Helen Weir
With apologies to Jack alone (Chapter Eight)
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By Helen Weir
August 28, 2017

I spent a while grappling with the possibility that there was no earthquake engulfing the city; no door hitting me repeatedly for reasons which couldn't be explained; and no parrot on my shoulder, either. There was someone shaking me awake, however, and I didn't have to return to consciousness very fully before understanding who it was. "My god – I haven't missed everything?" I whispered, squeezing my pulsing forehead with one hand while the other flew to an overstuffed manila envelope on the left side of the desk. Heather was going to kill me!

"No, you're good," came the reassurance, "but there's only about fifteen minutes to go." And I was handed a mug of fresh java – my own mug, as it happened (the yellow one with the Shakespeare quote on it), which my friend had evidently taken a moment to rinse out and refill.

"Thanks, Mr. MacDowell," I managed to mutter, after staring for a moment into the leisurely steam. "Do you know I would have scotched the entire Presentation, if you hadn't shown up?"

"They don't call me
the Slave Driver for nothing," he grinned. "And it's Ned, please! But hang on; I could use a little liquid fortification myself. She's on the warpath, I hear. Be right back."

My oversized desk calendar, scribbled upon and highlighted nearly to the point of incomprehensibility. The little framed picture of the five of us at the beach last summer – the first time we had all been together since graduation! The enticing slit of window overlooking my cubicle, which constituted my only connection to the wide, blue world during the interminable hours spent at Ampersand, Inc. (hours that – in order to satisfy my supervisor, who never ended up very satisfied at all – only seemed to get longer and longer, more and more intense). I was going to take a walk in the park that evening – I made up my mind, right then and there – no matter how late I got off, no matter how cold it was by then. I was going to sit on the little bench beneath the pines and watch the ancient stars come out, Peter be damned!

They were all there, in other words; all the things familiarities confirming that my nightmare was over and the workaday world had returned. The only thing that
wasn't there was the promised text. And if that didn't prove I wasn't dreaming, what would? I could just hear him now: "You know how it is, Babe. I meant to message you, but the day kind of got away from me. Jason has been trying to reel this guy in for months, and now he's finally coming to town. Can I help it if it happens to be this Saturday night? I can only do what I can do. I wanted to come to the party! Really, I did. But your Mother's going to be having a birthday again next year – amirite?" I put my phone back in my purse rather hastily as Mr. MacDowell, toting his own cuppa joe, pulled up a chair and leaned forward just a little.

"Long night, was it?" he queried.

"Well, yes – but not what you think."

"How do you know what I think?" And then, with sudden sobriety of expression: "I'm kind of worried about you. Our young workaholic isn't one to doze off at the wheel. You OK?"

"I was up reading half the night, if you must know."

"Musta been a pretty good book."

"It is. I doubt you've ever heard of it, though. It's called
The Great Divorce."

At this, the Slave Driver snorted, took a very long swig indeed, and exclaimed, "And
Thank You Very Much, young lady! But of course; why would a boring old geezer like me be expected to comprehend anything beyond the edges of a file cabinet – such as, for example, the writings of one Clive Staples Lewis? Now, I bet you didn't know that's what C.S. stands for. Still, his friends all called him Jack," Ned added, cocking his head in that endearingly Celtic way of his.

"I didn't know, actually."

"I've always felt that
The Great Divorce is one of his best," Ned continued to opine, showing – he was right about that part – a side of himself I had never imagined existed, even working with him as closely as I had, and for a pretty long time, too. "The Screwtape Letters may be more popular, but only because it is more approachable. After all, the device of a junior devil corresponding with his superior about the moral seduction of an assigned human target is clever, but fairly straightforward. On the other hand, not many readers are ready to grasp the metaphor of a bus transporting semi-willing passengers from a place that is hellish, yet isn't exactly Hell, to a place that is heavenly, but isn't actually Heaven – a bus they can board or not board, from either locality, at will. It's disorienting. You'd have to understand Dante first, to get what Lewis is saying; and not only Dante, but the entire Western tradition which The Inferno both consolidates and advances. I mean, from the pagan idea of human 'shades' being almost indifferently consigned to an inevitable netherworld, to the medieval Christian concept of individualized punishment or reward which is still essentially externalized, Jack introduces us to an afterlife determined almost entirely by our own choices, yet not in the Nietszchean sense at all. According to the author of The Great Divorce, we are supermen, but only when we correspond to the pattern of the one Man who joined human nature to divine, making transcencence to superhumanity possible. Otherwise, the only destination is subhumanity forever – but it is still up to us. We can't change Reality, in other words, but we can change where we 'end up.' And the idea that what we do every day actually contributes to either outcome – it's outlandish, really, and at the same time, it's what every saint has ever taught. As my friend Mark always says" – but right here, Ned pulled up in mid-thought. He actually blanched at the realization that he had long since lost me.

"I think the image of the 'Episcopal Ghost' is an interesting one," I offered, in an attempt to rescue him.

"Yes, that's one of my favorite chapters, too. That one, and the episode about the woman and the Tragedian," Ned nodded. "The idea that even a man of the cloth could – in his heart of hearts – turn the wrong way and be eternally lost is rather disturbing, isn't it? I mean, where does that leave the rest of us?"

"The thing that gets to me is how the Episcopal Ghost's interlocutor – what's his name?"

"Dick."

"Is how Dick tries to tell him that there is a whole world beyond the self-imprisonment of his own warped convictions, only he doesn't want to hear it. The Ghost is still capable of speaking, but not of listening. I know it's only a metaphor and everything, but still, it seems kind of scary to think the same kind of thing could happen even to ordinary people like us – that even we could get all twisted and stretched beyond recognition, like the image the Lewis character catches a glimpse of in the mirror. And the thing is, you actually do encounter the Episcopal Ghost's idea everywhere in real life! People seem to think that, if they're 'doing their best,' then they're doing enough. But who gets to say what is best, and what is enough?"

This time, it was Ned's turn to stare mutely into his mug.

"I'm sorry," I stammered when things got seriously uncomfortable. "I must have touched a nerve. I didn't mean to. I only

"No, it's not you," he said, lifting his head. "It's just funny how certain things keep getting in your face, like the universe is trying to get through to you. My wife said almost exactly the same thing to me, just the other day."

I really didn't want him to elaborate; then again, there was no polite way to stop him.

"'Sure, you're a good person, as the saying goes,' she said. 'Who knows that better than I do? But what makes you so sure that that's all there is to it? Let's say you do try to become better, and better, and better. Let's say you even succeed! Your "best self" is never going to be good enough, on its own, to enter the presence of God.'"

And, after yet another pause:

"She wants me to come back to the Church, you know."

"That's what my Mom wants, too," I murmured, although why I chose to mention the fact, I'll never know. "I mean, she wants
me to come back, not you! Not that she doesn't want you . . . oh, never mind! "

And Ned and I chuckled together for a moment, which was a relief.

"Strange, isn't it," Mr. MacDowell relapsed into seriousness, "how a book by a Protestant has us both wondering about unlapsing our Catholicism?"

"Well," I countered breezily, "I didn't say I was going to. The fact that Lewis himself never converted just goes to show that belonging to one group or another doesn't count for much at all."

"Maybe, maybe not," said Ned. "According to his own argumentation, though, Lewis really should have. After all, Protestantism, in its heart of hearts, is nothing but the final conviction that what you believe to be true
is true, because you believe it to be true. Without an external arbiter of the meaning of the Bible – which is where the whole thing got started – everyone ends up interpreting it all alone. And if you can interpret divine revelation on your own, the rest of reality quickly becomes fair game. That's how I see it, anyway."

"But Lewis didn't think so! He was writing – in the genre of fantasy, of course – about real life, not about doctrinal abstractions peculiar to the Catholic Church."

"Then who is it that the narrator momentarily mistakes Sarah Smith for, anyway?" Ned declaimed rather than asked, actually smacking the desktop as he spoke.

I had no idea, truth be told, what point this man was trying to drive home in such a needlessly dramatic fashion. And the rejoinder, "Well, why don't you go back, then?" seemed impossibly impolite, especially addressed to someone who had just saved my skin out of the goodness of his heart. So I made one last attempt to redirect this extraordinary conversation into safely literary channels, so as to end on a high note before the dreaded Meeting got underway as it was about to do.

"What
I actually wonder is – what did the Episcopal Ghost end up presenting to his little theological society, back there in the Valley of the Shadow of Death? I mean, in the book, he leaves both Dick and the mountains behind on the pretext of wanting to build up the intellectual life of the inhabitants of the Grey Town. What was so important, that the Episcopal Ghost was willing to give up all recognizable happiness, and then some? What lie, exactly, did he end up buying into? What was his Talk about? And how many people did he manage to entrap and mislead, just as he himself had been misled and entrapped?"

It worked. Ned's dark eyes sparkled as he threw back his head and laughed aloud.

"I never thought of that! Since Jack doesn't tell us, I guess we'll never find out. But I'll tell you what we
are going to find out, and fast. We're bound to discover very quickly exactly how the Queen of Hearts intends to make our heads roll, if we don't get a move on. Let's go."

I drained my mug with a final glug, but found – oddly enough – that its emptiness was still actively steaming. Only then I saw that the steam wasn't coming just from any coffee, but from everywhere at once, and the mug grew and arced closed until it had engulfed me. I was falling through the swirling mist, which kept me from crashing and yet wasn't enough to hold me up – falling and falling and falling and falling – and then I understood that someone was shaking me by that same shoulder once again.


"I'm sorry to have to wake you, and maybe I'm not doing the right thing," said the man who reminded me very strongly – but then again, didn't remind me at all – of Mr. Charles "Ned" MacDowell, from Before. "I let you sleep through the final segment of the Talk, because you weren't missing much. But the Question-and-Answer period is about to get underway, and I thought . . . "

"Thank you very much," I interrupted him, speaking quite insincerely as it happened. Truth be told, I would have given anything – yes, absolutely anything! – never to have to feel those taunting raindrops dribbling down my forehead once again.

© Helen Weir

 

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