I remember the day of the morning I found out that my father had died. His partner in my creation, my long-divorced mother, said only Another victory for Big Tobacco when I called her with the news.
I grabbed a light jacket (it was Fall in Berlin) and left my apartment on Bismarckstrasse. I had the idea that I should find a park bench in the vicinity of a fountain and sit with my thoughts. It was one of those undecided days of blinding sunshine interrupted with maddening frequency by chilling clouds. The clouds would come suddenly and refrigerate the city under long, despairing shadows. Packs of morbid thoughts would race across the city with the cloud-shadows for cover.
School was just getting out as I crossed the cobblestone plaza at Ernst Reuter Platz. German kids in their neat little rucksacks, not nearly as world weary as their American counterparts, jumbled down the bunker-stairs of the U-Bahn entrance. Or they fooled around at the bus stops, snatching and punching and harrying the street with joy. I was almost offended by the blotchy passion of their fat little faces; the electrocuting vitality of their squeals. All I could do was hope that I wasn’t scowling, too obviously, at their obvious mockery of the dead and dying.
Dotting the pale foam of all that Germanity was the occasional dark blip, a rambunctious child of Turks, or Nigerians, or Chinese, horsing around with the rest of them. Did those kids know, yet, how different they were? At what age does Experience start separating us from the pack? At what age will these kids become individuals, which means alone, and discover in their “individuality” the seed of every kind of sadness? At what age will that little Nigerian, showing his big white teeth, playing tag with that bone-white German with the floss-thin hair, learn the mortifying truth? He’ll be a few years ahead of the natives in his anti-epiphanies. Eternity will tap him on the shoulder first, even if it doesn’t come for him with its gurney until I’ve been gone for fifty years.
Wow, I thought. Mr. Cheerful. Mr. Sunshine.
There’s a fountain in the center of the roundabout at Ernst Reuter Platz but it’s so noisy with traffic. Crossing Ernst Reuter Platz, and walking one third of a mile down the broad boulevard of the 17th of June, I came to the Tiergarten. The Tiergarten is Berlin’s Central Park. It isn’t ringed by skyscrapers but it’s large enough and central enough to earn the comparison. A creek as wide as a road shimmers through it and it seemed to me that a shimmering creek came closest to being my goal in the search for a spot suitable for sitting a few hours and dwelling on non/existence. I found only one short bench facing the Tiergarten creek and I was going to sit on that bench and contemplate Eternity, despite the unfortunate fact that a man was already sitting there, arms stretched out like wings across the back-rest.
He didn’t even look up, or scoot politely from the center of the bench, retracting his arms, when I sat down. This forced me to perch uncomfortably on an edge of the bench. I was to his left, balancing on one half of the seat of my pants and he sat there as he had been, in an expensive gray suit with a slight sheen to it, his right leg hooked over his left knee, smoking an aromatic cigarette, removing an arm from the back-rest, every odd minute, to pluck the cigarette rather languidly from his mouth and tap its long ash off.
My father is dead, I thought. He’s lying on a slab, mouth ajar, eyes half-lidded, shriveled cock exposed. The fluorescing minus-signs of a twin-reflected overhead light are swimming in his sightless pupils. My father. That guy who used to sit in the brown leather chair in the living room. His body was now debris. Insensate and separate. I thought, for whatever reason, of the uncanny time I’d scratched at a rubbery bump on my thigh… assuming it was a swollen spider bite… and the bump had moved. A tick.
I glanced at the stranger hogging the bench.
He was handsome but balding; strong jawed, big nosed. He had the effeminate lips of a man in the habit of eating very small portions of very good food and showing de rigueur displeasure, with those lips, from time to time, despite the quality of the meal. He was olive-skinned; swarthy. I tried to guess his nationality. Mediterranean skin and Germanic nose. And the hair, what remained of it, was tightly curled, sand-colored, almost African in texture. What did all that add up to?
Without turning to face me, he said, in a soothing voice, “My name is Clifton Webb. I’m a super-intelligent being of extraterrestrial origin. Any questions you’d like to ask me about human life, practical physics, or The Future, I’d be glad to answer for you, as long as I’m sitting here anyway.”
Then he turned my way a little and smiled. I think I smiled back. It was clear to me that all of what he claimed was truthful. I was amazed at how calmly I took this.
Clifton Webb took a drag on his cigarette and his eyelids fluttered as the smoke scrolled out of him. He was the best commercial for the pleasure of smoking I’d ever seen. I even found myself tempted to consider taking up the habit, despite the fact that my father had died, that very morning, of the very thing. I cleared my throat and squirmed to maintain my balance on the edge of the bench. I said,
“I’ve just received news that my father has died. Where did his Soul go at the moment of death? Or is there even such a thing as a soul?”
“The energy animating the matter of your father’s body dispersed when a certain configuration of nerve cells in the brain, a microscopic organ called a Meta-Ganglial Knot, became disorganized, which is when the moment of death technically occurs. This organ is the first thing to die in a dying body. The MGT is the antenna, so to speak, that focuses the soul into the vessel, and armor, of the flesh.” He uncrossed his legs, adjusted his suit jacket and stood up, flicking his still-lit cigarette in a beautiful arc across the creek. “Filthy habit. Would you like to go for a little walk?”
There were people out in the Tiergarten; students, tourists, lovers, all in jumpers or jackets. Mr. Webb walked at a brisk clip and looked at everyone with genuine interest, nodding a warm “Guten tag” here and there as I huffed to keep up with him. The crowd was walking in one direction and we in the opposite, which puzzled me until I remembered that a concert was scheduled at the Heimat Klange that afternoon, a festival of ethnic music in the open-air venue that the Tiergarten borders.
“Are you having trouble keeping up?” He was smiling, facing me suddenly, walking backwards. “It’s just that I would very much like to be at a certain part of the park, which happens to be on the other side of it from where we are now, and I’d like to be there at a certain time of day, when the light is most perfect.”
He added, “I was raised on this planet, actually, and there’s nothing superhuman about my great ability to walk backwards at speed. I just practiced it obsessively until I could do it. It’s nothing you couldn’t do yourself, nearly as well, if you tried to.”
“You’ve read my mind!”
“Yes, but not telepathically. It’s just statistically probable that those were your thoughts at that particular moment. There’s no such thing as ‘telepathy’. The brain, without it’s humdrum inputs of taste, touch, smell, vision and hearing, is sealed away in the skull, numb as a cauliflower. The brain is neither a receiver nor a transmitter of waves, a theory that became popular on this planet soon after the invention of radio. The brain is just a wrinkled chunk of protein. There is no telepathy. But statistical telepathy is a useful method of communication on many worlds. It just takes a bunch of people with substantial IQs and plenty of confidence in their guessing ability. There are planets where not a single syllable has been spoken, by adults, at least, in decades. With a lot less misunderstanding involved, I might add, than on this chattering planet.”
I thought a deliberate non-sequitur… goat rubber rolls uphill… to test him.
“Of course it won’t work… on that thought! You’re thinking gibberish to test me!” His smile was winningly giddy. Almost adolescent. He had the boyish quality, verging on decadence, of certain carefree trust fund heirs. “Statistical telepathy only works on planets where people want to communicate! What you just did proves exactly why the technique would never work on Earth.”
“Is there,” I said,
“No.” he said.
“…. a God?”
He shrugged, still pumping his arms in the reverse-jog, advancing backwards in long smooth strides.
“No, there is no God. The Universe is self-creating. Life… animate objects… account for less than one quadrillionth of a thousandth of one percent of all the chemical processes in this solar system alone. One out of every hundred million solar systems supports a Life-bearing planet; only two percent of those can boast any so-called intelligent life. Life is an accidental by-product of matter. The Universe is mostly concerned with Things, not Creatures. Things evolve, too, you know, and they have turned out to be remarkably successful. Creatures are a fledgling form. You might be interested to know that a hybrid of the two is where “Life” in this Universe is heading. A billion years from now, this galaxy is going to be teaming with a form of Life greatly less animate than what we know as Life now. They will be slow, if not motionless, and enjoy astronomically increased life spans. They’ll be durable and gigantic. They won’t be very “intelligent”, but “intelligence” is just a way of coping with the Evolutionary weaknesses of mortality and smallness, anyway. But I digress. How did the Universe create itself?, you want to ask.
“The Universe counteracts the probability of never existing by creating itself over and over again, forever, with a frequency greater than the frequency of any other possible outcome, e.g.: The Universe only existing once, for a moment, or… The Universe only existing as a phenomenon of ‘The Past’.
“It’s a hard-working Universe! It wants to exist! It explodes from an infinitesimal point, the explosion expands quicker than time can be created to keep up with the expansion, it freezes and starts again. It’s in that frozen-moment when the Universe is on the verge of exploding again for the first time, which lasts for one thousand trillionth of a second, that WE exist. With every renewed explosion, the Universe progresses a little further than it did before, creating more space and creating more time, while simultaneously depleting Gravity. This progress, this stuttering expansion, is what we experience as Time. Reality is flickering. Since we are flickering with it, we can’t sense it as such.”
The trees, the grass, the red-bellied clouds lowering themselves like a fine blanket over the wary sunset…
“All civilizations, at some point,” he continued, after letting what he’d said sink in, “reach exactly the point your world is reaching now. There is no God, that’s clear. If there really were a God, you know, could there really be such a thing as television? Of course not.”
“Your Science is finally to the point where it’s able to reveal that to you. That was the legendary Forbidden Fruit on the Tree of Knowledge, by the way… biting the apple, one risked becoming enlightened… enlightened to the fact that God doesn’t exist. You’ve been misinterpreting that Garden of Eden story for centuries. The risk of eating that apple was not that Man would disappear from God but just the opposite. And now we see the results of Knowledge: perdition, as Milton would put it. Those Antediluvian Jews were quite clever. As were others.”
“By the way,” he continued, “if you’ve recently been wondering why Culture seems to be ebbing at such a low point of late…”
“It’s all related. It’s typical, for a Planetary Culture on the brink of becoming , ah, technologically mature, to attempt to will itself back, by embracing kitsch. To will itself back to the point before which God ceased to exist. Listen carefully to all pop songs… the insipid longing! The sound of humanity’s hunger for an unrecoverable naiveté… expressed as the veneration of Kitsch. Kitsch is that worldview wherein God exists at all and humans are the subjects in His kingdom, called Heaven, and the clouds are made of marshmallows or whipped cream and what have you. ”
Walking backwards as fast as ever, he nimbly side-stepped a fallen branch I was half-hoping he’d trip on. He winked at me as he side-stepped it and I was momentarily ashamed of myself.
He said, “So, God doesn’t exist. Now what? Continue as a civilization, or commit global suicide? What to do? What to do? One century from now, the major cities of the nations of your Earth will either be an amusing collection of cindered Necropolises, itchy with wild dogs and cannibals (I’ve visited such a planet, by the way, in my youth… the sex was quite unbelievable)… or the opposite Fate Path will be followed and these same cities will become population centers of a shiny new Phase Two Society. You know: Wish–Power, communal intimacy between all higher forms, faster-than-light travel and all that. That’s what makes Tourism on the Earth so interesting these days. Which way will it go?” He held his hands in an exquisite gesture of non-partisan uncertainty.
People stared in irritation, or amusement, as we hurried past them, towards the other side of the park, Mr. Webb walking backwards with no effort and me huffing and gasping to keep up without breaking into an undignified trot. There was, in fact, a longish interval during which there was no speech between us, my capacity for speech and thought both hampered by breathlessness, and I began to panic in the absence of his hypnotic voice. It was as though the laughing gas was wearing off and I was becoming ever more conscious of sitting in a Dentist’s chair. I was race-walking with a backwards-walking man who claimed to be a super-intelligent Alien in possession of the Secrets of the Universe and he was losing his hair. Alarm bells were beginning to ring, faintly at first.
We slowed, backing into a secluded cul-de-sac of tiny-leafed bushes in a half-wall around a statue of some stern-faced German in brass breeches. When Mr. Webb finally spoke, it pushed the confusion and troubled awe back out of me. It was like unto being taken up in a hand far too massive for me to resist yet also too languid for me to worry about being crushed in.
“Do you see the way the sunlight streams down through the trees, painted on the forsythia and gentian like a gold mist, at this time of day?” His nostrils flared. “The sunlight has a rich, mellow smell to it, wouldn’t you say? I mean, metaphorically, or synesthetically, speaking.” He gazed with a directness that made me deflect my own. He rolled up his jacket sleeves and fussed with his belt buckle, saying, from the corner of his mouth,
“I have a date with a knockout tonight and I feel that I’ll be at somewhat of a disadvantage if I go into it wanting something from her, if you catch my drift. How do you put it? Horny. I don’t want to meet this woman in a state of horniness, or it will give my game away. I’m sure you have some experience with desirable females, being a not-bad-looking fellow yourself. The body on this girl! You see, it’ll increase my bargaining power if I can be sexually blasé about her looks, at least tonight.”
He gestured for me to step closer and then closer still, as though he was about to share a chummy secret.
“Pursuant to that, we have little more than five minutes before tourists are likely to happen upon this spot. I want you to get on your knees and suck the tip of my penis like an Arab until I orgasm in your mouth,” and his pants dropped down around his ankles. They dropped with a tambourine-slap of loose change and car keys.
Mr. Webb weighted my shoulders with priestly hands and said something to the effect that my planet was famous for this. We should all be proud.