Because Beatrice had died only a few weeks previously, and the lightning had cremated Faith so instantly and thoroughly, their funerals were held on the same day on the same lawn. The urns were arranged by a lazy river. So many mourners arrived that Jay didn’t recognize half of them; he knew Faith’s uncle for his tinfoil fedora, and he could hear Dan sobbing into a corner flower garden, but everyone else was just so many friends and family.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Jay said to Uncle Featherway.
“You’re one of Faith’s friends, right? Do you know what happens when you die?”
“Um.” Jay checked the display of urns by the river. Beatrice’s urn was cream-colored and marbled, while Faith’s family chose a flat matte white. “What do you think?”
“The aliens made humans from monkeys to mine gold,” said Uncle Featherway. “They don’t like wasting resources, so when we die, they reincarnate us to keep mining. At the end of time the aliens will collect all the gold we’ve gathered, and everyone loyal to them will board their space-ship.”
“Wow,” said Jay. “Does the tinfoil hat keep the aliens from reincarnating you if you die wearing it?”
“The tinfoil is for different aliens,” said Uncle Featherway. “The mind-readers have been at war with the gold-miners for eons.”
“I see,” said Jay. “Faith told me you attended a religious lecture at Sheridan Cliff-Side College, in Wyoming. Before you leave LA, could I interview you regarding Virgil Blue?”
“Sure. He didn’t have much to say, though,” said Uncle Featherway. “It was the way he said it. I don’t think I could do it justice.”
“I want to hear your take on it anyway. When are you free?”
“After the funeral I’ll be in the sports bar across the street until my train shows up. Hey, isn’t that your friend over there crying into the flowers?”
“Oh. Excuse me.” Jay walked to Dan to pat him on the shoulder. “Dan, have you eaten today?”
Dan absorbed the tears and snot on his face with his black gloves. “I haven’t been able to eat since Faith died.”
“Let’s go try to eat something, then. I’ll pay.”
Dan turned one last time to the urns. The urns were framed by the top and bottom of the broad river, which Jay thought was a fitting metaphor for impermanence. Dan concentrated on the scene like he wanted to freeze the moment in his memory forever. Finally he joined Jay on the sidewalk, and the two left the funeral. “Where should we go for lunch?”
“There’s a sports bar across the street,” said Jay. “It’ll have the essentials.”
Dan declined to order. Jay bought him a tuna sandwich and ordered only water for himself. The bartender brought the sandwich as quickly as he could while also watching the football game. Dan picked at the bread and ate scraps of lettuce until he worked up the momentum to take a small bite. He soon finished the tuna sandwich and found himself half ravenous, so Jay bought him another.
“Thanks,” said Dan. “Jay, you’ve put up with me for more than ten years. Just… Thanks.”
“It’s been a pleasure knowing you,” said Jay. “I know Beatrice and Faith would say the same.”
“Really? I killed them.” Dan paused in the middle of his second sandwich. Jay didn’t know what to say. “I killed both of them. Both of them are dead because of me.”
“What makes you say that?”
“You know, I’m…” Dan put down the sandwich. “Can I order a drink?”
“Did you drive here?”
Jay ordered Dan a pint of stout.
“Beatrice left the centipede-party because of me.” As soon as the pint was put before him, Dan drank half the glass. “I made her shake my hand, and she couldn’t stand me anymore. She pretended she was called by the hospital, and she left with such haste she crossed the street without seeing the bus.”
“Dan, that wouldn’t be your fault even if it was true.”
“And that’s assuming she didn’t throw herself under the bus to get away from me for good.”
“I can’t imagine she did.”
“And Faith—oh, poor Faith—”
“She was struck by lightning, Dan. That’s no one’s fault.”
“But I was the one who looked so pitiful she offered to get breakfast,” said Dan. “And I’m the one wanted cinnamon rolls from across the street. I basically stabbed her in the back.”
“That’s not true.”
Dan finished the pint and ordered another. He ate the last of his sandwich while he waited for the drink. “I killed my dad, too.”
“I’m sure you didn’t, but I’m listening.”
Dan sipped the stout. The pint was thick like mud, but its head was white cream. “Remember senior year of high-school, I led you to our homeroom? And for introductions, I talked about meeting my dad at his university? The story didn’t end there.”
“Yeah?” Jay watched the football game flicker as the bartender changed settings on TV.
“My parents were divorced, so I only got to see my dad once a year. Each year, he gave me another book to take home. That Summer my mom dropped me off in the campus courtyard and I visited him in his office. He asked me how I enjoyed his last gift, Dante’s Inferno, and I told him it was my favorite epic poem, and the best book he ever gave me.
“So he gave me two books, the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. He even showed me pages from a first edition of the Inferno he was analyzing for the university. And he asked if I had any questions.
“So I asked, ‘What happens to Dante’s guide, Virgil? I’m hoping he was sentenced to the outer rim of Hell temporarily, to lead Dante to God, and then he would be allowed into Heaven for his service. I’d hate to think that the Virtuous Pagans are locked out of Heaven forever.’
“And he said, ‘I’m afraid the Virtuous Pagans are banished for all time. But because they live on the outer rim of Hell their only punishment is distance from God’s light, which they never even knew in life. So, they’re free! Virgil even gets to explore the afterlife except the upper celestial third. Wouldn’t you rather spend eternity with those rejected scholars and philosophers than any of the stuck-up prudes in Heaven?’
“And so I—” Dan interrupted himself by ordering another stout. The bartender topped off Jay’s water. “I asked him for more book recommendations. And suddenly his face went pale and his hands shook, and he apologized for not being present for more of my childhood, and for only interacting with me through academic literary discussions. And I said that was all okay, because it got me great grades in English classes and I wanted to be a Religious Studies major in college.
“But he said there was so much more to life than reading books professors gave me. And so I asked if he had any recommendations for books I wouldn’t see as a Religious Studies major. If there was so much more to life, point me in that direction.
“So he said, ‘Let me give you the essentials.’
“He started with some sci-fi. ‘This one is based on Dante’s Inferno,’ he said, ‘You’ll love it. It’ll make you look at religious texts in a new light. See, literature is just written by people, and you can write anything you like. Fundamentally there’s no difference in legitimacy between this sci-fi novel based on Dante’s Inferno, the real Inferno, the Bible, or the Koran.’
“‘Then how do you know what to believe?’
“‘There’s no such thing as believing. Consciousness is neurological background radiation from which everything bubbles like particles and antiparticles.’ He passed me a physics textbook. ‘Every person has a world-conception implied by the alignment of their synapses. We mentally test hypotheses based on their performance in this simulated mental theater, which causes us to reject some stimuli and seek out others.’
“He gave me a thick tome. ‘Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Math and logic are no escape from the epistemological problems innate to the human condition. Rather, the structural infeasibility of a complete and consistent logical system points directly toward the ultimate truth: the self is an illusory production, arising from nothing and returning to nothing when when it’s done.’
“Then he gave me two books. ‘Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. You’ll probably see these as a Religious Studies major, but they’re worth reading early. There is a heartbeat behind humanity recorded in stories, and the heartbeat shows us what it means to exist from moment to moment. We are in a constant state of uncovering new adventures and closing old ones, experiencing the totality of the Hero’s Journey at all moments. Only by understanding this can anyone exist with free will. The only choice we may make freely is awareness of oneness with the universal subconsciousness.’
“I struggled to fit all those books into my backpack, and he looked out his window over the trees in the campus courtyard. ‘Dan, before you read the Purgatorio, you should know that Dante’s Virgil is more tragic than you realize. His Aeneid is credited with saving a soul from Hell, but Virgil is still barred from the Kingdom of Heaven. In justifying the whim of Alighieri’s Almighty, I can only suggest that transporting lost souls safely through Hell to salvation would be more pleasurable to Virgil than Heaven. To aid the mechanisms of the cosmic design would be Virgil’s utilitarian delight. Every aspect of the suffering seen in Hell is necessary to maintain Dante’s idea of the ultimate scheme, even the woods of suicides. That’s why I want to thank you for visiting me, because teaching you everything I know is the only kind of resolution I could ever hope for, and I know I’ve given you the tools to recover from what I’m about to do.’
“Then he stepped out the window. His body cracked branches, and he splattered on the ground.”
“Oh. Shit.” Jay ordered Dan a third tuna sandwich and another pint. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
“It’s okay,” lied Dan. He downed most of the fourth stout. “I’ve moved passed that now.”
“You didn’t kill him, though.”
“I made him give me all his knowledge. The idea that he had more books to recommend each year was probably the only thing keeping him alive.”
“You can’t blame yourself. It sounds to me like you were the best aspect of life for someone struggling with mental illness.”
Dan took one bite of his third sandwich, but suddenly lost his appetite. “Anyway, you can understand why school was difficult for me that year. The worst of it was late May, when…”