The state route leading to the town branched off at Water Street, which lead to most of the residential sections; the state route continued past the branch to the commercial and government areas, as well as the schools. Traffic volume was rarely large enough at this branch to warrant a timed red-yellow-green traffic light, but a number of accidents twenty or so years ago provided evidence that STOP and CAUTION traffic signs (always difficult to pick up on snowy winter evenings) could not ensure safety. The town therefore installed a flashing light, colored yellow to warn incoming traffic from the state route, and red to alert traffic from Water Street to stop before entering the state route.
“I take it you do believe in God?” asked Bernie.
Billy smiled, looked down. “Well . . . I don’t know, really. I hear what you mean about how silly the whole cosmic vending machine thing is. But — well, this is going to sound kinda strange, but what the hell. I just have this feeling, that there’s something out there, up there. I’ve felt that way since . . . remember back at the Moore School, at the end of recess when we’d all get in line to go back to class?”
“Yeah. They had the youngest ones, the third graders, line up against the wall. Fourth and fifth graders lined up along the edge of the basketball court, and try to pelt the third graders with snowballs or rocks when the teachers weren’t looking.”
“Right. Well one day I was leaning up against the brick wall, waiting to get into Miss Guthrie’s class with everyone else, and the teachers were actually paying attention this day, that was right after Jimmy Jordan got that cut over his eye. Anyway, we’re all lined up, and everyone’s being quite because the teacher’s aren’t taking any guff that day, and all of a sudden, as I’m leaning against the wall, staring down at the ground — I felt something. Literally, felt it. Some kind of existence, a being, something that was singular but part of everything at the same time, something I couldn’t touch, or speak to, but — there.”
“No, it wasn’t like that, wasn’t scary, it wasn’t like it was calling to me, it was just letting me know that it was — there. It was a comforting feeling, made me feel that I wasn’t alone in the world, no matter where I was. It was kinda cool, really.
“Then all of a sudden I heard Skinner call my name, and all the fourth graders were laughing at me, so I ran into school.”
“So that’s what made you believe in God?”
“Don’t know about God. But I believe in something.”
He knew a good idea when he saw one, and could be relied on to execute it efficiently, but he rarely came up with an original idea himself. He was like a successful radio disk jockey, able to retell, even improve jokes heard at a comedy club the prior weekend, but rarely coming up with his own material.
“Fair to say you don’t believe in God?”
Bernie breathed loudly out his nostrils. “If you’re asking if I believe in some kind of supernatural, all-powerful being who answers prayers, a cosmic vending machine? No, course not. I actually hope God doesn’t exist, for God’s sake instead of humanity’s, because how would God feel about all these clowns doing all the crazy, evil stuff they do in the name of God?”
Uncover the sugar bowl, insert the teaspoon, lift out. Pour into first cup, do not stir — need to leave the spoon dry. Musn’t add moisture into sugar bowl. One teaspoon, pour into second cup, a second. Stir first cup (decaf) then second (caffienated), the order preserving the integrity of both cups.
And even though the root cause of his anger was gone, and he knew he no longer had reason to be angry, the emotion stayed with him, not as strong, but still there, affecting his mood (snappish), his focus (inconsistent), his appetite (nonexistent). It felt similar to a hangover — alcohol gone from the system, his body still recovering from its recent presence — or, it seemed to him, more like the residual smell of turpentine on his hands, even after a thorough washing.
He looked at the trophies on the shelf. For years they had served as pleasant reminders of his youthful accomplishments, convenient conversation starters (hey I didn’t know. . . ). But he hadn’t really noticed them in years, they had blended into the room furnishings like three dimensional wallpaper, and he wondered now what his motivation was for not placing them in storage years ago. Perhaps, he thought, he hoped they were still noticed by visitors, would still generate appreciation — a realization which made his trophies now seem vain and self-serving.
“Ever been to church?” Billy asked.
Bernie shrugged. “My parents used to take my sister and I at Easter and Christmas to the Congo,” he said, referencing the familiar nickname of the Congregational Church, “but that stopped a while ago, around the time my father started complaining about how the churches don’t have to pay taxes. I always hated it — music more than anything else, that awful organ, sounded like the person playing wished they were dead. And the smell — you can tell most men never wear cologne in this town, because for some reason they think they need to wear it at church, and because they don’t know what they’re doing they always put too much on. It’s like they feel they have to smell pious as well as look pious, and unless they can really smell their cologne they think they’re not fulfilling some kind of religious obligation.”
“Can Harry make it Sunday?” Billy asked.
Bernie frowned. “Nah. Says he’s got some church thing he’s going to.”
“Ah,” said Billy. “Harry’s really into his church, isn’t he?”
Bernie shifted in his bus seat, his vinyl jacket swishing against the green plastic. “Apparently.”
“Sounds like you don’t approve.”
“Nah, it’s not that. Just — I don’t see the point, or rather, I don’t see what he sees when I look at a church.”
“OK. What do you see?”
Bernie straightened against the stiff back of the seat. “I see — a whole lot of pretentiousness. People putting on their nicest clothes, acting real nice to each other, just to make sure everyone sees how respectable they are. It’s all a show.”
“So you don’t think they’re there because they want to be there?”
“Oh, they want to be there. But not because of God, or religion or anything like that. It’s all just a show.”
He wanted to know the answer simply for the sake of having the answer, not really caring what that answer was, or how useful the information would be, or even if the answer was correct. His interest in the answer was similar to his interest in how often he clipped his fingernails, a thought which came to him each time he sat down with his nailclipper. Ten days, two weeks? He once thought of marking the date of his nail clipping on the calendar, but worried that someone would think of this as obsessive. Perhaps, he had thought, he could write a code for the clipping that only he would understand, but quickly dismissed that thought since it would prove his obsession. So while he never thought the effort to obtain the nail clipping frequency answer was worthwhile, he still wanted to know, if for no other reason than he didn’t like coming up with a question that he couldn’t answer.