Because Beatrice had died so recently, and the lightning had cremated Faith so thoroughly, their funerals were held on the same day on the same lawn. Their urns were arranged by a lazy river. Beatrice’s urn was creamy and marbled, while Faith’s family chose a matte white. Jay didn’t recognize half of the mourners; he knew Faith’s uncle by his tinfoil fedora, and he heard Dan’s sobbing, 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 looked at the urns. “What do you think?”
“The aliens made humans to mine gold,” said Uncle Featherway. “When we die they reincarnate us so we keep mining. At the end of time the aliens will collect 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 lecture at Sheridan Cliff-Side College, in Wyoming. Before you leave LA could I interview you regarding Virgil Blue?”
“Sure. They didn’t have much to say, though,” said Uncle Featherway. “It was the way they said it.”
“I want to hear your impression anyway. When are you free?”
“After the funeral I’ll be in the sports bar across the street until its time to take my train. Hey, is that your friend over there? He seems pretty beaten up.”
“Oh. Excuse me.” Jay walked to Dan to pat him on the shoulder. “Dan, have you eaten today?”
Dan absorbed his tears with his black gloves. “I haven’t eaten since Faith died.”
“Let’s go try to eat something, then. I’ll pay.”
Dan turned to the urns. The urns were framed by the broad river, which Jay thought was a fitting metaphor for impermanence. Dan concentrated on the scene like he wanted to freeze it in his memory forever. Finally the two left the funeral. “Where should we go?”
“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. Dan picked crumbs from the bread and ate scraps of lettuce until he worked up the momentum to take a small bite. Soon he finished the sandwich and discovered he was 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’m sure Beatrice and Faith would say the same.”
“Really? I killed them.” Dan chewed 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.” Dan drank half the pint the moment it was set before him. “I made her shake my hand and she couldn’t stand me anymore. She pretended she was called by the hospital, and she left in such a hurry she didn’t see the bus.”
“Dan, that wouldn’t be your fault even if it were 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.”
“I looked so pitiful she offered to get breakfast from across the street,” said Dan. “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. “My parents were divorced, and I only saw my dad once a year for a few hours, at his university. Each year he gave me another book to take home. Just before senior year of high school, my mom dropped me off in the campus courtyard and I climbed the stairs to his office. He asked me how I enjoyed Dante’s Inferno and I told him it was the best book he ever gave me.
“So he gave me two books, the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. And he asked if I had any questions.
“So I asked, ‘What happens to Dante’s guide, Virgil? I hope he was sentenced to Hell temporarily, to lead Dante to God, and then he would be admitted into Heaven for his service.’
“And he said, ‘I’m afraid the Virtuous Pagans are stuck in Hell forever. 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 explores the afterlife except the upper celestial third. Wouldn’t you rather spend eternity with those rejected scholars and philosophers than 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 for more book recommendations. Suddenly his face went pale and his hands shook, and he apologized for being absent for most of my childhood, and for only interacting with me through academic literary discussions. I said all that was okay, because it got me great grades in English 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. So I asked if he had any 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 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. ‘Everyone 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 infeasibility of a complete and consistent logical system points directly toward the ultimate truth: the self is an illusion, 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 this pulse is what it means to exist from moment to moment. We constantly open new adventures while closing old ones, experiencing the whole Hero’s Journey in every instant. Only by accepting this can we have free will. The only choice we make freely is awareness of oneness with the universal subconsciousness. The only permanent station is unity with the Ultimate Conceptualization of All Things.’
“‘Says Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, ‘The body, and the ego, and the senses, and the vital forces, and the Ultimate Consciousness as the indwelling monitor: whatever action a being performs, whether proper or improper, these five factors are its cause… Being one with the Ultimate Truth, joyous within the self, neither lamenting nor craving, equipoised to all living entities, one achieves transcendental devotion to me.’
“I struggled to fit all the books into my backpack, and he looked out his window over the trees in the 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 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 Hell is necessary to maintain Dante’s 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 broke 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 the stout.
“You didn’t kill him, though.”
“I made him give me all his knowledge. Having more books to recommend was the only thing keeping him alive.”
“You can’t blame yourself. You were the best aspect of life for someone obviously struggling with mental illness.”
Dan bit 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…”