning to Zac for help. “You pick the name,” Zac told the lady. “Gromma remembers.” “Keela McNamara,” she read out. Zac prompted her to show the sheet to Gromma, who read the code next to the name. It’d been better – quicker, smoother – when Gromma hadn’t needed the codes. “Ah, Keela McNamara,” Gromma said warmly. Click, thump, whoosh, zrrrr, bmmbmmbmm, clack-clack. “I remember a broad-chested Irish man called Connor telling me about his mother, Keela. His fondest memory of his mother was from way before this awful business.” This was how Gromma usually referred to The End. “There was a tradition for Easter Sunday. Keela would pretend to be a chicken. No costume, just a very severe chicken expression, her gently fluttering elbows, and this loud clucking that would come in fits as she pretended to rather painfully lay the chocolate eggs.” The lady had one hand to her mouth, the other hand squeezing Lily closer to her, tears now tumbling down her face. “After the laying, Keela, her husband Eamon, and the children: Connor, Beth, and Rhiannon –” FEBRUARY 2021

- 37 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

“That’s me! I’m Rhiannon!” the lady cried. “Rhiannon,” Gromma said, off-scroll. “Such a beautiful name.” She continued, “They would all go out to the garden for the great Easter egg hunt. Strict age order. Now, what would you like to hear about next, dear?” Zac knew Gromma had a list of prompts in front of her. “Can I look around?” Lily asked impatiently. “I can look after her,” Zac offered instantly. He had no interest in hearing about yet more dead strangers. People could come to Gromma to learn about anything in the whole wide world, but it was always this useless stuff about times and people that weren’t ever coming back. What was a chocolate egg, anyway? “But what about nanna?” She never knew her nanna, Zac wanted to say. “Well don’t go far,” Rhiannon gave in. “Come on,” Zac said, “I’ll show you the view from the up, up, up.” They climbed the first floor of scaffolding. “It’s the most humongous machine I’ve ever seen,” Lily said. “Mum said it used to be as small as only that,” Zac said, sketching out a tiny room with his fingers. “It was just to help Gromma with her memory. She was scared of forgetting. It was only later when she realized she could remember things for others too.” He helped her up another floor. Lily’s hand reached out slowly to touch one of the contraptions, but Zac nudged her. “Oy! You might break it.” He looked down gravely at the parts of the contraption he’d been trying and failing to fix. The climb reminded Zac of when Bernard used to take him up here. He remembered how scary the rattling of the chains and the grinding of the gears had been. “If you hold on like this, it’s safe,” he showed Lily. They heard and saw the click, thump, whoosh, zrrrr, bmmbmmbmm, clack-clack of library FEBRUARY 2021

- 38 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

parts moving all around them, as Gromma remembered. “Why haven’t people burned this place down?” Lily asked plainly. “Because it’s sacred,” Zac said. “And because there’s no ‘lectronics. It’s the ‘lectronics they don’t trust.” Not everyone has forgiven scientific progress yet, mum used to say. “Where I come from, they would’ve burnt this place down,” Lily said. “Whatever it is, it’s too clever.” “They’d never try to burn this down,” Zac lied. He held onto a railing and closed his eyes. He saw the flames and the smoke again. He heard the wailing of Mr. Adamson as he did all he could to save Bernard. He saw Bernard’s face: greasy, speckled with soot, his eyes closed. Book burners? Looters? They’d never found out who started that fire. Sometimes when Zac closed his eyes he saw that fire that had gotten his brother in the autumn, but distorted and amplified into something even more horrific. It was a powerful and terrifying vision that sometimes came to him in his sleep, sometimes in the day just when he didn’t want it, like now. Fierce flames against the black of night. The whole library ablaze. Thick plumes of billowing smoke stretching far across the horizon. Gromma watching from afar, alone and on her knees. Zac was nowhere in his vision: absent and powerless. Free. Had The End looked something like that? Like that, but far, far worse? Was that what had gotten Groppa, along with almost everyone else from the old, old, old? Zac slipped and yelped, teetering on a ledge, but Lily caught his hand. He shook his head. Silly thoughts. “I was fine,” he lied again. “Let’s go a little more up.” They passed through an extension which he remembered his mum and Bernard building together, then he showed her where to duck through a gap in the tarpaulin. “Wow!” Lily said as she broke out into the light. Zac loved this view. FEBRUARY 2021

- 39 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

He used to sit out here on the roof with Bernard for the sunset, mum shouting at them to get down. You could hear the wind. You could almost imagine the library wasn’t there at all. “There!” Lily shouted. “You see the ruins of the church over there? We came along the river just behind that.” Zac looked wistfully over. “And let me work out where we’re going next,” she said, biting her thumb. Zac and Bernard had dreamed up so many plans about where they were going to go, once they were grown up. Zac looked down the hill to the village. They used to race up that hill. Zac had been getting faster and faster and he was going to beat Bernard one day. No, you’ll never. He was about to ask Lily about all the places they had been to, but suddenly he heard that piercing scream of metal against metal that he hated. He could faintly hear a clack-clack-clack-clack-clack… Oh no, not again. “We better get down,” he said. So they drew away from the light and the wind, back into the dingy library. He could make out Gromma down there, lost for words and looking confused. “It’s because of all the broken parts,” Zac explained, embarrassed. It was happening more and more. Zac remembered the time, not so long ago, when Gromma with her library at her fingertips must’ve been the smartest, wisest, most genius person left in the world. The villagers used to ask Gromma all sorts of fascinating questions, not just about the past, but about how to make watermills, what seeds to sow, how to read the stars, how to do the biggest sums. And the more she gave them, the more they gave her. The library grew and grew. “There’s someone coming to help later, who will get the library working smooth again,” he told Lily on their descent. But it wasn’t just that, was it? Gromma was finding it harder just FEBRUARY 2021

- 40 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

to know where to start. She was getting more confused. That was why the villagers mainly stuck now to hearing about simple old memories. That was why this had become a place of death. Next month there’d be the big Day of Remembering. The villagers would all come and hear about The End. They’d weep and sing the same songs about the old, old, old. Gromma at the centre. They need something permanent, mum used to say. But could Gromma cope with it now? Mum used to say she would sit in the chair herself one day. She’d take over from Gromma as the memory of the village. Zac knew she would’ve become even more genius than Gromma. But she’d suffered the sickness that Gromma had been able to describe in such detail, but which nobody had been able to cure. One day the library will be yours, she’d told them. But the fire had gotten Bernard. Mr. Adamson had left. So was that what Zac had to do to make her proud? Was now the time, now that Mr. Adamson was back to help? Did he have to sit in that chair – Gromma’s chair, which fitted only Gromma and smelt of only Gromma? And all those memories of all those people… No, the library just needed fixing. Gromma just needed help. They jumped down. A scroll on a bright red spool hung in front of Gromma. “Jam in cylinder 43,” she read out. “First check teeth at node B7.” Red with embarrassment and ignoring everyone else, Zac climbed up and crawled through the inner workings of the first floor of the library. They called it playing the photocopier game. He used to like it, when mum and Bernard were here to repair parts that had broken. It wasn’t fun anymore. He couldn’t fix it. In the end he took the scroll which had memories of Rhiannon and Lily’s family and guiltily handed it to them. “Won’t she miss it?” Lily asked. “No,” he said. The villagers offered to help, but they couldn’t help, so they left. FEBRUARY 2021

- 41 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

Eventually Zac managed to reset the library. Rhiannon donated some more memories for Gromma, which Zac helped set down onto a new scroll, like mum used to. They didn’t donate any food. Drink the goo, it’s good for you. As Lily and Rhiannon left, Zac felt himself longing to go with them. He looked outside for Mr. Adamson but he wasn’t there. Zac knew there were more useful jobs to be done, but he would allow himself a minute. He sat next to Gromma and took the family photo album from under her chair. The keys to Gromma’s treasure chests. He flicked to one of her favorite pages and tapped at one of the fading photos. “Rebecca,” Gromma whispered, stroking the image of mum. She looked up at him. “Tell me, Rebecca who?” “Rebecca, your daughter.” “Oh that Rebecca! That’s right.” She looked searchingly at Zac, a little troubled, rubbing her fingertips together. Then she saw the code written above the photo and she carefully keyed this in. Click, thump, whoosh, zrrrr, bmmbmmbmm, clack-clack. The scroll changed. “Of course, Rebecca is a fine electrical engineer in a world that no longer needs electrical engineers, indeed has turned its back on electricity and engineers. Understandable. But she remains a fine engineer. Yesterday we went on our first what-could-be-called holiday since that awful business.” “I was only a tiny baby Zac then,” Zac whispered to himself as he recognized this old one. “Rebecca cobbled together an ingenious chariot of sorts and we went to the beach.” Then Gromma’s eyes sparkled as she added off-scroll, “The beach, well I never,” before continuing, “So it was the whole gang: me, Rebecca, Joseph – I mean Robert – who took the shotgun, because we still had shells for it then, and little Bernard and –” “- tiny baby Zac,” Zac chimed in with her. This was a story he FEBRUARY 2021

- 42 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

remembered only from the outside-in: from sitting here, hearing her telling it just like this, so many times. “And we got to the beach and I had such fond memories of donkey rides from when I was a child. So we bullied Robert into getting down on all fours,” she said, remembering and adding right in this moment, “Yes, baying like a donkey! Ha!” And oh, how Zac loved these, her moments of bright shining light. “And Zac was too small but Bernard turned out to be too big because when he went for a donkey ride on Robert, Robert’s back gave, and – would you believe it? – Robert had to come back in my chariot which Rebecca had made, with me on his lap!” She smacked her lips, adding, “On his lap, dear! Well I never.” “More mum,” he whispered. “Rebecca.” “Ah yes, Rebecca,” Gromma said, hitting keys. Click, thump, whoosh, zrrrr, bmmbmmbmm, clack-clack. “Let me tell you about Rebecca on the beach. She used to love the beach, of course. For her to see it so empty, so desolate… and she was with tiny Zac and… well I remember her telling Zac about all the beaches that she’d seen. The long warm beach lapping her heels in Ko Tao, the phosphorescent plankton in the freezing black waters off Vancouver Island…” Zac couldn’t remember ever seeing a beach. But he remembered his mum telling him about the sand, the donkeys, the big pirate swings. He dreamed of one day crossing the sea and exploring what remained. “The journey home,” Zac requested. This was one of his favorites. Click, thump, whoosh, zrrrr, bmmbmmbmm, clack-clack-clack-clack-clackclack-clack… Zac heard that piercing scream of metal against metal. Not again. He tried to follow her instructions. The photocopier game. He reached the broken part and nudged some wooden teeth back in place. The library started to whirr back into action. Phew, he thought, elated and proud of himself. But then with a crunch a tooth splintered and snapped FEBRUARY 2021

- 43 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

off. He was crestfallen. He just wasn’t good at fixing. That was his brother’s stuff. Mum had started to teach him too. She thought she’d have more time. He made his way despondently back to Gromma and told her the code, which he knew off by heart, so they could try again. Click, thump, whoosh, zrrrr, bmmbmmbmm, clack-clack. “Now, let me tell you about Rebecca on the beach…” Gromma began again. Click, thump, whoosh, zrrrr, bmmbmmbmm, clack-clackclack-clack-clack-clack… Gromma had nothing to read and nothing to remember. Lost, Zac thought. One of our favorites. Eventually something came to Gromma. “Beautiful,” she said, her eyes closed. “She was beautiful on the beach.” Zac squeezed her hand. “And did you know I went back on his lap! On his lap, dear. Well I never. She is so very clever, isn’t she Robert?” Gromma said. She pointed all around her. “She must’ve made all of this.” “No, you made most of this, Gromma.” “Ah! I see, yes. I do remember that one. Now you mention it.” “Teach me how to make the contraptions,” he said boldly (hopelessly). “And teach me how to fix them.” “Ah, the contraptions,” she said, Click, thump, whoosh, zrrrr, bmmbmmbmm, clack-clack. She dredged up an old one. “I’ve just finished the first contraption. It’s quaint. I just put my legs up, press a button, and my memories come flying down to me. I wonder how many more gadgets and gizmos I have in me. In the daytime I’ll continue to help out however I can with the building work in the village. In the night I’ll tinker. Rebecca and her Robert – they humor me, an old eccentric. Besides, what could they say to me? They saw what happened to my mum’s memory. It’ll keep me out of trouble, in my twilight years, in this twilight world. I know I won’t get far. It’s only a matter of days before something comes crumbling down FEBRUARY 2021

- 44 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

– whether from without or within.” It wasn’t of much practical use to Zac. Zac was lunging for the photo album again when he heard the door creaking. “H-h-h-hello?” came hesitantly from the doorway. Zac took a deep breath and walked to greet Mr. Adamson with the bushy beard. He was a wiry man with a glum face, all parts of it drooping downwards. His clothes were all tattered. It has taken its toll, mum used to say. It was what had happened to his wife and daughters. This was why Mr. Adamson used to come so often: to listen and talk about them, before The End. He used to even work on the library so that he could stay closer to them for longer. Zac was excited to see that he wore his old tool belt. “Hello there, little Zac.” “Welcome back, Mr. Adamson.” “Caroline,” he said, nodding respectfully to Gromma. “You’re going to tell me I know you, aren’t you?” Gromma asked, as if recognition was on the tip of her tongue. “It’s only me, Theo,” he replied. He smiled as much as he could and she smiled a little with him. Mr. Adamson was still catching his breath from climbing the hill. He angled his head back and squinted up to inspect the place. “Holy moly,” he whispered to himself. “I forgot how huge this is. What a thing. So many memories.” It must be over half a year since he left, Zac thought. It was the fire – the fire that got Bernard – that had taken yet another toll on Mr. Adamson. Carrying Bernard’s limp, soot-speckled body out of the library and not being able to bring him back: that must’ve reminded him of his daughters, and how he hadn’t been able to save them either. Zac could still hear his childlike wailing. But had he needed to run away? And leave Zac all alone, with FEBRUARY 2021

- 45 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

Gromma? Zac thought he must’ve been here to make up for it. Well, there was so much work to do. “Before you listen to any memories,” Zac started, apprehensive because he needed this so much, “It’s just, I wanted to talk about the library. You know how you used to help us all out-” “You know it’s almost the anniversary of their...” Mr. Adamson trailed off. “So many years now,” he mumbled gloomily. “Time to move on. We need to move on. Maybe just one last listen.” He read out a code; he knew them all by heart. Click, thump, whoosh, zrrrr, bmmbmmbmm, clack-clack. “There’s a man in the village here called Theodore Adamson,” Gromma started. “It was just awful. That first wave. His wife and daughters. Let me tell you first how the two of them met. It is a wonderful story in itself…” And within seconds Mr. Adamson was weeping, making all sorts of strange loud noises, like he used to, and Zac didn’t know where to look or what to do. He did a little mathematics to keep himself distracted. 25 years, was it? How many days was 25 years? “Time to move on,” Mr. Adamson said again, wiping his eyes. “Time to forget.” Then the strangest thing happened. Mr. Adamson put a finger to the lips of Gromma like Shhh, and then started using his tools to dismantle the contraptions in front of her. “What? Umm…” Zac said, startled. “Is it broken?” “No. It’s finally time to move on.” “But…” The hairs on Zac’s neck stood up. Mr. Adamson took detached fragments of the contraption to the centre of the library and started a pile. Zac watched in disbelief as Mr. Adamson let scrolls of Gromma’s memories simply tumble to the dirty FEBRUARY 2021

- 46 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

ground. “Why would you do that?” “I must,” Mr. Adamson said. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Zac whispered a code to Gromma. Maybe if Mr. Adamson heard the right story about his wife and daughters, perhaps he’d stop. Click, thump, whoosh, zrrrr, bmmbmmbmm, clack-clack-clackclack-clack… Gromma sat there silent. “You can’t take that from her!” Zac tried to shout, feeling his face turning red. “She will be fine,” Mr. Adamson said, detached and unemotional now, not pausing from dismantling another contraption. This must’ve been why he had brought those tools. “For too long we have been sick with remembering. As long as this place stands, people will remain haunted by them. I got miles and miles away, but I knew they were still here. We need to be set free.” Mr. Adamson smiled thinly and Gromma smiled thinly too. “I’m sorry for her,” he said, “Though I believe she will not know what she will miss. She’s been too far gone for some time.” “Stop it!” Zac screamed, as Mr. Adamson ripped out cylinders and cut through ropes, tearing scrolls of Gromma’s memories in the process. He piled the broken pieces in the center. “It’s natural to forget,” he said placidly. “Let her forget.” “No!” Zac ran to him and tugged at his shirt, pleading, “They’re her memories! They’re her stories!” Mr. Adamson whipped around, his face contorted in anguish, a brutal-looking hammer raised in the air, and thundered at Zac, “You were not there! You didn’t see them.” Zac ran to Gromma’s side. She was confused and agitated at the shouting. He held her hand. FEBRUARY 2021

- 47 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

“But you know this is how we feed ourselves,” Zac said, sniffling, his nose snotty with tears. “The other villagers who come – they won’t let you do this. They see her as the village elder.” “They see her as someone who can bring loved ones back, just for a moment, and they can’t pull themselves away. But the dead torment them; the grief consumes them.” Mr. Adamson carved out another contraption. He dumped the scrolls in the pile. Zac thought of all the hours, over so many years, it had taken for Gromma and mum to set her memories down on those scrolls. Huge chunks of her lost. Zac whispered a few codes to her. Some of her favorites. Clackclack-clack-clack-clack-clack… Nothing there. Mr. Adamson took a bottle of something from his belt and started to pour it over the pile. Zac knew the smell instantly: it starts fires. He had that terrifying vision again: the whole library ablaze, Gromma watching from afar, alone and on her knees. Thick plumes of billowing smoke stretching far across the horizon. They’d never found the person who’d tried to burn the library down last autumn. “Bernard,” Zac said faintly. Then he called out in a strangled voice, “You tried this before, didn’t you?” At first there was no response. Then it came, without emotion. “I never meant to hurt him. I want you to understand that, Zac. I did it when you were all asleep. I thought it would set us all free.” Mr. Adamson turned his back. He brought from his pocket a box of matches. Gromma whispered something: “9-9-9. We need to protect.” Why hadn’t Zac thought of it sooner? Click, thump, whoosh, zrrrr, bmmbmmbmm, clack-clack. A small red box whizzed down from the upper branches and landed by Gromma’s feet. Zac pulled the wooden bolt on the FEBRUARY 2021

- 48 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

front and retrieved from inside a long, rusted, serrated blade. When Mr. Adamson turned around, Zac was there, standing as tall as he could, but trembling. “Put it back,” Zac ordered. “Exactly as it was.” Mr. Adamson grimaced and held his hands up with a “Holy moly.” But Zac could see he was still holding onto things: in one hand the brutallooking hammer and in the other the box of matches. “I don’t want to hurt you, little Zac,” he said, sounding more like himself. “Look at your grandma.” Zac did; he saw how distressed she looked. “You know that she needs help. She doesn’t need all of this,” he said, waving at the chaotic jumble of the library. “I can help you free her from this thing.” Then he added something that crushed Zac. “That’s what you really want, isn’t it?” Perhaps he’s right, Zac thought with sorrow, momentarily letting his guard down. Seizing the opportunity, Mr. Adamson darted forward to disarm Zac. But Zac reacted fast, bringing the knife up and slashing at his arm, cutting deep into his flesh and spilling blood. Mr. Adamson recoiled, crying out in pain, and dashed for the exit. Zac stamped out a fallen match as he heard Mr. Adamson sprint madly down the hill. Zac knew in that instant that Mr. Adamson could never truly destroy what he wanted to destroy, and no running would allow him to escape it. Zac looked around. Some of the contraptions had been broken, yet most of the library had been saved. He could try really, really hard to fix it. He felt so proud. He wished he could tell mum. He gave Gromma a gigantic hug and kissed her on her forehead. She always smelt exactly the same, and now it calmed him. Zac got the photo album and showed it to her. “Bernard,” he said, pointing at the hand-drawn picture of his smiling brother. “Bernard? I’m not sure who you mean,” Gromma said. FEBRUARY 2021

- 49 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

Zac prodded at the code. “Just type it, Gromma,” he said. “Type it like normal.” “You say Gromma. Why is that?” “That’s what we’ve always called you,” Zac said with a reassuring smile. “I suppose that’s right.” Zac kept prodding at the picture but she didn’t have the faintest idea what he meant by it. She looked down at the keyboard, which she had carved with her own hands, and she pushed it away like it was something that someone had put there by mistake. Gromma looked all around herself at the library. Boxes within boxes, gadgets and gizmos, magic and mystery. “Now tell me,” she asked in wonder, “What is this place?” She asked the question as if it were the first time she’d set eyes on any of it. It all just hung there: silent, still, and strange. “It’s your library, Gromma,” Zac said. A tear formed in his eye. He held her tight. “My library?” Gromma almost spat out in disbelief. “No Robert, not my library,” she said assuredly, chuckling a little at that curious notion of his. “I think it must be yours.” Then her whole face lit up with her beautiful smile. “My library was where I met Joseph Bauman all those years ago. Let me tell you how that went.” And, despite it all, how Zac loved this, this moment of bright shining light. ***

FEBRUARY 2021

- 50 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

ZEPH AUERBACH

Discussion Questions 1. If you had the ability to go to Gromma and get an exact memory of a day in your life decades earlier, would you do it? 2. If it were up to you, would you dismantle the machine attached to Gromma and cause the memories to fade away? 3. We study and learn from the past, yet the story is about allowing ourselves to forget the past over time. How do you reconcile the human need to both learn from and forget the past? 4. What will happen to Gromma if the machine is taken apart? Is that result cruel or kind? 5. Is social media similar to the contraption created in the story? Is social media nothing more than a way for our history to forever be accessible? Is this a good or bad thing? What changes would make it better, or worse? ***

FEBRUARY 2021

- 51 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

JARED CAPPEL

The Human Experience Jared Cappel *** Always make them wait. Couples love to talk, young ones especially. We’re not allowed to record them but there are no laws on amplifying. Our waiting area is designed to project their voices, magnifying their speech and feeding it directly into my earpiece. It’s important to get a good look at them too. The wife, Morgan, is clearly on edge. She walks around the room, studying every fold in the wall, like a dog sniffing around the perimeter of her yard. Her husband, Thad, sinks into a chair, a pile of pamphlets in his hands. He flips through them, rolling his eyes, tossing them aside. One final pamphlet catches his eye – a list of packages with a detailed breakdown. This wasn’t on the website. Morgan seems nervous; Thad, angry. This is important to know. Morgan controls their general discourse, but Thad likely has the final say. His tone is rather gruff, insisting. When he speaks, his wife listens. When she speaks, which is often, he barely acknowledges her, refusing to lift his eyes from the pamphlets. I make them wait another ten minutes before letting them into my FEBRUARY 2021

- 52 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

JARED CAPPEL

office. I’ve gathered all the intel I’m likely to obtain, but the longer they wait, the more the power shifts into my hand. A simple tactic, and a rather understated one at that, but it’s effective. We have the data to prove it. The couple is much friendlier with me than they were to each other. They shake my hand, accept some coffee, settle into the chairs across the desk from mine. Morgan begins rambling off all the information she’s learned on our process. Some of the statements are posed as questions but really she’s just trying to impress how much she knows. It’s clear she’s read a lot into this. I rate her understanding of our procedures in the upper range. Thad is still focused on the pamphlet in his hand. The details in the pamphlet are a bit different than on the website. This is intentional, though there’s no way for him to know that. He becomes rather specific and accusatory with his questions. His voice remains gruff; his words, deservedly paranoid. His understanding of our procedures isn’t quite to the level of his wife’s, but his distrusting nature is rather astute. I smile, to let them know their concerns are heard, and I pull a form from the second drawer of my desk. “Before we get into all that, have you decided which package you are thinking of purchasing?” “The gold,” Morgan says, “though we’d consider the platinum if you can talk us into it.” “Honey, we discussed this.” Thad hands me a stack of papers. “We qualified for a loan for the gold package. We really can’t afford anything higher.” I give the documents a perfunctory glance and begin to fill out some information on my form. “This all appears in order. We do have other financing options available for the platinum package, but we’ll get to that in good time.” Morgan leans forward in her chair, lowers her voice to a whisper. “Is it really true that the platinum package is the highest?” FEBRUARY 2021

- 53 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

JARED CAPPEL

“Yes. It’s been written into law.” “Well yeah, we know that, but surely royalty and such aren’t locked into such restrictions like us plebeians.” “I can assure you they are.” “I don’t believe it.” Thad nudges his wife and signals for her to be quiet. “She’s just an employee dear. If there’s anything shady going on, she wouldn’t know the half of it.” He smiles at me. “No offense, of course.” There’s nothing he can say that would really offend me, but his assumption at my naïveté certainly works in my favor. Any issues he raises can be deflected to the company. “None taken,” I say, “but I am quite confident no one can go above platinum. The entire process is codified, made public and reviewed for irregularities.” “We’ve read the website,” Morgan says, then stops herself. “Sorry, you must take me for quite the shrew.” “It’s okay. All hopeful parents just want what’s best.” “Or second best in our case,” Thad says with a smile, but his wife isn’t laughing. He continues. “Please tell us more about the gold package.” “The gold package entitles you to 150 additional attribute points, which you can give to your unborn child across any or all of the eight domains – physical health, mental health, attractiveness, intelligence, likability, athleticism, confidence, and our newest attribute luck.” “Luck?” “Yes, if you place your points on luck, the attributes will be spread at random across the domains.” Morgan laughs. “Can you imagine that honey? Leaving all this to chance...like barbarians!” Thad doesn’t quite catch his wife’s comment, his attention lost deep in the folds of the pamphlet with the divergent information. “It says here with the gold package we start with 50 points in each of the FEBRUARY 2021

- 54 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

JARED CAPPEL

domains?” “Not quite,” I explain. “You get 50 points for both physical and mental health, meaning your child will be born with average genetic makeup in these domains. In the other domains, your child starts out at 25, meaning they’re at the 25th percentile.” “So below average.” “Yes, in a sense, but you have 150 other points to play with. If you want to do things conservatively, you could spread the points evenly across the six lower domains, and your child’s genes will be perfectly average.” “Average?” Thad asks. “This is an awfully expensive way to end up with an average child, don’t you think? Seems like mother nature could do that herself.” “But can she guarantee it?” Thad slinks back into his chair and stuffs the pamphlet into the breast pocket of his jacket. “Or you can place the points on the attributes that are most important to you,” I say. “What attributes do most parents go for?” Morgan asks. “For many years, physical health was our top seller, but it’s since been passed by mental health. Many parents realize there’s not much to life without happiness.” “So our child can be happy as long as it’s ugly and dimwitted?” I summon a line from my script. “I really think you’re underscoring just how many points you have to play with. Why don’t you use the attribute bars on the monitors to see how much freedom you really have?” I swivel two monitors in front of the hopeful young parents to be. They each take their own approach to building the perfect child. Thad focuses on intelligence, athleticism and health, jacking up the points in these attributes at the expense of the others. Morgan is more conservative with her choices, trying to make sure her prospective child doesn’t lag in FEBRUARY 2021

- 55 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

JARED CAPPEL

any one area. Morgan scowls at our husband. “So you want a child with no confidence?” “It’ll be confident because of how damn capable it is.” “Uh huh, all people with a 28 likability score are brimming with confidence. People love to be loathed.” “Well at least the child I created can use its intelligence to excel. What is your average Jane going to accomplish in life? You need talents to get ahead. You can’t get anywhere sludging through the middle.” “My child will be healthy, intelligent and reasonably capable. What more can we ask for?” “Greatness!” The couple is getting a bit agitated, and I use this to my advantage. “Greatness comes at a price, I’m afraid. If the limited number of points doesn’t suffice, you can always consider an upgrade to our platinum package.” Thad’s voice comes back gruff. “We already told you, it’s out of our price range.” “Yes, I understand. However, you can take out a loan in your unborn child’s name to pay for the upgrade.” “You want us to indebt our unborn child?” “Forget unborn, the poor child has yet to be conceived!” “Don’t think of it as a loan,” I say, another line from my script. “Think of it as an opportunity. With the advantages this will give the child in life, the loan should be easily paid in full by age 30 and once paid off the child will maintain all of the increased attributes.” “Should be?” “Yes, there’s still the randomness of the human experience, you understand. We only provide a genetic guarantee, but how those genes are expressed must be left to mother nature, as per international law. Not to FEBRUARY 2021

- 56 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

JARED CAPPEL

worry though, good genes invariably lead to good people. Our repayment rate is over 85%.” “And the other 15%?” “Typically that’s from parents who don’t spread the attributes wisely. We’ve since introduced stricter measures for our platinum package and we expect that number to drop in the upcoming years.” Morgan leans in, drops her voice to a whisper. “I have one last question for you.” I laugh. Even if I hadn’t eavesdropped on them in the waiting room, I’d be well aware of what she’s going to ask. “Let me guess, sub-domains?” The young couple’s eyes light up. “I’m afraid those violate international law.” “You really want us to believe that if some billionaire walked in, he couldn’t pay to have his child’s height altered?” “If height were said billionaire’s paramount goal, he could raise the attributes of domains he felt might affect height, such as attractiveness or athleticism. But there’s no way to select for such specific human qualities.” “Why? I mean I know it’s the law, but nobody’s ever been able to clearly explain why.” I know exactly why, but I play the part of the naïve office worker and echo the company line. “From what I understand, it’s the same reason we can’t offer a package above platinum. If humans were given the choice, they’d crank all attributes to 100. When everyone’s at 100, nobody’s at 100. We need these rules to maintain the human experience.” The young couple look at each other, whisper a few things into each other’s ears. The amplification works well. They think I’m lying, of course they do. I am. I hate when couples bring up the sub-domains, a topic I can discuss but not deliver upon. I need to redirect to the packages we do have, to the deals I can close. “The platinum package comes with an additional hundred points, allowing you to create a child that is well above FEBRUARY 2021

- 57 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

JARED CAPPEL

average and poised for a successful life.” Thad won’t admit it, but he’s intrigued. “Remind me how much more the platinum package costs.” “Double the price of our gold package.” “Wait, double?” Morgan cuts in. “I read it was only a 50% increase.” “Yes, that’s true, but that’s for parents who are able to pay our price up front. Due to the risk of loaning to an unborn child, our fees do go up considerably.” The room falls silent, as the young couple tries to process all the information being thrown at them. It’s important for me to step out midmeeting, to get an accurate sense of what the couple is really thinking, and now seems to be as good of a time as any. I get to my feet. “I can tell I’ve given you a lot to discuss. I’m going to run to the bathroom and give you a chance to think more about this decision. If you need anything, just open the door and holler.” I leave the room and peer through a strategically placed eyehole which gives me a full view of my office. My earpiece continues to relay what is being said. Morgan turns to her husband. “What do you think about all this?” He motions for her to be quiet. He reaches into a briefcase and produces a small handheld device, resembling a ray gun. This is certainly an interesting development. He walks briskly throughout the room, aiming the gun at different surfaces. He sweeps the room with expert precision; it’s clear he’s been trained well. “What on earth are you doing?” his wife asks. “What is that?” “Quiet. Just give me a second.” The gun emits a powerful ray that appears red to the human eye. He aims it at the walls, at my phone, at the underside of my desk, all while saying “test”. He’s waiting for something to reflect back green. There’s only one thing in that office that will come back FEBRUARY 2021

- 58 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

JARED CAPPEL

green. I wonder if he’ll find it. His search comes back empty. He turns to his wife, speaking at a whisper. “It’s illegal for them to record us. There’s nothing to stop them from amplifying our voices, though. I wanted to make sure they aren’t listening.” “Are they?” “Not that I can tell.” “How do you know all this?” “I just do.” His voice is particularly insistent, and she lets the matter drop. “So what do you think?” “It could be a good idea.” “I don’t know, sounds like a scam to me. How would you feel if your parents took out a loan for you before you were even born?” “How would you feel if your parents didn’t give you every possible chance to thrive?” “It just seems expensive is all. What’s the point of a great life, if you spend the whole thing buried in debt?” The questions are rather typical. I’m not really learning much that I didn’t already know. The only real development is the presence of the ray gun. He’s slid it back into his briefcase. I need to find a way for him to pull it out again. I press a button on my handheld device, which emits a staticky sound into the office. We use this when we want couples to feel they’re being watched. He takes the bait. He reaches for the gun and begins to sweep the room once more. He lifts my phone and scans the underside. I quickly reenter. “I wish you’d put that down,” I say, maintaining a professional voice. He lets the phone slide from his fingers, tries to conceal the item in his hand. FEBRUARY 2021

- 59 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

JARED CAPPEL

“We’re not recording you, if that’s your fear,” I say. “That would be highly illegal.” “No, it’s not that...” “We’re not listening either.” He looks bashful. It’s the first time all day I’ve seen an honest emotion out of him. The tough veneer has finally cracked, some humanity oozes out. “I didn’t think ordinary citizens were permitted the use of sound wave detectors,” I say. His eyes bulge. Another honest reaction. This time he’s at a loss for words. I reach for the form I had started to fill out earlier. “It says here that you work in construction.” “Well, yes, technically…” “Technically?” his wife asks. “Sound wave detectors are only permitted to those with government clearance,” I say. “If we’re going to process your loan, we need you to be honest with us.” “He’s in construction.” Morgan says. “Right, honey?” Thad shifts in his seat. “Right.” His voice lacks conviction. “Mm hmm,” I say. “Except that’s not exactly true, is it?” Thad looks sheepishly at his wife, says nothing. This is the chance I’ve been waiting for, one I rarely get. “Due to the inaccurate information provided in your loan documents, we won’t be able to proceed with the gold package. However, as the loan for the platinum package would be in your child’s name, we could still proceed. Please note however that this decision would have to be made today. Should you leave our office without a deal, I will have to file a report on your inaccurate loan documents which will invalidate you from further using our services.” FEBRUARY 2021

- 60 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

JARED CAPPEL

“I don’t understand,” Morgan says. “I think your husband does,” I say. “I could step outside again, if you’d like.” Thad says nothing but nods. I re-enter the waiting room with a newfound sense of interest. These meetings tend to go the same way; the presence of the sound wave detector has changed everything. I wonder if he buys my threat. “They’re listening to us, I’m sure of it,” Thad says. “How can you be so sure?” “How can she know about sound wave detectors? She could only know if she had seen one herself.” “How can she know? How can you know?” He stares down his wife, urges her to let the matter drop. “If you don’t trust them, we can go somewhere else,” Morgan says. “There’s no point. Once they enter into the system that we used false loan documents, we’ll be flagged everywhere. I think we better just go through with this. I can’t be flagged. My boss will find out.” I can hardly believe my ears. He’s doing my work for me. “I’m just worried about the loan,” Morgan says. “What if our child never pays it off?” “We can account for that.” Thad reaches to the monitor and begins to adjust the attribute bars, paying particular attention to measures like intelligence. The young couple argues back and forth. The confidence they had arrived with is long gone, replaced with a foreboding sense that any decision they make (or don’t make) will doom their unborn offspring. Morgan begins to fiddle around with her monitor too, using the additional one hundred attribute points to build the perfect child who could fare well in the most important measures while retaining a sense of balance. Her apprehension begins to fade, as she sees the ever-increasing scores. FEBRUARY 2021

- 61 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

JARED CAPPEL

Thad gets to his feet, opens the door, asks me to return. My eyes fall to the monitors in front of the couple. “Wow, both of your proposed children look rather similar!” “They do, don’t they?” “It’s the best of both worlds,” I say, a line from my script. “The security of a healthy child, with the promise of an exceptional one. So, should we finish filling out that paperwork?” It takes another fifteen minutes to fill out the form and explain the genetic testing and conception process that will take place. Thad stays uncharacteristically quiet. Morgan badgers me with questions that I am easily able to answer. When we’re finished with the forms, I shake their hands and walk them to the door. “Remember if you have any more questions, you should find all the answers on the pamphlet.” I tap the pamphlet in Thad’s breast pocket. The young couple thanks me for my hard work and exits. They seem nervous, but excited, as all new parents should be. I wait until they get into their car and drive off, and then I pull out my own sound wave detector and aim it around the room. “Test, test,” I repeat. Most of the waiting room glows a faint shade of green, as expected, as the room has been built to amplify sound. When I aim the sound wave detector to the stack of pamphlets, they reflect a vibrant shade of green, a fitting color really, the color of money, the color of my money now that I’ve sold another platinum package. ***

FEBRUARY 2021

- 62 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

JARED CAPPEL

Discussion Questions 1. Which, if any, of the things that take place in the story do you find most immoral and/or disturbing, and why? 2. If the technology was available to change the attributes of your child for a price, would you do it? If so, what attributes would you focus on and why? 3. Is it immoral to incur debt that continues on to the child if it goes unpaid by the parent? Does it matter that the debt is for a purchase that will potentially help the child’s future? 4. If you could find out how you genetically rated on various attributes compared to the general population, would you want to know? If yes, what attributes would you want to know about, and why? 5. What, if any, difference is there between a wealthy parent that is able to stay at home, play with their child, and provide their child with mental stimulation so the child has the best chance at a good future, versus the parents in the story who have the money to do this genetically? In both cases, aren’t wealthy parents simply using their money to help secure their child’s future? ***

*The Human Experience previously appeared in Jared Cappel’s short story collection of the same name. FEBRUARY 2021

- 63 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CORY SWANSON

Simon Cory Swanson *** Simon killed the Devil. It wasn’t an easy feat, to kill something immortal, but Simon had been up to the task. “I thought I was giving a gift to all humanity,” Simon said at his trial, his orange jumpsuit glowing like a sun under the neon lights. “I really did.” But that wasn’t for him to say. “I mean, who wouldn’t shoot Old Scratch, given the chance?” “Mr. Lancaster, it is not for us mortals to judge whether another is fit for death,” the prosecuting attorney claimed, his balding pate sweating even though the air conditioner in the courtroom had to be sucking half the power in town. “Mortal judgment is God’s work, not man’s.” “Objection, your honor,” Simon’s lawyer barked from his seat. “On what grounds?” the judge asked. “Penal code 167b. The death penalty. Human society has deemed it appropriate under certain circumstances to determine whether a life should be terminated on moral grounds.” “Through due process.” FEBRUARY 2021

- 64 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CORY SWANSON

“Your honor,” Simon interrupted. “There would be no due process with Satan. This was humanity’s one chance to revenge itself of all the evil in the world. Literally all the evil in the universe could be eradicated. I saw my opportunity. I took action.” *** It hadn’t been easy. Getting the Devil in such a vulnerable position had taken years of research and planning. Simon hadn’t made any bones to anyone about it. He’d even obtained private funding from a wealthy businessman to sustain his operations and keep himself fed as he schemed. “I plan to kill the Devil,” he’d told anyone who asked. “But don’t tell him that.” Of course, the Devil had heard of Simon’s plans to kill him, and Simon knew he would. He was Satan after all. This was the first step of drawing the Devil out in the open where Simon could confront him. Telling people to not tell the Devil that he planned to kill him was just how Simon would make sure the Devil would hear about his plans. After all, one can’t sneak up on the Devil. He knew that much. He also knew he couldn’t summon Old Scratch through any of the traditional means. Holding a seance or driving to the crossroads would only frame things to the Devil’s advantage. They would imply that Simon would want to make a deal, and he didn’t. Simon wanted no deals. Just the Devil’s dead body in his trunk. *** “I thought I’d be a hero,” he told the jury. “And for a while, I was.” “I assume you’re talking about how you toured the talk-show circuit, bragging about committing murder,” the prosecuting attorney said. “Objection,” Simon’s lawyer shouted. “Characterizing the witness.” “Sustained,” the judge said. “It’s okay,” Simon said. “I’ll admit I was proud, which shocked me. FEBRUARY 2021

- 65 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CORY SWANSON

Pride is a sin, and the death of the Devil should have made such a thing impossible. But that didn’t stop me. I’d worked too hard to let the fruits of my labor pass me by. I had to pay my investors back, after all, and that book tour and those appearances generated good revenue.” It had been part of the plan from the beginning. Killing Satan was already being made into a movie. Ryan Gosling was going to play Simon, and Steve Buscemi was the Devil. The contracts were all but signed even before Simon had carried out the act. “I, I, I don’t even know what to say,” the prosecuting attorney sputtered. “You wrote a book bragging about premeditated murder. One which disturbed the fabric of the universe.” “I killed the Devil,” Simon barked, standing up. “Nobody, and I mean nobody, thought that was a bad idea. If you’re going to blame something, blame all of Christianity. I was taught from a very young age that all evil and sin was an abomination to be avoided. To be eradicated and stomped out. I was going to usher in a new age. A bright and shiny new world where nobody could even think of doing anything wrong. Where the Devil no longer whispered in your ear, tempting you to depravity.” The balding lawyer stared at Simon, who still panted from his tirade. “Okay. So you didn’t anticipate the consequences of a world without evil. Tell us, then. How did you do it? How did you kill the Prince of Darkness?” *** Simon’s research had turned up two unassailable attributes of the Devil: he was proud, and he was smart. Old Scratch was always three steps ahead. That should have been Simon’s first clue as to what might come of any eradication of evil. If intelligence was always associated with the Devil, what would come if he were suddenly gone? But such thoughts never crossed Simon’s mind. He was too busy formulating a situation that would take advantage of the Devil’s trickery FEBRUARY 2021

- 66 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CORY SWANSON

and pride. He first had to draw him out, pull him into the proverbial dark alleyway, before he could see what was coming. Truth was, when Old Scratch finally appeared, it was Simon who was surprised. After all his work, poring over hundreds of texts, ancient to modern, he still hadn’t come up with a failsafe way to summon the Devil on his own terms. Pure and simple, if you called Satan to appear, you were already at a disadvantage. Luckily, as Simon walked through the parking structure of his apartment building late one night, the Devil appeared in the shadows. “You’re stalking me,” Simon said to the flit of motion among the parked cars, his voice echoing off the concrete. “You hide among the shadows like a coward. Is the Devil a coward?” Simon had been training for this. He knew every one of Old Scratch’s weaknesses, and he intended to manipulate them all. But the Devil didn’t show himself immediately. Instead, he darted from shadow to shadow, behind this column and underneath that compact car. “Spying on me won’t help you win,” Simon said, controlling his voice even though his heart pounded with panic. “All my strategy is up here,” he said, pointing to his head. “And you can’t get that out of me from the shadows.” “You fool,” Satan said, bursting forth from the darkness, fire and brimstone raining throughout the garage. Still, Simon kept his cool. His biggest fear was how he was going to explain to the folks that lived in his building why their cars had caught fire. “Pride is a sin,” Satan said. “I gave you that. I made that. Where would you be without me?” The Devil had Simon’s number for sure, but Simon was prepared for this. He crossed his arms and tapped his foot. “Sure, sure. But it doesn’t change anything. You’re here because you’re afraid.” FEBRUARY 2021

- 67 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CORY SWANSON

“Afraid?” Old Scratch roared. “How could I be afraid? I am eternal. I am part of the very fabric of the universe. The yang to the yin.” “Yes, yes, yes. Prince of Darkness. Gave Eve the apple. I know the stories. Believe me, if anyone knows the stories, it’s me. But you’re here because you’re afraid I’ll kill you.” Satan’s flames dimmed. “How can one who is immortal be afraid?” he asked. “Well, that’s just it. That’s why you’re curious about your own fear. You’ve hidden behind your own indestructibility for so long, you don’t understand fear anymore.” “Did I ever?” Simon shrugged. “I suppose not. And in that case, I suppose you’re curious about fear.” “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.” “Yes, yes. Roosevelt said that. And I’m sure you’re wondering how that could be.” The Devil’s flames had gone out, but still, every car around him was covered in the char of his fury. “Of course I understand fear,” he said, rubbing his chin. “How could I not understand fear? I am fear.” “You don’t understand fear because you are immortal. You deal in fear as a commodity, but you no more understand it than a mortal understands a dollar bill. Fear for you is a placeholder for value, not anything so concrete as an actual emotion you feel and understand.” The great, scaly spikes on Satan’s wings clattered as he shifted his weight. “So you’re saying I buy and sell and trade on fear, but I have no true idea what it is?” “Precisely,” Simon said, growing excited. This was the moment he’d been training his mind for. One had to be on their toes with the Devil. He had to be willing to improvise and fly off the cuff if he wanted to best the universe’s most wily creature. “And I can show you what fear is.” FEBRUARY 2021

- 68 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CORY SWANSON

“Now, how would you do that? You don’t scare me. Just because you wish to kill me, doesn’t mean you can.” Simon nodded. “In order to feel fear, you would have to be mortal. You would have to face down the nothingness and know that you must walk back from it. You must look into the unknown and be staggered by its nothingness.” The Devil roared great peals of laughter. “Do you think it’s that easy? That I can just give up my immortality and stare death in the face and I will understand the fear of mortals?” Simon nodded. “Yes. I’ve studied this closely. All fear is in future thinking. When one faces the fact that they could stop existing at any moment, one understands what it is to be afraid.” “It can’t be that bad. You humans are a bunch of whiners. Sniveling, fearful whiners. Why should I be afraid of you?” “Fine, then,” Simon said, crossing his arms. “Do it.” “Do what?” “Show us how unafraid you would be. Give up your immortality and face down fear like a mortal. Be as brave as you say you are.” In the face of this challenge to his pride, the Devil reached in his throat with his great, clawed hands, and removed a shining orb and set it on the hood of a nearby Volkswagen. “There,” he said. “Nothing changes. I am still unafraid. I am larger and stronger than you will ever be.” “Do you care to put it to a test?” Simon proposed. “Test away. I feel no fear.” Simon unholstered his pistol from beneath his jacket and pointed it at Old Scratch. “How about now. Any fear?” Satan didn’t flinch. He only stood there with his smug pride and stared Simon down. “Nothing,” he bragged. “You’re like a mosquito.” Simon took several steps forward, closing the gap between them, diminishing the possibility of inaccuracy with every step. “How about now? FEBRUARY 2021

- 69 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CORY SWANSON

Surely you feel the fear of mortality now.” “I fear nothing.” “And why not?” Simon asked, the tip of his pistol now touching Satan’s belly, his body now between the Devil and his orb of immortality. “Do you not believe that I will pull the trigger? Do you not think I would have the courage?” “It is because I know one thing you don’t know,” Satan mused. “And what is that?” “You can’t kill something that is inside of everything.” *** “And so you pulled the trigger,” the balding prosecutor said, his eyes to the ground. “You know what happened,” Simon said, his scorn barely masked in his voice. “What did you think would happen after he said that?” “What? Was I to believe the Devil? That for some reason he was telling the truth for the first time?” “This, your honor,” the prosecutor barked, pointing at Simon, “is the greatest monster of our time.” Simon stood. “You’re pretending the Devil has legal rights. Like he’s a person subject to the protection of our laws. I didn’t kill a person, I killed an idea.” “You had no way of knowing that,” the prosecutor shot back. “You thought you were killing flesh and blood.” “All I killed,” Simon said, his figure looming like a ball on fire from the pulpit of the witness stand, “was an idea.” “An idea?” “Yes. The Devil was right. He did not die when his body died. The only thing that died was the concept that evil was this other thing, separate from ourselves. That our capacity for atrocity wasn’t our own fault. That FEBRUARY 2021

- 70 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CORY SWANSON

our indifference to suffering was somehow the product of this other being. All I did was kill humanity’s illusions.” The courtroom sat in horror of Simon. *** But he told the truth. The death of Satan, without a doubt, made the world angry, but not for the reasons Simon or anyone else had anticipated. Before he’d killed the Devil, Simon thought one of two things would happen. Either the world would rise from the shackles of evil to a period of bright enlightenment, or evil would prove such a necessary piece of the puzzle that the world would spin out of control in its chaotic imbalance. Simon had his money on the former. Everything in his research pointed to it. Old Scratch was the embodiment of evil. It stood to reason that killing him would rid the world of every strain and manifestation of bad deeds and ill will. He also harbored a small fear that the latter may take shape. That Evil would prove something necessary in the balance of the universe, and that eliminating evil would somehow destroy the fabric of existence. Would the absence of evil cause the lion not to take its prey? Such a thing would destroy the food chain, making every decision an impossible imbalance. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and every good is balanced in evil. This would render the universe an unsolvable paradox. But what did happen turned out to be far worse. Nothing happened. As Satan bled out at Simon’s feet, the universe didn’t twitch a muscle. The birds sang and the plants grew. The lions pounced on their prey and the world spun just as it had before. As the Devil gave his last, rasping breath, Simon shuddered. FEBRUARY 2021

- 71 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CORY SWANSON

*** “Murder,” the prosecuting attorney stated. “Our fault,” Simon responded. “Human trafficking.” “Humans do that.” “The atomic bomb.” “Us.” “Auschwitz.” Simon sighed. “It’s all us. The death of the Devil was only the death of our ability to pretend these things weren’t our problems. We created him. He was our fault.” The attorney slammed his papers to the ground. “We created him for a reason, goddamnit.” “You’re right,” Simon said. “I’m ashamed to admit it, but you’re right. The reason was to be able to blame something else. The only thing I’m guilty of is illuminating how awful we really are.” The attorney looked up at Simon, his face sad. “I don’t want to be responsible for all that.” “Neither do I,” Simon said with a wistful look into the middle distance. “Neither do I.” ***

FEBRUARY 2021

- 72 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

CORY SWANSON

Discussion Questions 1. How would you define “evil?” What, if any, way is there to end evil in the world? 2. Simon says all fear is related to “future thinking.” What does he mean by that? Do you agree? 3. Assuming the story were true, what punishment, if any, would you give Simon for killing Satan? 4. Do you personally believe in Satan? Why or why not? If given the chance, and assuming he was real, would you kill Satan as Simon did? 5. Do you think evil is necessary to “balance the universe?” What would the world look like without “evil,” in your opinion? Would there be natural disasters? Would there be violence between people? War? Poverty? Disease? Would there be wealthy people? Would there be new inventions? ***

FEBRUARY 2021

- 73 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

VIGGY PARR HAMPTON

Father Dale’s DriveThru Exorcisms Viggy Parr Hampton *** The Evangelists set the tent up somewhere near a Christian theme park called Heritage USA in Fort Mill, South Carolina. The park had been open for nearly a year, and the crowds had ballooned grotesquely, which spelled probable success for the old preacher hunting for the faithful. To Dale, standing outside his camper and straddling the messy periphery of religion, the park’s very existence and its incredible popularity were two more pieces of evidence he could hold up to prove that the majority of middle America had too much time and too much money on their hands. Which made him feel less bad, maybe even righteous, about being just one more person trying to take it away. “You gonna help, or what?” Tina asked, pushing folds of sweaty hair out of her face. She was struggling to set up the camper’s awning, stretching it as far as it would go while simultaneously trying to jam the FEBRUARY 2021

- 74 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

VIGGY PARR HAMPTON

poles into the gravelly dirt below. “Or what,” Dale teased, pushing his sunglasses up on his nose. He walked over to where his wife stood, and the two of them managed to wrangle the faded, delicate awning into the perfect position. To some veteran campers, an awning didn’t need to be perfect, just serviceable. To Dale and Tina Thrombus, anything less than perfect would mean that their car-bound customers would get trapped in the drive-thru, which was simply not an option. They’d been following the crazy evangelists around the Southeast for the past five years, parking the camper close enough to the revival tent to attract customers, but far enough away to avoid the righteous fury of the fire-tongued pastor. He might have preached love, but Dale had heard enough to realize the man knew how to deal in hate. The camper needed a new coat of paint and the awning needed new metal struts, but money was tight and getting tighter. The oil crisis of ‘73 was long over, but good working folk like Dale and Tina were still feeling the squeeze, and it was starting to look like another crisis was on the horizon. When Dale had retired, Tina had quit her lunch lady job, and they’d sold the tiny shack in Indiana, packed up the few belongings they thought worth keeping, and bought a used camper. Dale figured they’d want to travel around because what else was there to do anyway, especially in rural Indiana? The camper was far more freeing, not to mention economical. Until 1973 hit. For a couple reliant on cheap gas to fuel their crosscountry travels, the oil crisis gouged their savings. They spent nearly a year stuck in a trailer park in Edmond, Oklahoma, hoping to save money while remaining in a climate warm enough to be comfortable throughout the winter without running the heater. Their small jar of cash began to look emptier and emptier, so they took to washing windshields, pumping water, cleaning spidery outhouses, chopping wood for cook fires—whatever FEBRUARY 2021

- 75 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

VIGGY PARR HAMPTON

needed doing badly enough that somebody would pay them for it. When things started to turn around, and they’d saved up some of that money, they set off in search of a significant change of scenery. They found that in Savannah, Georgia. The Spanish moss swayed above the camper’s roof like Southern mistletoe as they drove through gorgeous streets lined with live oaks and magnolia trees. They parked near the river, on the outskirts of downtown, and hugged each other as the river flowed melodically past. It had always been just the two of them—they’d tried for children, bouncing from doctor to doctor, each time hoping for a diagnosis other than “I’m sorry, Mrs. Thrombus, but you will never be able to conceive, much less carry a child to term.” Dale had suggested adoption, but Tina had declined, feeling exhausted and as though she’d failed as a woman, as a wife. Dale had been sweet, holding her when she cried for the family they’d never have, dabbing at her tears with his soft thumbs. They cleaved closer together from then on, determined to make a home that could be full with only two people. Savannah had been kind to them; they’d stayed for a few months, eating pecan pralines and fluffy biscuits, touring the city’s haunted hot spots, and snapping pictures on their disposable camera, knowing full well they would never waste money on developing the film. When summer started coming on, and the humidity was so deep it filled every pore to the brim, Tina pulled on Dale’s sleeve, and it was time to go. They went north, hugging the coast, heading for North Carolina. In Hollywood, a small town just outside of Charleston, they stopped to stock up on groceries and find a water line they could hook up to so they could take quick, icy showers. The small clearing they settled on, designated as a rest area by a single tiny, dejected sign, was grim—an old well and water pump constituted the few signs of life. There weren’t even any outhouses to clean, a detail Tina filed away for later, in case another oil crisis sent FEBRUARY 2021

- 76 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

VIGGY PARR HAMPTON

them begging for labor, for something. At least they wouldn’t have much competition for resources around here; only one other camper lounged in that lonely spot, and the ivy spilling from its cracked windows suggested it had found its final resting place. Later, the sound of singing reached their ears as they chomped into the first bites of hot dogs roasted over a camp stove. Tina was sitting in an old lawn chair, and Dale was standing, stretching his legs after the long drive. He squeezed a ketchup packet pilfered from a McDonald’s onto his hot dog, and managed to squirt a good portion of it onto his thumb. He licked it off with relish. “You hear that?” Tina asked, pushing the words through a mouthful of hot dog. “Sounds like singing,” Dale said, gurgling his own words through the puddle of ketchup on his tongue. “Sounds like a lot of singing,” Tina said, stuffing the last of her dog into her mouth and swallowing hard. She stood up and stretched her arms above her head. “Let’s go check it out.” “Why?” Dale said, pausing his meal to pull another pilfered condiment—mustard this time—from his pocket and squeeze that on top of the bun, meat, and ketchup. “Why not?” Tina said, shrugging. “What else we gonna do around here?” “Hm,” Dale said, chewing, savoring the juicy meat, the sweetness of the ketchup, the acidity of the mustard. He was not one to rush through meals as his wife did, seeing eating as a chore. “Come on,” she said, “We could use the walk anyway. We’ve been driving around in that damned camper all day.” Dale popped the last of the hot dog into his mouth, chewing longer than was really required, as though he were squeezing every last bit of flavor out of the mass before he allowed it to slither down his throat. He FEBRUARY 2021

- 77 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

VIGGY PARR HAMPTON

finally swallowed and said, “Eh. Okay.” Wiping his hands on his shorts, Dale followed his wife as she piloted them towards the singing that grew ever louder not just because they were getting closer, but because more people were joining in. When they got close enough to hear the words, parting shrubbery as they passed out of the clearing, they realized the song was a well-worn hymn that Tina learned in Sunday School. She thought about adding her voice to the melee, but decided against it—she wasn’t a woman of God anymore, so it seemed phony. They walked hand in hand along a rocky path through the scruffy forest until they came to a large grassy clearing. In the middle, a gleaming white tent spilling over with people sat like a beacon. “Huh,” Dale said, giving her hand a squeeze. “What is that?” “Some sort of church service?” “You ever been to a church service in the middle of a field?” In fact, Tina had. Once, as a girl, she’d visited her grandmother in McKinney, Texas, the same week a traveling preacher happened to alight in the small town. He’d brought his entire entourage, and they’d erected a tent not unlike the one they now stood before, calling God’s children to hear the Word of the Lord. Grandmother had taken little Tina, dressed in her Sunday best, and sat in the second row—only because she was a half second too late to nab the coveted first row spots. The preacher, whose name had been Morris, started softly, speaking of God’s love for all man and his capacity for forgiveness, but as he picked up steam and warmed to his audience, his voice rose higher, louder, as he spoke of God’s similarly colossal capacity for vengeance against sinners and fornicators. To protect ourselves, he’d said, we must expunge the devil from our lives! Tina didn’t like to revisit what happened next—when she thought about it at all, the experience came in flashes: slippery snakes slithering over her new patent leather shoes, a man who happened to be the town FEBRUARY 2021

- 78 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

VIGGY PARR HAMPTON

pharmacist gripping her shoulders, shaking her, speaking in a language she couldn’t understand, her grandmother’s neighbor Mrs. Desmond shivering violently as if with fever, then collapsing in a moaning puddle onto the snake-littered floor. They crept closer, her fingers threaded through his, even though Tina started dragging her feet. When they reached the perimeter of bodies huddled at the edges of the tent, spreading over onto the grass, they stopped. The crowd pulsed, as if it were one gargantuan living thing. Body odor and cheap perfume assaulted Tina’s nose, tickling the memories she was trying desperately to push away. She could barely make out the preacher’s voice over the din of the crowd. When her ears adjusted, the crowd babble becoming white noise after a few minutes, she could clearly hear the preacher’s tone and volume rising together like fireworks to explode at the same time over the heads of the sweaty flock: We must EXPUNGE the DEVIL from our LIVES! Morris, the nightmare of her childhood, the dark boogeyman under her bed. The reason she expunged religion from her life. “What the hell…” Tina muttered, earning the ire of the enormous devout woman next to her. “Watch your language in this house of God,” she hissed. Tina had more sense than to engage and respond how she really wanted to, with “Do you mean a tent of God?” Tina shifted her attention back to Morris, who was hobbling around the raised wooden dais ferociously, an aged but still dangerous lion surveying his prey. Dale nudged her, whispering out of the side of his mouth. “What a load of crap, huh?” She squeezed his hand and flashed him a smile, hoping he didn’t see the discomfort in her eyes. Dale had never been one for religion, which had been one characteristic of many that cemented his position as her FEBRUARY 2021

- 79 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

VIGGY PARR HAMPTON

forever husband, but that didn’t mean that she completely shared his nonchalance. She’d loved church once; she liked being a good little Sunday School girl for her parents to dress up and show off. But after Morris, after the snakes and the tongues and the fainting, she’d felt hollow, convinced that below its layers of love and security, religion, and by extension God, was nothing more than an empty hole people filled rather arbitrarily. “And YOU, precious LAMB of GOD,” Morris yelled, pointing at something near the front of the tent. “What is YOUR NAME?” Tina couldn’t hear the response, but Morris’s next words were “Please COME up on the STAGE, child.” Ten seconds later, a tiny girl, who couldn’t have been much older than four, appeared at the edge of the dais. Tina could tell this girl’s parents loved her; she was dressed in an immaculate blue satin dress, a white sash tied at her waist. Her shoes were shiny white patent leather Mary Janes, and the small stretch of leg between her shoes and the hem of her dress was clad in white stockings. A giant blue and white bow crowned her blond ringlets. Her rosy cheeks looked like ripe crabapples. “Maryann, CHILD,” Morris boomed, “Come sit and HEAR the WORD of the LORD.” Maryann hesitated, shy, before she managed to take a few steps toward Morris. She sat down at his left, facing him, so that Tina could still see her profile. The little girl carefully adjusted her dress so that it wouldn’t be wrinkled when she stood back up. “FRIENDS, good PEOPLE of the LORD,” said Morris. “LAY your EYES upon Maryann, LAMB of GOD.” The crowd was silent, enamored, hungry. “God WANTS us to be GOOD. He CAN forgive us when we’re BAD, but we MUST EXPIATE OUR SINS and ATONE. Is little Maryann a SINNER?” There was a loud gasp from the crowd; Tina presumed it was the girl’s mother, shocked at the thought that her perfect child had or would FEBRUARY 2021

- 80 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

VIGGY PARR HAMPTON

ever do anything wrong. “Well? IS SHE?” The crowd murmured something incoherent. Morris was not deterred. “She IS, friends of GOD, we are ALL SINNERS, even little Maryann.” Maryann bowed her head on the stage, ashamed. Tina’s heart started to break. “Now, Maryann’s SINS are probably very SMALL, as she is. BUT that DOESN’T MEAN they aren’t THERE, that she mustn’t ATONE for them.” Morris paused, a dramatic effect Tina could recall painfully from her first traumatizing encounter with him. His flair for theatrics had further convinced her of the performative nature of religion, its complete lack of solid substance. Morris went on: “And HOW exactly should Maryann ATONE, my FRIENDS of GOD?” He started pacing back and forth across the stage again, slapping his hands into the air to punctuate his speech. “Tell me! HOW?” “The trial of snakes!” yelled someone from the middle of the crowd. It sounded like a man. “YES!” Morris nearly screamed. He pulled a handkerchief from his pants pocket and swiped it across his forehead. “The TRIAL of SNAKES!” Tina grabbed Dale, who up until that point had been watching silently, an amused look on his face. “We’re leaving,” she said, tugging him away. Her voice came out cramped, her throat tight. She felt like she was choking, blackness already floating at the edges of her vision. “You think they’re really going to snake that little girl?” he asked quietly, still looking amused. “I know they will,” she said, pulling him harder, fighting a wave of nausea that sought to resurrect her hastily eaten hot dog. The smirk left Dale’s face, melting away like butter in a hot pan. “What?” he said in a small voice. FEBRUARY 2021

- 81 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

VIGGY PARR HAMPTON

“I don’t want to be here for it,” she said, eyes down. They hustled back to the gravelly path that led through the woods, heading for their camper. Morris’s voice still drifted towards them, shouting something that sounded like “EXORCISE THE SINS FROM THIS CHILD.” “Shouldn’t we do something?” Dale asked. “Like what? Intervene? Shout? And have two hundred idiotic and bloodthirsty parishioners pounce on us? I don’t think so.” “I guess it’s in God’s hands now,” Dale said, with a trace of dark humor. “That’s not funny,” Tina said. Dale frowned, chastened. “I guess not.” He didn’t know what else to say, how else to reach her. He could tell she was pulling inward. They didn’t speak again until they were back inside the camper. In the intervening years between that night in Hollywood and right now in Fort Mill, Tina had had a lot of time to think. She thought about Morris, about revivals in general, and she visited the local library to read more about snakes, speaking in tongues, and exorcisms. She wanted to better understand the enemy that had made her feel so small, so powerless—as a child and then again as an adult. Luckily, the 1973 release of The Exorcist provided two direct benefits for her; the first was immediate—there was now a mountain of material on exorcisms, free and available to anybody who cared to learn more. The second benefit didn’t assert itself until a few weeks later, when Tina realized that the answer to their dwindling cash flow could be found in the country’s totally unquenched appetite for exorcisms. There was a viable business model in there, somewhere. The more she read, the less she understood. How did anybody really know if someone was possessed? And if someone was actually possessed, supposing such a thing were possible, would a few prayers and FEBRUARY 2021

- 82 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

VIGGY PARR HAMPTON

a splash of holy water really do a goddamn thing against a demon from Hell? Tina didn’t think so. Perhaps exorcisms were like a placebo— meaningless chants that gained power because the victims believed in them. And because they believed, they got better. Tina spoke with Dale at length about the opportunities she saw in keeping close to the revival tent, no matter how much she hated it. She told him they could perform a public service—provide people with exorcism placebos, maybe shake their faith enough to pull them away from Morris’s grip. Plus, make some much-needed cash in the process. What she really thought was she was angry and needed an outlet, they needed money, and screwing over rich idiots was a way to kill two birds with one stone. “Let me get this straight,” Dale said, sitting across from her at the small formica-topped booth of their camper. Outside, the mosquitoes buzzed, and the sound of singing that they’d both gotten so used to they didn’t even hear it anymore drifted through their window screens. “You want to do fake exorcisms?” “Don’t think of it as ‘fake exorcisms,’” Tina said. “Think of it as making people feel better. And, if we manage to pull people away from that bastard in the process, all the better. Plus, the money, Dale. We could really use it, and the assholes who support Morris should support his victims, too.” “Victims?” Dale asked, his head cocked to the side in confusion like a dog. Tina caught her breath, still keen to withhold her trauma from her husband. “You know,” she said evasively, “Anybody who believes Morris is also his victim. Stupid, too. Dangerous combination.” “Still,” Dale said. “We don’t know shit about exorcisms, honey, not really.” Tina’s eyes shone. “That’s the beauty of it! Nobody else knows shit, FEBRUARY 2021

- 83 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

VIGGY PARR HAMPTON

either! Better yet, everybody and their mama has seen The Exorcist at this point, so people will just expect us to pull a Father Karras. We literally have a blueprint for how to do this.” “I hated that movie,” Dale said quietly, remembering how he’d squealed when the demon’s face flashed on the screen. “We could pull out the awning, get a big sign, and have people drive over for exorcisms. Charge five bucks a head, or maybe ten, depending on where we are.” Tina’s voice turned hard. “If people are going to be idiots, we might as well make some money off ‘em.” Tina couldn’t bear another year of backbreaking work that took her nowhere, leaving her aching, the juice barely worth the squeeze. “So. You want us to not only pretend to be religious officials, you want us to offer drive-through exorcisms and follow around this fucked up revival dickhead. That about right?” Instead of answering his question, Tina continued musing. “It’ll be Halloween soon, I can get a nun costume from the store, we can get you a black robe and cut out a bit of white paper for that collar thing, get some crucifixes, some little glass bottles for holy water…” “Dear God,” Dale said. “That’s the spirit.” Dale was a born follower, which Tina didn’t mind because he always followed her. *** That was nearly five years ago, and Dale and Tina were in much the same position they’d been in before. They were seeing the signs of another coming oil crisis, which meant they might be stuck for the foreseeable future next to the human cesspool of Heritage USA. While this sounded repugnant to Dale, he wouldn’t mind catching a glimpse of Tammy Faye— she was tacky, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t an attractive woman. Dale had even heard a rumor that Jim and Tammy Faye kept a secret room FEBRUARY 2021

- 84 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

VIGGY PARR HAMPTON

somewhere on the park grounds for trysts. Now wouldn’t that be something? The sun was beginning to set, which meant Morris, now definitively couched in old age, would start bellowing soon. Dale and Tina needed to get everything ready for another night of hopefully booming business. They finished their cold-in-the-middle hot dogs and went inside to outfit themselves. Dale pulled on his black robe and clipped his white collar on; over the years, he’d upgraded to a plastic collar. He lifted a rosary over his head and dropped it down around his neck, becoming Father Dale. Nearby, Tina pulled on the same nun Halloween costume she’d had for five years; she’d had to make substantial modifications to it— lengthening the hem, turning the crucifix right-side-up, patching holes in the cheap fabric as they cropped up. She pulled the wimple down over her hair, and she became Sister Tina. *** They’d had some good times over the years; 1976 brought Hostage to the Devil and a new wave of exorcism mania. Business had flourished, and they’d even been able to replace the brakes on their camper and upgrade their mini fridge. Despite the deception that paid for the gas in the tank, Dale relished the grand adventure they’d stumbled upon. For too long, they’d been mired in the suburban muck of Indiana, working their way through dead-end, joyless jobs, neighborhood bake sales, and uncomfortable dinner parties where their neighbors couldn’t seem to talk about anything other than their children. Dale had grilled more burgers for backyard barbecues than he could possibly count; Tina estimated her lifetime output of pies to be around two thousand five hundred. Dale hadn’t realized how much the monotony was killing him until he’d hit the road with Tina, his lungs expanding with not just the fresh air but the new air, the new skies, FEBRUARY 2021

- 85 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

VIGGY PARR HAMPTON

the new roads. He hadn’t been to the doctor in years, but if he were to go at this point in 1979, he would have been pleased but unsurprised to find his blood pressure had dropped significantly. It also didn’t hurt that he was able to claim some power, even if it was under false pretenses. Dale Thrombus was a mild-mannered, go-along-to-get-along, rather pudgy sort of guy. But Father Dale—he was strong, capable, powerful in a way Dale had never felt before. The persona was like a drug to him, the performance of “exorcism” an addiction. While Dale floated on a cloud of wanderlust and undeserved authority, Tina felt much more grounded in dirty reality. She’d never meant to push this scheme as far as it had gone; initially, she’d seen their little con as a way to push back at the twisted preacher shouting from the dais, get some due revenge, and part stupid rich people from their money. Five years later, and she wasn’t even sure Morris knew they existed, and their savings at this point were nothing to write home about. As for the people they “exorcised”—were they better off? She didn’t really care, but she did think about it from time to time, less frequently as the years rolled by. When it came down to it, she just wanted the money, to hell with everything else. But now she was stuck. Dale had changed, becoming more commanding, more dominant, less willing to listen to her. On top of that, as they camped outside of Heritage USA, growing queasy from the smell of butter-saturated popcorn and sticky caramel apples, she started hearing rumors, tidbits of conversation or news here and there, about another oil crisis that would rock the country hard, just like the one in 1973. Privately, Tina wasn’t sure if she would survive this again. Dale, on the other hand, wasn’t experiencing anywhere near his wife’s level of despair; so what if they had to get stuck here for awhile? They were in better circumstances now than they had been back in ‘73— they had a steady gig, their upgraded mini fridge was still operational, and FEBRUARY 2021

- 86 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

VIGGY PARR HAMPTON

while he wasn’t thrilled about being stuck next to the disgustingly consumerist idolatry of Heritage USA, he continued to hope that he might one day get to see Tammy Faye. He wanted to get close enough to know whether those eyelashes were actually spider legs, as some people claimed. The oil crisis, if it came, would wear itself out just like the last one had, Dale was certain. *** Headlights flashed through the camper’s windows as Tina tucked her hair back inside her wimple. Dale jiggled his collar, readjusting it until he found the most comfortable position. “You got the holy water?” Dale asked. “Yep,” Tina said, patting the pocket in her habit where three small bottles filled with sulfur-scented South Carolina well water clanked together with every step. “Showtime,” Dale said. Tina rolled her eyes, but she was careful not to let him see. They opened the door, faces solemn, as the old Buick crunched over the gravel to come to rest under the camper’s awning. Squinting, Tina could make out three figures in the car: a scruffy man driving, a nervouslooking woman in the passenger seat, and a writhing, bucking figure in the back—probably their child. Tina sighed. She hated having to pretend to pull demons out of children who were either actually ill or so wrapped up in their parents’ delusions that they’d lost touch with reality. The scruffy man rolled down the window. His eyes darted back and forth from Dale to Tina. “We need help, Father,” he said. “Frank Junior got the devil in ‘im.” In the passenger seat, his wife just hung her head, burying her face in her hands. FEBRUARY 2021

- 87 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

VIGGY PARR HAMPTON

From the backseat, Frank Junior coughed and then laughed wildly, limbs thrashing against the cracked leather. “Well, you’ve come to the right place, my child,” Dale said. “We know just how to help.” “I don’t got much money,” the man said with a twang, avoiding Dale’s eye. “I can’t pay much.” “Please,” Dale said. “Just give what you can.” He gestured to Tina. “Sister Tina will collect the tithe and then we can begin the ritual.” A sob erupted from the passenger seat. She moved forward mercilessly, a small black velvet bag in hand, to collect the few pennies this poor family could spare. The man, his hand shaking, dropped a few coins in the bag then slumped back in the seat, defeated. The coins obviously didn’t add up to the five dollars they normally charged; she signaled discreetly to Dale to make it quick, nothing fancy for these low-paying customers. “Thank you, my child,” Dale said as Tina glided back in place by his side, head bowed in “prayer.” “Let us begin.” That night’s ritual started about the same as they all had—Dale climbed into the backseat next to Frank Junior, and Tina stood near the open car door at his side, prepared to hand him the various “holy” implements he would ask for. As the parents twisted in their seats to watch, greasy tears streaking down their cheeks, Dale raised a crucifix and recited the Lord’s Prayer, followed by “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I cast thee out!” He repeated this speech five or six times, as the boy continued to writhe next to him. From her spot on the dry grass, Tina could see the boy’s cherry-red face caught in the bright rectangle of light streaming from the camper’s windows. Dale placed a hand on Frank Junior’s chest, and the boy let out a long, low wail. Tina shivered, goosebumps popping up on her skin with so much force it was almost painful. She didn’t believe a sound like that could FEBRUARY 2021

- 88 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

VIGGY PARR HAMPTON

come from anything but a creature in unimaginable pain. Something was different this time, but Dale didn’t notice, or maybe just didn’t care. “I cast thee out, demon!” Dale said, his voice beginning to rise. “In the name of the FATHER, the SON, and the HOLY GHOST, I CAST THEE OUT!” He reached his hand back and Tina quickly, automatically, pressed a vial of water into his palm. He plucked the cap off with a flourish and started splashing it over Frank Junior, all the while repeating “I CAST THEE OUT! I CAST THEE OUT!” Frank Junior screamed, and Tina noticed with alarm that his cheeks had ripened from cherry to scarlet, and were quickly heading towards violet. Something was very wrong. Dale still didn’t seem to notice the child’s genuine distress. Frank Junior started gasping and clawing at his throat. In response, Dale seized his wrists and pinned them down. “I CAST THEE OUT!” Dale shouted in the child’s face. Tina was about to reach out a hand and pull her husband back, long-repressed feelings of sympathy bubbling up to the surface. The part of her that had once yearned for children urged her to wrench him out of the car, give this family their money back, and force them to race for the nearest hospital. That neglected piece of her would have done everything she could to get that child the dire medical attention he so desperately needed—if it hadn’t been too late. As Tina’s mind idled, her hands still pinned to her sides, Frank Junior’s eyes opened wide for the last time. He stopped struggling so abruptly that Dale nearly collapsed along with the boy, who fell back against the seat with a soft thump. His violet cheeks began to pale, and he hitched one last breath before falling silent. Dale had cast him out. ***

FEBRUARY 2021

- 89 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

VIGGY PARR HAMPTON

Discussion Questions 1. Tina and Dale are both fairly dismissive of the revival and the snake handling. Is it fair for them to be? What makes a legitimate act of faith vs. an illegitimate act of faith? (Besides, of course, “legitimate acts of the faith are the ones my faith does, because we do it.”) 2. Tina clearly had a traumatic experience as a child at a revival. Should experiences of faith never be traumatic to a child? Are there aspects of faith (such as the crucifixion of Jesus) a child should not be told about so as to spare them the trauma? Where is the line, and what is the rule of where to draw it besides tradition? 3. Who (if anyone) is worse, Tina and Dale performing fake exorcisms or those running the revival that they follow? Does it matter that in both cases people come to them willingly and pay? Does it matter in both cases if it helps them feel better? 4. Why do you suspect the boy in the back of the car died? Do you fault Tina and Dale for his death? If so, what should they have known, and what should they have done? Does Dale’s ignorance absolve him? 5. Are the child’s parents at fault for his death? Does their faith absolve them? Does their ignorance of his actual affliction? As parents, do they have an obligation to work to not be ignorant and protect their child with the best medical information (at the potential cost of their faith)? ***

FEBRUARY 2021

- 90 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

DEAN GESSIE

Community Of Peers Dean Gessie *** After the war, I travelled to a village in the south of the province. It was my intention to vacation for the weekend in an unknown land. I followed a small river that was alternately green beneath the foliage of the forest and blue while it coursed through elevated plains and sunken but exposed valleys. I was driving one of those all-terrain vehicles that permitted me to follow paths that were clearly less travelled. It was not an aquatic vehicle, however, and an error in judgment forced me to abandon it to a finely camouflaged bog. I breast-stroked to safety while my truck took water through its sunroof. With mischance at my back, I followed the river on foot until it opened up into a small lake. On the northern-most shore of the lake, a settlement, of sorts, sprawled upward into black hills, its watery threshold flagged and dotted with light, fishing craft. I walked through vineyards and a peach orchard, each of these bursting with fruit, until I came to what appeared to be the main thoroughfare of the village. The street was desolate save for mongrels as numerous as flies. They lounged about on their flabby bellies, yawning and blinking in the sun, FEBRUARY 2021

- 91 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

DEAN GESSIE

and, apparently, abandoned by their lords and masters. One of the mongrels, more animated than the rest, fell in behind me wagging its short, stubby tail. I stopped to pet its flank and noticed that its tail had been freshly severed at its point. Remarkably, when the dog craned its long neck to look, as a greyhound might or a horse, the root of its tail became fixed when I clutched the memory of its remainder. I had little time to contemplate the peculiar psychology of the bitch at my calves. Out of the silence of this place came a young boy running as fast as his legs would take him, huffing and puffing dramatically. I gestured with my arms, like a traffic cop, for him to stop. I would have thought the gesture clear enough to communicate my needs, but the boy sped past me as though my existence were in question, his thin, eager face flushed with purpose and exertion. I followed with some speed and anxiousness of my own until I saw the lad disappear into a throng of people whose focus elsewhere precluded my seeing their faces. The crowd before me, the emptiness of the village, was mingling about a large and dead tree whose stark grey branches thrust skyward like an ancient hand contorted to hold a crystal ball. There looked to be a hundred or so gathered and they were dressed in the traditional garments of country folk. This struck me as odd since my travels during the war had revealed to me the penetration of the global clothing market. On tiptoe, I noticed that there was a man of about thirty tied to the tree, his arms pulled back and around the trunk of it, his hands bound, his head bowed. A two-wheel, wooden cart balanced on long wooden posts stood some five feet to the left of him, its carriage filled with stones. To confirm my suspicions, I inquired of an elderly gentleman as to the nature of the gathering. The man did not answer my question, but regarded me with astonishment, his nose hairs disentangling and vibrating with each shallow and rapid exhalation. He then proceeded to push his way into the crowd until he broke into the clearing that separated the gathering FEBRUARY 2021

- 92 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

DEAN GESSIE

from its victim. He conferred with a lean, tall gentleman who appeared to be the arbiter of the ceremony and pointed excitedly in my direction. All eyes turned toward me, sized me head to toe. My existence was no longer in question. The tall man, whom I learned later to be the village mayor, invited me forward with his hand. I and my dog heeded his invitation and walked the corridor made for us by the separating throng. “You are a stranger?” asked the man. The question was asinine since the mayor of this small town would surely know better. However, the emotional content in the man’s voice was that of a lottery winner overwhelmed by the evidence. “Yes,” I said. “You have come at an opportune time,” he said. “We are about to execute a man.” It was as I suspected. I asked the fellow why, however, the time should be described as opportune. “Our people have a custom,” he said. “If there is a stranger among us, he is given the honor of casting the first stone. It is our way of including him in the life of the village. It is our way of extending the boundaries of justice, of communicating justice between the communities of the earth.” I congratulated the mayor on the lofty goals of his citizens. Most public officials concern themselves with more modest matters, I said, like keeping drug addicts and hookers off the street. And so it was that I was to represent the cohabitation of time and space with the laws of men. For both sundry and weighty reasons, I queried the crimes of the condemned man. “For that,” said the man, “you will have to trust us. He has been found guilty by due process in a court of his peers. The evidence was overwhelming and indisputable.” I did not betray a smirk, but I had seen more than once FEBRUARY 2021

- 93 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

DEAN GESSIE

overwhelming and indisputable evidence tumble like a house of cards. As a result, I expressed some reticence about firing a death blow under these conditions. The mayor appeared dismayed that I was making a debate of it, that I wouldn’t credit the wisdom of his particular collective. “Where you are from,” he said, “are there executions?” I assured him that my country took great pleasure in extinguishing the lives of criminals. “And is your reticence as great when men and women are killed and you have no knowledge of or interest in their crimes?” I informed the man, as he no doubt wished and anticipated, that I had long ago handed over the responsibility for such decisions and actions. “Precisely,” he said. “You trust others to end the lives of others on your behalf. You tacitly condone their judgments with your indifference and weave the thread of the noose. Will you not trust us this one time and exercise the sovereignty of your will?” I congratulated the mayor on the quality of his argument, so compelling was it that I felt as though I were on trial as much as the condemned man had been. “You needn’t do it,” said the mayor. “It’s your free choice to assist or stand aside.” The mayor saw my self-conflict, how my mental processes were virtually stalled, like a large machine creaking inexorably to a halt. “Are you are baseball player?” he asked. “No,” I said, “I don’t have the legs for it. But,” I added, “I have been to the fair often and won many prizes for female companions by striking the effigy of a clown’s face with a rubber ball.” “Good,” he said. “You have both the power and the ability to end the life of this criminal quickly or, at the very least, knock him unconscious so that the cleaning up is less painful for all concerned. I will tell you this,” FEBRUARY 2021

- 94 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

DEAN GESSIE

he added. “The women with children will cast the first stones, if you choose not to.” We returned to the front of the gathering. The women in our midst collected their stones from the two-wheel cart. I was provided a large, almost perfectly spherical stone. I felt my adopted dog, the short-haired mongrel from the street, weaving its way playfully between my legs. I knew that no one could see the lost half of its tail but that she, herself, reacted to its absence. It was the invisibility of this impregnable reality that permitted us ignorance of its existence. It occurred to me that the phantom limb — that which we have cut away and discarded — was summation to the mayor’s argument. I was only disposed to a ten-foot buffer between myself and the criminal. I fired the stone, shaped very much like a ball, with as much force and accuracy as I could muster. It struck him flush mid-temple. The breaking of his skull would be sickening to some. A blue, bloody bruise emerged in relief. The women around me tossed their stones, joylessly, to the ground. They were prepared to do as much but the feeling seemed to be that I had managed the work efficiently. The crowd dispersed and returned in the direction of the village. In one breath, the mayor informed me that the deceased criminal had raped a young girl and that he would be cut down and buried. His soft smile communicated satisfaction with me and, by extension, satisfaction with himself. “We will surface your vehicle from the water bog,” he said. “You are a free man.” Notwithstanding the objective execution of what I had done, the seeming incontrovertibility of my decision and the groundwork of judgment, the criminal’s face, at the moment that I threw the stone, appeared to my eyes as that of a clown. I hadn’t done anything extraordinary. FEBRUARY 2021

- 95 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

DEAN GESSIE

***

FEBRUARY 2021

- 96 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


AFTER DINNER CONVERSATION

DEAN GESSIE

Discussion Questions 1. What is your opinion of the narrator for choosing to throw the stone at the end of the story? Do you judge him, or is the choice to throw/not throw a personal one? 2. Would you throw the stone? Is there additional information you would want to know prior to making your decision? 3. Would your decision change if the prisoner was going to be set free if you refused? What if the local custom was to keep the person in solitary confinement and torture them until a foreigner came to kill them? Would you then be okay with a “mercy” killing? 4. Does it matter that the penalty is death? What if the punishment were something severe, but less harsh? Would you then agree to give out the punishment? 5. Are there “universal morals” you believe the village is not following or are all laws simply the codification of cultural norms? 6. Would your decision change if you didn’t find their “trial” system to be valid in your opinion? (E.g. They put a rock in water and guilt/innocence was based on if it floated.) ***

FEBRUARY 2021

- 97 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


Additional Information Reviews If you enjoyed reading these stories, please consider doing an online review. It’s only a few seconds of your time, but it is very important in continuing the series. Good reviews mean higher rankings. Higher rankings mean more sales. More sales mean a greater ability to release stories. It really is that simple, and it starts with you.

Podcasts https://www.afterdinnerconversation.com/podcastlinks Listen to our podcast discussion of After Dinner short stories wherever podcasts are played. Or, if you prefer, watch the podcasts on our YouTube channel or download the .mp3 file from our website.

Patreon https://www.patreon.com/afterdinnerconversation Get early access to short stories and ad-free podcasts. New supporters also get a free copy of “After Dinner Conversation – Season One” and access to our Facebook Group. Support us on Patreon!

Book Clubs/Classrooms https://www.afterdinnerconversation.com/book-club-downloads “After Dinner Conversation” supports book clubs! Receive free short stories for your book club to read and discuss!

Social Find us on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter.

FEBRUARY 2021

- 98 -

Vol. 2, No. 2


From The Editor This month we have three (or four, depending on how you count) different stories about dreams and/or memories. I guess you could say this is the dream edition. You really can’t talk about dreams without talking about Neil Gaiman and the Sandman comic book series. Perhaps the most influential comic on my life is Gaiman’s “Three Septembers And A January” where the character “Dream” gifts a suicidal businessman, Joshua Norton, a dream: that he is the Emperor of the United States of America. This dream sustains him for his entire life, and gives his life purpose. It’s a true story, by the way, at least in that there really was a Joshua Norton who declared himself Emperor… I’m also reminded of the phrase from the same series, “You say I have no power…What power would Hell have if those imprisoned were not able to dream of Heaven?” Dreams, our greatest source of hope, and our greatest source of pain. And as for me, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Best Wishes, Kolby Granville


[Page Intentionally Left Blank]

Profile for After Dinner Conversation

After Dinner Conversation: Philosophy | Ethics Short Story Magazine  

After Dinner Conversation publishes compelling “what if” scenarios of original philosophy and ethics short stories across genres with accomp...

After Dinner Conversation: Philosophy | Ethics Short Story Magazine  

After Dinner Conversation publishes compelling “what if” scenarios of original philosophy and ethics short stories across genres with accomp...

Advertisement

Recommendations could not be loaded

Recommendations could not be loaded

Recommendations could not be loaded

Recommendations could not be loaded