Jesus Christ originally spoke through Clara Maples’ IBM-compatible thirty years to the day that she had married her husband, Tom, and three years to the day he had run off with the bosomy divorcé who worked at the plumbing supplies depot which he managed. Clara was down-loading a recipe for Kung Pao Chicken she’d found while surfing the Internet, when suddenly her screen went blank and there appeared the words:
I am the Son of the Living God, the Truth and the Way. I am the Resurrection and the Life. You may call me JC.
Startled, to say the least, Clara punched the Escape button and landed back in the middle of the Net, a list of newsgroups confronting her. She double-clicked on “recipe.hot.fajitas,” spinning her cursor into action. But when the screen came up, this was the only message:
I am the Word made flesh, the New Covenant that is given unto you. I am the Lord of Israel, the Voice from the Whirlwind, the Alpha and the Omega.
She jabbed her thumb against the modem’s power switch and shut down her machine, listening as the circuits expired like a breath held in too long. Waiting two minutes exactly before re-booting, she accessed the Net again then headed straight to the mail gateway, typing a quick note to Hagyn Sumner, her closest neighbor and Woman’s Club car-pool buddy. Five seconds after the message was sent, her incoming mailbox announced a response. She depressed the Return button cautiously.
God calling, the message read. Anybody home?
Clara ran her fingers over the words on the screen and thought about phoning her older son, Dobie, who sold TVs and stereos at the Circuit City in Glen Allen. But in the end she desisted, afraid of giving him any more ideas about her senility than he already had. For a long time she just sat and watched, rubbing her tongue against her two front teeth, unconsciously reproducing the feeling she got when she drank Coca-Cola too fast. The light from the monitor was an ugly, bad-egg white. In its wake, Clara could make out a cascade of dust swirling by her desk. She rubbed her hands as if to clean them, then pecked out a few characters on the keyboard. Holding her breath, she entered the “Send” command, then exhaled softly as her words spilled into the electronic void.
* * * *
“I don’t think it’s him,” Dobie said.
“It could be him,” responded Clara.
“Naw,” said Dobie, “no way in hell.”
“Don’t curse,” Clara admonished. “And stop slouching.”
Dobie sniffed indignantly but pulled his shoulders upright, making his ample chest and belly appear a little less so. Through his childhood and into high school, Clara had insisted Dobie was merely big-boned, even after her younger son, Martin, told the entire Lee-Davis High cheerleading squad that the name was spelled “Dough-be” because he was so fat. Several years of watching TV fitness gurus had changed Clara’s outlook, however. On Dobie’s 28th birthday, she gave him a six-month membership to Weight Watchers and even enrolled herself in a Cooking for Life class at the YMCA. Where before she had made sticky buns and pies, she now kept celery and baby carrots in her icebox and a plastic bag of rice cakes on the table. Dobie liked to slather them up with peanut butter, but Clara had learned to set out only a small dish of Skippy Light when he came to visit, hiding the rest of the jar in the newspaper recycling bin.
“So,” continued Dobie, his lips garnished with peanut butter, “how do you know it was him?”
“I told you, we talked.” Clara tried to remember all of the afternoon’s details. “I couldn’t see the harm in a little conversation. It was only polite.”
“So what did you say?”
“I said hello,”
“Just hello?” Dobie smirked before filling his mouth with another slab of rice cake. “The creator of the universe calls, and you just say hello?”
“Well, what should I have said?”
Dobie rolled his eyes. “I think he’s a pervert, Ma. Probably bi-sexual.”
Clara refused to respond.
“Or maybe he’s like one of these guys on Hard Copy,” Dobie speculated. “You know, the kind that marries lonely old ladies then skips town with their money?”
Clara reached over and pulled the dish of peanut butter out of her son’s reach. “You’re getting to be more like your father every day. You know that?”
“Well, I suppose there are worse things,” Dobie replied caustically. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand then focused on Clara. “All I’m saying is, Ma, don’t take this guy too seriously. People have gotten burned by these things.”
“I know, Dobie. And I understand you mean well.”
Dobie swallowed hard and scratched the back of his head. “I guess I’ll take the CPU home with me—poke around the hardware. You won’t miss it for a little while, will you?”
Clara wasn’t sure if she would miss it or not. “No. You do what you need to.”
Dobie watched her lapse into silent thought. “It shouldn’t take long,” he assured her. “These things are never as complicated as people want to make them. You just have to know what to look for, that’s all.”
The machine came back several days later. Dobie had run several pieces of software on it, perused the Net, and given its “innards”—as he called them—a brief once over.
“And no problems?” Clara asked.
“Well, it did levitate off the table and spit fire at me,” Dobie said. “But only once.”
Clara cleared her throat, pretending not to hear.
“Anyway,” Dobie resumed, “no glitches I could find, heavenly or otherwise. Just be careful who you talk to, okay?”
“I will,” Clara replied perfunctorily. “And thank you.”
Usually Clara took a water aerobics class on weekday mornings, and she never missed The Price is Right if she could help it. But after Dobie left, a strange anticipation drew her to the keyboard. I’ll just punch into the Net, she told herself as she turned on the monitor. No looking for anybody. Just punch in, and see what happens. She did not have to wait for cyberspace, however. No sooner had she booted up the main drive than the screen flashed three times and the messages began.
Good morning, Clara. I’m glad to see you again.
Clara inspected the screen closely. It appeared to be a regular e-mail board with commands for correspondence at the bottom. She typed a few nonsensical letters to make sure they would appear, deleted them, then began her message in earnest.
“Who are you?” she typed.
Have you forgotten already? I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, etc., etc.
“My son says you’re a pervert.”
Nice boy, that Dobie. But a little on the thick side.
“Well . . . are you?”
Am I what?
I love all men, if that helps. Also women, children, and creatures great and small.
“That’s not exactly what I meant.”
I know what you meant.
Clara stood up and checked the back of the computer. She didn’t know much about the hardware but figured she could identify an extra wire, say, if one were to be found. After tugging on all the cords and checking the electrical sockets, she went downstairs to the phone. It offered up the customary dial-tone—no one was sending messages that way. She thought about calling Dobie again but, as before, reconsidered and returned to her machine.
“AII right. Let’s pretend you are who you say. Why don’t you do something to prove it. A little rainstorm maybe, Or how about some fish and loaves on my kitchen table?”
Sorry, Clara. That’s against the rules. You know—thou shalt not put the Lord, thy God, to the test.
Clara snorted skeptically.: “You expect me to believe God is communicating with me through my computer.”
And why not? I figured it might be less threatening to you. You would have preferred a tornado maybe? Or a whale?
“An angel might have been nice.”
What can I say? The heavenly host has its hands full these days. Besides, you’re talking to Jehovah here. It’s not like you had to settle.
“Well, frankly, I always thought you’d be a bit more impressive. A chariot of fire and all that.”
I employ whatever means the occasion warrants. You’re only privy to a few of my incarnations.
At least that much Clara believed. She had often wondered how God could be all around her, all the time, like the Bible said.
“You know, Dobie guessed you might be a giant computer, too, maybe at the FBI or CIA. He’s read about those mainframes plotting the downfall of civilization.”
And naturally I selected you as my first target.
“l confess, I haven’t worked out all the details. Maybe I’m some kind of trial run.”
Face it, Clara. I am who I am. No less. And no more.
Clara read the words several times. He certainly sounded like God, or at least how she figured God might sound. Of course, he was a bit flippant, but sarcasm was a far sight preferable to fire and brimstone. Besides, if he were the Lord, didn’t it stand to reason he’d have a limitless sense of humor to balance out all that righteous anger? The more Clara thought, the more complex the issues became.
“I should probably go.”
Do you really find me less interesting than The Price is Right?
Clara balked. “Martin, is that you? Dobie?
We’ll talk again soon, Clara.
The monitor returned to normal, the contents of Clara’s hard-drive staring out at her. She opened a few random files but could find nothing beyond the expected. The digital clock beside her desk sprayed the time across the wall. Eleven in the morning, like it was supposed to be. Already on the TV, Rod Roddy would be telling some lucky audience member to come on down. Clara’s mind was full of invitations as she pushed back her chair, watching pensively until the computer’s screen-saver kicked in.
Clara’s mother had been a big believer in acts of God. Almost everything that happened—good or bad, large or small—had its direct source in the Creator. As a child, during thunderstorms or after her first cat ran away, such a belief was comforting to Clara. She still remembered her mother’s slender figure seated on her bed, the scent of lilac enveloping them, as her mother urged her to sleep with the words of a child’s prayer.
But somewhere the ritual had disintegrated. Or more rightly, somewhere Clara had realized it was nothing more to her mother than that, a ritual, disconnected from reality, empty words trying to make sense of a too often empty world. The day Clara’s father died in a single car accident, the day Clara got her first period, the day she married Tom, the day her first baby (a girl) died within her—all according to Clara’s mother were acts of God. When Tom finally left Clara, her mother was too far gone with Alzheimer’s to understand, but Clara had no doubt what she would have said. The same thing she probably said to Saint Peter after Martin and Dobie and several seniors from the church lowered her into a plot at the Westhampton Memorial Park. Acts of God, Clara surmised, there was no getting away from them.
Not that Clara was some kind of pagan. She attended church on Sunday, as well as some of the Wednesday night suppers, and had faithfully given $100 to the Lottie Moon campaign each of the last 12 Christmases. But for her, religion would always be a personal matter, an impulse that struck each soul differently, not a bunch of edicts cast down from Heaven like the Hershey’s Kisses flung by cheerleaders from homecoming floats every autumn. God did not speak to people out of shrubbery, flaming or otherwise. It was not a question of ability, merely willingness, style. Accordingly, Clara never doubted that God could speak to her through her computer, had He a mind to do so. But would He? That was another issue entirely.
“I don’t see what’s so hard about it. Just pull the plug.” Martin’s voice shook Clara back to consciousness. He put his hands to his throat and simulated a choking noise until she gave him a look.
They were staring at the blank e-mail screen as it had appeared to Clara earlier in the day. Dobie lay beneath the desk on his back, weeding through a tangle of extension cord, phone line, and connection cable. “Find anything, dough boy?” Martin asked, setting one Air Jordan lightly against Dobie’s belly and giving it a shake.
A soft thud emanated from beneath the desk, followed by a thin column of dust, and a volley of coughing. Dobie emerged like a mechanic from under an engine, rubbing his head and glaring at Martin disdainfully. “I hate to admit it, Ma,” he began after a few seconds, “but he may be right. Let’s connect it to the downstairs jack and see what happens.”
Clara was nodding, watching for some life-sign to flash across the vacant screen. She had invited Dobie back for dinner, hoping he would at least pretend to believe her story. Martin just showed up, his Business Systems class at J.Sargeant Reynolds having been canceled. Clara cringed upon his entrance. Bad enough she had to cope with the Savior on her PC, let alone both her sons in the same room for more than an hour. On a scale of mutual antagonism, Martin and Dobie fell somewhere between Abbott/Costello and Cain/Abel. Despite Clara’s best efforts at reconciliation—”Who will you boys depend on when I get tossed in a home?” she’d ask—her sons exchanged words mostly out of necessity and, when close, elbowed each other the way they had at ages four and five. Even at her mother’s funeral, Clara had been forced to sit between them during the eulogy, and when the time came for them to act as pall-bearers, they’d insisted on taking opposite sides of the casket.
They had been surprisingly docile tonight, though, somewhat chagrined by their inability to fix Clara’s machine. As before, the e-mail screen popped up no sooner than the computer came on. The boys had taken turns, Dobie first, then Martin, each pecking a key or two, then combinations of keys, then repeatedly mashing the entire keyboard in an attempt to clear the screen away. But to no avail. Even stranger, when Dobie hit the power switch, the computer refused to respond. The white screen just continued to shine like a fixed, pupil-less eye. As Clara and Dobie watched, Martin wrapped his hand around the main power cord where it connected to the wall socket. “Just one good yank,” he repeated.
A moment later the plug was in his grip, swaying like a snake under a charmer’s spell. Dobie looked from the socket to the screen. He nudged Clara’s shoulder, as if she needed nudging. The monitor still glowed.
“What the hell?” Dobie began, running his palm over the glass-front then rapping it with his knuckles. He dropped to a crouch and started to churn computer wire through his legs like a retriever. When he stood up again, the snarl of cords in his hands resembled spaghetti.
Martin continued to stare at the plug, mesmerized. “Jesus Christ,” he whispered.
A whir of machinery, a flash of light, and black pixels arranged themselves on the screen. Yes?
In the ensuing silence, Clara regarded her sons meaningfully, the desired “I told you so” caught somewhere between her teeth and kidneys. Dobie reached out to touch the machine like an ape from the beginning of 2001. He jerked back upon first contact then laid his hand delicately across the computer’s top, stroking it like he would a newborn baby or a pit-bull.
Well, the message read, type something.
Dobie extended both index fingers and plucked out a line. “Who are you?
Haven’t we been through this already?
Dobie frowned.: “We are peaceful beings. We mean you no harm.”
What am I? A Klingon? I’m not here to take over the planet. I already have dibs. Remember?
Martin chuckled, “Don’t make him angry, Dough boy. He might turn you into a water buffalo. Then again, that might be a step up.”
“It isn’t God,” Dobie snapped, ignoring the insult. “I mean, God doesn’t just show up in people’s IBM’s. At least not in ours.”
And why not? You think the wife of a Jewish carpenter is any different? Or an Arab camel driver? There was a pause as the cursor spun several times. ‘You need to have faith, Dobie. And stop slouching.
“Wha—?” Dobie’s bottom lip trembled slightly, a dew-drop of saliva pirouetting to the carpet. “You can hear us?”
And then some. They don’t call me omniscient for nothing.
Martin had already hit the floor, running his hand under the day bed and along the desk, searching for a bug. Dobie scanned the ceiling as he spoke. “No, it’s not true. The real God doesn’t come to people like this any more.”
What do you mean? How about Gandhi, King, Mother Theresa—
—Wiesel, Sakharov, Ollie North—
Just making sure you were still with me. Hey, Martin voted for the guy-
“You voted for North?” Dobie yelled at his brother, who was halfway through an inspection of the bookcase.
“What’s it to you?” Martin replied.
“You really are an idiot, aren’t you?”
“Go to hell.”
“Boys,” said Clara.
Look, nobody goes to hell without my say-so.
“Oh, this is rich,” ranted Martin, stomping back across the room. “You know, you speak pretty good English for a 2,000-year-old Jew.”
Oyvez, you tink mebbe I oughtta talk like dis. I created the universe. Noah Webster I think I can handle.
Martin flared his nostrils but kept quiet. When Dobie poked him and motioned around the room inquisitively, he shook his head, frowning. Clara gave the high sign for them to adjourn to the hall. “Well, what do you think?” she asked seconds later, shutting the door to keep the computer from their line of vision.
“I think we need help,” Martin said. “God or not.”
Dobie relinquished his breath like a balloon let loose. “I know a couple of guys at Radio Shack,” he said.
“Actually,” Martin replied, eyes narrowing, “I was thinking of someone a little more potent.” He bit his lip in an expression of grim resolve.
The Reverend Jimmie John Cavanaugh and his entourage arrived two days later, packed into a blue and white love bus with the words “God’s Batallion” spray-painted on the side. Jimmie John wore a white tuxedo jacket and slacks with Pat Boone shoes and matching Beatitudes bow tie and cummerbund. He shook hands with Martin in the driveway then crossed himself before proceeding up Clara’s porch and into the parlor. The entourage tagged along closely—Phil, a pale rake of a man with weasel eyes and pop-bottle spectacles that made his retinas look even smaller; Lula and Lila, twin sisters dressed in white to match Jimmie John, who between them weighed as much as the love bus; and a waist-high, severe-looking Vietnamese boy referred to by all as Smiley. Phil carried a video camera and followed Jimmie John assiduously, aiming the camera per the reverend’s instructions, taking extended shots of a chair, a light, a wall. Lula and Lila stayed on the porch singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” until Jimmie John beckoned them in, while Smiley pulled various religious accouterments from the van and spread them across the lawn: a cross made of badly stained two-by-fours, a menorah with several pink and green candles, a pile of white bedsheets. Clara pulled aside a curtain and stared up and down the street, thankful she could see none of her neighbors. Behind her, Dobie and Martin argued.
“This is the best you could do?” Dobie said.
“Hey, J. J.’s all right. Besides, he was the only one who’d come on short notice, and he’s working for nothing.”
Dobie grunted as he straightened an Ansel Adams print which had been knocked askew at Lula and Lila’s passing. “So where’d you meet him, anyway?”
“In a bar in Hampton Roads,” Martin answered. “When I was down for army reserve training. Apparently he runs a church for military personnel.”
“He looks like a mortician on prozac to me.”
Martin made a gesture Clara couldn’t see. He smiled when he caught her looking. “Don’t worry, Mom. You’re in good hands.”
“Maybe,” Dobie muttered ominously, to which Clara silently agreed.
The Reverend Jimmie John came back through the parlor and into the living room, Phil trailing a few steps behind him. He shook hands with Martin again, then Clara, and laughingly slapped Dobie on the shoulders. Phil got close-ups of the whole scene like a reporter following a candidate on the campaign trail.
“I’ve inspected the premises,” Jimmie John began, “and can’t say as I find anything extraordinary—bleeding walls, pillars of salt, and such. But appearances can be deceiving. You can’t be too careful when dealing with such claims.”
“So you’ve done this before?” Clara ventured.
“Done this before?” Jimmie John seemed genuinely surprised. “I should say I have.”
“Tell them about Georgia, J. J.,” Martin offered.
“I hate to toot my own tuba,” said the Reverend.
“Aww, go on.”
“Well, if you insist.” He leaned close to Clara as though revealing a secret. “You know that little old lady in Conyers who received the Word of the Madonna? I confirmed it.” Phil pushed between the two of them for a better camera angle. Jimmie John continued. “And the sighting of the Holy Supper on that silo in Farmville—mine, as well.”
“What,” Dobie muttered, “no walking on water yet?”
“Give me time, son.” Jimmie John positively glowed. “Give me time.”
“It’s not that we doubted your credentials,” Clara resumed, stepping in quickly to cut off Dobie’s response. “But you might find this case a little different.”
“They’re all a little different. That’s what makes this job a challenge.”
Clara nodded. “I suppose so. But may I at least show you upstairs, perhaps turn on the computer for you?”
“Thank you, no. Your son has apprised me of the situation, and as a rule I feel it’s best to go these things alone. No outside influences, you understand.” Jimmie John rubbed his hands in anticipation. “If you could just direct me to the device in question—.”
“Left at the top of the stairs, last door on your right. The computer’s in the far corner.”
Jimmie John nodded. “All right, then, let’s do God’s work.” With a flourish he stepped past Phil into the parlor, where Lula and Lila waited. “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was struck up, and the four of them launched their way upstairs.
For the first few minutes, Clara, Dobie, and Martin could hear only muffled voices, then some knocking on the walls, then muffled voices again. Smiley entered the parlor, frowned at them in the living room, then proceeded upstairs. He came back down seconds later and went out the front door. The voices never stopped. Clara looked questioningly at Martin, who gave her a self-satisfied grin. Smiley returned with the cross made of two-by-fours, thumping it against each step on his way to the room, and as he opened the door, Lula and Lila burst into the first few bars of the Hallelujah chorus. The door shut quickly, Lula and Lila began to climb Jacob’s Ladder, and above it all the Reverend Jimmie John prayed, sometimes in a dull monotone, other times in a boisterous howl, both of them equally incoherent.
Fifteen minutes passed, then a half-hour, an hour. Smiley made several trips up and down the stairs, bringing with him the menorah, two gallon jugs of spring water, and a four-foot cardboard cut-out of the angel Gabriel. Lula and Lila ran through a litany of spirituals, the Doxology and the Gloria Patri twice, and what sounded like the theme to “Godspell.” This was followed by more praying and some stomping then yelling, louder and louder. Suddenly the table lamp next to Clara dimmed, and there came a sound like some villain getting vaporized in a science-fiction movie. They heard the door open upstairs, and the Reverend Jimmie John shouted, the words that streamed from his mouth anything but holy. He hit the downstairs at a dead sprint, stumbling into the living room, eyes wide, cheeks red and pasty, his collar jerked open and the Beatitudes bow-tie nowhere to be seen. “I have never in all my born days,” he stammered. “That thing—it ain’t no work of God. It’s a demon.”
Behind him, Phil and Lula and Lila churned down the steps, carrying the camera, the cross, and several other items. Smiley and the angel Gabriel brought up the rear. Jimmie John was shaking his finger at Clara. “I don’t know how you found out those things,” he said. “And I don’t know how you got them on your computer. But I’ll tell you this, if you ever repeat them to another living soul, I’ll sue you for libel and take every cent you’ve got.”
Clara stared in amazement. “Reverend, I’m sure I don’t understand.”
They could hear Phil revving up the love bus outside. Jimmie John smiled a half-crazy smile. “Oh, you understand all right. Don’t think I’m not gonna put the word out on you. There won’t be an evangelist within three countries that’ll come ten miles from this place. I’ve got your number, lady. Oh, yes I do.”
“J. J., this is crazy,” Martin said. “If you’ll just give us a minute—.”
“And one of my own flock, too,” Jimmie John interrupted. “Judas in the garden.” His voice echoed off the ceiling.
“Now wait a damn minute,” Martin continued. But before he could finish, the reverend whirled and stalked out the door. They listened as the love bus spun gravel then screeched like a baby condor when it hit the pavement of the street. Martin stared at the open door. “Well—shit,” he managed.
Dobie was nodding, breathing heavily through his nose. “What does he know anyway? We don’t need him. We can play this thing however we please. We’ll put an ad in the paper.” His eyes lit up. “We’ll put ads in all the papers. Come and see God’s computer, we’ll say. We can charge admission, five bucks at the door, 15 if you want God to answer some personal question. We don’t need the Reverend Jimmie John. We’ll do just fine.”
“You may have something,” Martin agreed, nodding thoughtfully before crossing over to lay a hand on Dobie’s shoulder. “We can sell concessions, maybe even souvenirs.’My Mom and Dad spoke to Jesus, but all I got was this lousy tee shirt.’ How does that grab you?”
Clara watched the two of them, faces bright, and wondered why after so many years it was only this fiasco which could bring them together. “No,” she said softly when they paused. “No.”
“What do you mean no, Ma,” Dobie asked. “This is it. This is our chance.”
“I won’t have it,” Clara replied. “God or not, that thing upstairs was meant specially for us. I won’t exploit it. And I won’t exploit innocent frightened people, either. I won’t be another Jimmie John, you understand?”
Only when she stopped did she realize how shrill, almost desperate, she sounded. Dobie and Martin, their plans deflated, just stared. “So—what do you want us to do?” Martin finally asked.
“Ma?” Dobie whispered.
Clara looked straight at them and, though she felt ready to cry, managed a smile. “Go home, boys. I’ll figure out something. I’ll call you.”
The three of them stared at each other a few moments longer. Then Martin turned toward the door, pulling Dobie by the elbow. Clara watched through the window as both their cars disappeared down the street.
Clara had lived near Richmond her entire life and never much wanted to leave. Of course, she had never anticipated certain things. That her husband would walk out after 30 years of marriage, for one. That when he was gone, she would realize how little of the world she had experienced. That she would raise two sons into the same mediocrity in which she had trapped herself. And that one day a few seemingly insignificant words on her computer would offer her a new beginning, if only she were willing to accept it. Did it really matter whether the messages came from God or not? Clara wasn’t so sure, for the words had reminded her of the possibility of change, even now. Hope springs eternal, wasn’t that the saying? And she was only 54—no spring chicken, but hardly a relic either. Who was to say, as Tom had said for so long, what she should and shouldn’t do?
She remembered a bus ride she had taken as a teenager, a school trip from Mechanicsville, her home, to the monuments of Washington, D.C., the closest she had ever been to real history and most likely would ever come. She had sat next to Connie Reynolds on the drive up, but, returning, Connie had swapped places to be next to Jack Philips, star tight end. Clara had ridden next to Winston Garish, star of the Latin Club. Not that Winston was a poor catch. He was courteous and friendly enough, clean-cut like the military boys Clara had seen at the fairgrounds, and intelligent. He told Clara how he was headed to Wake Forest the next year and how he planned to be in Europe as soon as he graduated from college. “Not for anything special,” he said, “just to go once before my life really starts.” Clara said it must be nice to have such dreams, though she hardly knew if she meant it. To her, Europe was little more than a yellowing map on the wall of Mr. Kern’s history class. And, besides, didn’t travel require money, and hadn’t she already pledged herself to the secretary’s job that Mrs. Boone, the typing instructor, had found for her? Winston made Europe sound lovely and exotic, castles along the Rhine, the canals of Venice—and everybody knew about the French, he said, giving her a nudge. Clara didn’t know diddlysquat about the French, but she nudged Winston back, and told him he’d do well at Wake, and hoped he wouldn’t forget all the home-bodies like her when he was off gallivanting in Greece or Austria or wherever it was.
Five years later, she received word from him on a postcard of the Champs Élysées. He said he could book her passage on the next plane over, and they could view the windmills of Holland and the ruins of Rome together. It would be just like some old movie, he said. But Clara was already seeing Tom, and things were turning serious, and she simply couldn’t give up her job now that Mrs. Godwin had taken maternity leave and placed her in charge of the secretarial pool. She sent Winston a telegram, 18 words for which she paid two dollars and 55 cents, closing, it seemed to her, several chapters of her life in a single turn.
Surprisingly she hadn’t thought of Winston or what it would have been like to say yes to him for years. Despite its mundanity, her life never allowed pause for things like dreaming or reflection. Yet now, with God housed in the spare bedroom one floor up, she couldn’t help but realize how random life really was and how beyond her control it had always been. That’s why she had given up Winston and dreams of Europe, she told herself—for normalcy, to have the kind of ordered life that everyone from her mother to her gynecologist had taught her to want. So where was the order now? In a way, she hoped, even prayed, that whatever had taken possession of her computer was not the Almighty. For even though she was grateful for the second chance occasioned by his arrival, she was also angry that he had not appeared to her sooner, headed off her mistakes, let her know up-front the rules of the universe, namely, that the cosmos didn’t give a tinker’s damn what happened to her. Now here was God, or the next best thing, with his message of all being well again.
And maybe Clara did have time to act on that knowledge, but maybe she didn’t either, and it was this second possibility which both scared and enraged her in ways she’d long assumed impossible.
After Dobie and Martin’s departure, she moved upstairs to assess the damage caused by Jimmie John’s visit. The room was surprisingly clean, the only trash being the empty gallon jugs, though what Jimmie John had done with the water they contained was a mystery to her. She went to the computer and waited for something to happen, which it did, moments later.
I don’t think you’ll make Jimmie John’s Christmas card list.
“I would ask what you said,” Clara countered, “But I have a feeling the less I know, the better.”
Perhaps. But men like Jimmie John—they serve their purpose, too.
“You’re not banishing him to hell, then?”
I hate to tell you this, Clara, but there is no hell. It was a ruse.
Not about this. What did you think I meant by all that prodigal son business? Redemption is always there, to the very end, even after.You just have to take it.
“But not everyone does.”
No, not everyone. A good number, though. And you’ll find that as eternity proceeds, people come around.
You’re not here to talk about Jimmie John, however.
Clara swallowed hard. “No, I’m not.”
What, then? I’ve been known to offer an answer or two in my day.
Clara thought a long time before she spoke. “Why me?” she finally said.
Why not? Maybe I just want to keep the word spread, and this is my way of doing it.
“Yes, but why me? You could have picked anybody.”
There was a short pause before the answer. Then I ask again, why not you? Why someone else instead?
“You’re being evasive.”
You don’t want me to pull rank, do you? Who art thou to question the Lord and all.”
Clara tried to remember where the words came from but could not. “I have a feeling it’s because you’re lonely,” she continued.
“You heard me—lonely. I’ll be honest. I don’t know if you’re God or not. But let’s say you are. I’ve often wondered why you’d want to make the world, and the best I can figure is that you’re lonely in your own way. Humans are a mess, you must admit. You could zap us into submission anytime you choose, but that’s not what you want, a bunch of craven mice. You need people to have free-will so there can be something outside of you, if that’s possible. You need somebody to talk to, some sense of otherness—maybe not exactly the way we feel it, but close enough. I figure that’s why you selected me, because I was lonely, too.”
Is that so? Well, I can’t say whether you’re right or wrong, though I’m given to understand I work in mysterious ways. If it’s any help, Clara, creating the universe was nothing compared to creating myself.
“That much I believe,” Clara admitted. “I guess my only question now is whether you are who you say or not?”
But does that even matter? If it’s just loneliness binding us together, does it matter whether I am God, or another human being, or a computer, or just some errant thought drifting through the universe?
“Maybe not. Except as it affects what I do now.”
That’s always the question, isn’t it? Perhaps the fact that you are committed to doing something is enough in itself.
“Seems a little vague to me.”
In Clara’s mind, the events of the past few hours and days blended back through the preceding years. She touched the screen carefully. “I won’t be seeing you again, will I?”
No. A pause. At least not here.
“It’s just as well. Who knows what scheme Jimmie John’s concocting?”
He’s no longer a threat. Never was, really.
“I know. I’m just saying.”
Clara, don’t worry about Martin and Dobie. They’ll be fine. I have my eye on them.
“I know that, too.”
As the light of the monitor folded in on itself, Clara’s hand dropped away. “Good-bye,” she echoed. For the first time in days, though it seemed much longer, the screen subsided to black. Clara felt behind the monitor, back where the cables bunched and mingled, but they weren’t even warm.
At first her thoughts turned to Winston Garish and Europe. She had saved some money, and there would be no problem getting tickets. Several times Dobie had shown her how to make reservations through the computer network service to which he subscribed. She could be in London in a week, Rome in a month—and from there, who knew? But for some reason, the idea of Europe failed to satisfy her. Travel would make her no younger, no less alone. She had a life to live now, in the present. To try to go back and redeem every mistake she had made—well, she had made them, and they would be a part of her forever. Besides, given their variety, she doubted she would have enough space in several lifetimes to compensate for them all.
Then she turned to the Bible, reading the important passages, skipping Deuteronomy and the “who begat whoms.” She watched TV preachers and probed the inspirational sections at local bookstores. She fasted for the better part of one Sunday until Dobie told her she looked peaked, when she took a V-8 and a hard-boiled egg. She prayed.
And finally she went back to her computer, logging onto the Internet and setting up her own newsgroup, »god.help.here, printing this message inside, “I have seen the Lord. He is well. I am willing to talk to anyone who wishes it. Clara.”
The first few days brought the expected responses.
Monday.: “I saw Jimi Hendrix at a Dead concert. Let’s get together and jam sometime. Casey Jones.
Tuesday. “SWM, non-smoking, Christian, 41. Seeks born-again SWF, 19—41, who likes hiking, cats, and Amy Grant.
Interested in exclusive relationship, perhaps intimacy. No smokers or atheists need apply. Write Charles at above address.
Wednesday. »Crazey bitch . . . weenel done her mos everything;;Crhist suks!!!!!!!!
But after several weeks, Clara’s incoming mail turned up this query. “Did you mean what you said?—Denise
Clara copied down the address and wrote back that night.: “I did.
“Though it sounds absurd, here is what happened.” And she told the story, from JC’s first appearance to his last, about Martin and Dobie, about the Reverend Jimmie John, about the doubts she entertained at first, and still did. She said that God was lonely, and then told how Tom had left her three years earlier, and how she was lonely, too. She even told about Winston Garish and her chance to go to Europe, but added that maybe talking to God was better, even if it turned out not to be God in the end. She did not interpret things, at least so far as she could help it, but simply recounted the events before sending her message along.
Denise wrote back the next day.
Thank you for your story. I don’t know how true it is, but it is a good story and may mean something to me, though I don’t yet know. As best I can tell, you are either the craziest person in the world or the sanest. I am the same way. I have a story, also.
It’s been several months since I’ve really spoken to someone—at length, I mean, My husband, Garrett, is a good and devoted man, and he is willing to listen, but for some reason there are things I cannot tell him, I look in his eyes and see pain, and I don’t know if it is pain for me, or for himself, or for both of us, only that to speak is to cut deeper rather than to heal, Perhaps that’s why I’m writing you, a stranger, because you may not be such a stranger, after all. Maybe you are the listener I’ve been looking for, Even if not, you are many miles away and can only hurt me so much.
We moved here—San Diego—from very near where you are now. Being in the Navy, Garrett goes where he is ordered, as do I after a fashion, We had a baby—a boy. Joshua, who died. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the doctor said. We thought about the things we might have done or not done, been more careful to make him sleep on his back and the like, but the doctor said it was not our fault. Garrett wants to have another child when I am ready, but I can’t say when I will be, if ever. Sometimes I think people are allotted only a certain amount of love to give and that my share died forever in that crib with Josh. I feel almost idiotic telling you this, embarrassed. What kind of mother must I have been, you’re probably thinking. So I’ll tell you what I’ve decided. I wasn’t a good mother, and I wasn’t a bad one. I was a brief mother, and I can’t help but feel that, in being so, I lost more than I’ll ever regain.
Why am I telling you this? I don’t know. My people are Presbyterians, never what you would call devout, and it’s only in the thick of this mess that I’ve started thinking of God again. And not in good ways, mind you. I wonder most if there’s a plan to it all. I know I sound like a newspaper advice column, but the question won’t go away. Some days I ask myself how a merciful God could do something like this both to me and to an innocent child. Other days I answer myself, and I say either that God is not merciful and loving, as I once believed, but random and vindictive and maybe even evil, or that He does not exist at all, and I don’t have a strand of hope.
That’s what I need from you, I suppose; hope. I need to know that God, or something, is out there and that the reasons may be beyond me but are there also. You said that God was lonely. I don’t want to be alone. I want to look at the sky and see more than sky, I want to believe this stale world is actually alive, But I also want my son back, and that will never happen. And if that never happens, maybe nothing else will either. And maybe I am foolish and have always been.
I am sorry. Thank you for listening. If you don’t write back, I’ll understand.—Denise
To her surprise, Clara’s first reaction was skepticism, for it occurred to her that she had never seen Denise before, and as Dobie said, you never knew who was writing what on the Internet and why. But by the same token, she had never seen Europe, either, yet had no doubt it was there. In fact, she began to think that Denise—well, Denise and people like her—were the whole reason she had been contacted in the first place. “Maybe what I found,” she told Martin later on, “wasn’t God but faith, which covers a lot more ground and is probably more useful in the end.” There was still the matter of JC’s identity, of course, and Clara had been thinking about the Internet— that electronic world where by the stroke of a finger in her spare bedroom she could touch San Diego or Paris or wherever. Didn’t it stand to reason, despite the logical objections, that something that vast had to possess a mind of its own, in a manner of speaking, and a moral sense and emotions which didn’t mind reaching out now and again?
Finally, however, she dismissed those mysteries she could not solve. For no matter the truth about God, she had her story, and it wasn’t so much the facts of that story as the fact of story itself in which she believed. The word is truth, Clara remembered, and the truth shall set you free. She wrote back to Denise, and they started to correspond on a more regular basis. But every time she punched the button that would rocket her words along wires from one coast to the other, she recalled with great clarity the sentiment with which she had begun her second letter to San Diego. She had heard the words many times before, even said them herself, but never with quite the sense in which she now understood them.
“Denise, she wrote, do not worry. You are never alone.”