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  • Writer's pictureRobert Pope

Hearing is Believing

Bernard Bartram had achieved some notoriety among the unbelieving community, and, therefore, had become notorious in the community of belief. He thought of himself as an expert in the field of unbelief, which tickled him. His defining book, Unbelieving, written twelve years earlier in a fit of rational passion—there’s an oxymoron for you, he thought—had established his bona fides. He followed this two years later, while he was still hot, his publisher told him, with the more painstaking and laborious (to write) You Can’t Be Serious. These made him a welcome speaker at various clubs and societies for the preservation of unbelief or belief, such as the one he had spoken at this evening, opposite Dr. Ollie Apple, a famous believer.

He sat in an odious dressing room provided by I.I.F. (Institute for the Investigation of Faith) sipping a second glass of Glenlivet on crushed ice, also provided by I.I.F., reflecting on a joke he made during the debate at the expense of his opponent’s surname, explaining he hoped to make the good doctor take a bite of his own apple. Though it garnered the expected laughter, it brought him no joy. He had not delved deep to find the line, and it seemed overworked, lacking in the seeming or actual spontaneity of true humor. The dressing room did not help his mood. He sat facing a wall with a three-paneled mirror and a shelf at about waist level, presumably for the application of make-up, though nothing but the scotch and a bowl of ice sat on it. The wall on his right was the original tabula rasa, a dirty beige with scars, marks, and scratches in places both inexplicable and uninteresting. To his left, a long closet occupied the wall, lined at intervals with coats and costumes defeating explanation, all dark and unused, as if for centuries.

The wall behind him, the fourth wall, contained nothing but a single door, closed, through which one entered this dismal room, and he saw it only through the bad graces of the speckled mirror. Like the room, this career of his seemed empty now, as it should, he reasoned, given that the position he long ago adopted was unbelief. He felt certain there must be deep irony in being a famous atheist, but no more than in being a celebrated believer whose arguments he could barely recall seconds after Apple spoke them: pure nonsense. For moments that grew longer through the evening, he lost contact with the words spoken by his opponent, irritation growing into various scenarios in which he strangled Apple right there on the stage. His own best moment came when he broke into one of Apple’s explanations with the unexpected quip that Dr. Apple was the only human being left in the world who hoped to talk God back into existence. It drove him to despair when Apple leaped into what he obviously considered a clever reversal as he attempted to prove the existence of God through scientific formulations.

Bartram’s patience wore thin enough to instruct the audience Dr. Apple revealed himself as someone who knew nothing of true science, particularly the second law of thermodynamics, which he mentioned three times in rapid succession, as if it were a magical incantation. Then, as he fell silent and sullen, Apple droned on, imagining his audience spellbound. To be sure, he did seem to recall several bright episodes of communal laughter during the good doctor’s speech, but Bartram himself grew sick and sicker of Apple, of himself, of this charade, nothing more than a ritual repeated before an audience that long ago lost its ability to believe in God, religion having devolved into a set of gang signs, at worst; at best, into empty cliché.

As he poured himself a second scotch on ice and sat back down before the mirror, he had begun to enumerate in his mind each time he had participated in this blank ritual, and for which he had begun to slightly despise himself. Neither he nor Dr. Apple could refrain from this mind-numbing work since they both valued their living quarters and their dinner tables—for Bartram, restaurants—sufficiently to keep them at it. Worse, they both knew this, and during one of those passages in which Ollie had developed another execrable conceit, Bartram recognized the deep boredom this God-bearer to the New World hid beneath a thin veneer of otiose wit, boilerplate scripture, and timeworn phrases in which he had stopped believing years before, if he ever had. The word effete applied to both of them: affected, over-refined, and ineffectual.

No one would be saved or damned. They could only hope to entertain, and that had worn so thin at final applause, peppered with cheers, boos, and laughter, that he nearly ran offstage to his ridiculous dressing room to down his first, now third scotch. When he heard a door closing behind him, he looked up, into the mirror, rather than behind, to find a swarthy, diminutive man with fly-away white hair and a thin goatee in a gray-on-gray striped suit. At the throat of a shirt somewhere between white and yellow, he wore a large black bowtie with white polka dots. The man appeared to be a tad embarrassed, holding a worn leather satchel at his knees that strained at the seams with a bulging something secreted inside. Having received his share of death threats and well-wishing encouragements in equal proportion, he had for years awaited the unknown assailant who would step from the shadows and make good on his threat.

“Dr. Bartram,” the man whispered, “my name is…” and he said something completely unintelligible to Bartram. Then, he smiled and said, “But you may call me Jesus. I represent the Institute and wish to congratulate you on a sparkling defense of unbelief.” He paused and smiled again, his face returning quickly to its slightly apprehensive expression. “I hope you will give me leave a few minutes for a valuable experiment. Valuable to the Institute, potentially to yourself.”

“Your name is Jesus?”

“A common name in all cultures but your own.”

This so irritated Bartram that he could not speak for several moments, during which time Jesus kept his eyes trained on him, waiting for approval to continue. Bartram rubbed his forehead with two fingers to demonstrate irritation. “Number one, I am not a doctor; number two, I have no notion of which institute you speak. I am now going to refresh my drink, and by the time I am seated once again, I hope you will have the decency of God and make yourself scarce.” He began to stand, but the girlish tittering of the man who called himself Jesus surprised Bartram so that he could not move for a moment.

“Oh, Mr. Bartram, you made us laugh tonight. Thank you for your wisdom and humor.”

Bartram dropped back in his seat, watching the stranger in the speckled mirror. “Well, Mr. Jesus,” he said, “if that happens to be a bomb you are carrying, I will thank you to leave it outside for the duration.”

Again, Jesus laughed with delight. “It is no bomb, but you might say a gift, for a man of thought like yourself. The institute of which I speak is The Institute for the Investigation of Faith, housed here in this building where you and Dr. Apple have been debating the existence of God so much enjoyed by one and all. Shall I go on?”

Jesus did not move as long as Bartram studied him in the mirror. At last, Bartram said, “I can offer you nowhere to sit, as you can see this is the only chair. Please continue, though, if for no other reason than that I am dying to know why you have appeared and what this means.”

At this invitation, Jesus moved past him, trailing a scent of aftershave and sweat. With his back to him, he busied himself moving scotch and ice aside to set up his contraption on the shelf directly before Bartram. Twice, Jesus glanced at him in the mirror with a bright smile filled with surprisingly white teeth. How old the stranger might be, Bartram had no clue, though he would guess somewhere upwards of seventy, with no top limit. At the same time, he seemed infinitely young, younger than Bartram in his movements and animation. That alone was worth the price of admission.

Speaking to Bartram from the mirror, he gestured toward the machine, which looked like an applause meter, instructing him that it was this contraption which brought him to his dressing room, and which he hoped Dr. Bartram—he did not want to give up the honorific title—would allow him to explain. “I imagine you have you heard of the so-called God gene?” When Bartram nodded, furrowing his brow in confusion, Jesus pinched his own lower lip between thumb and forefinger of one hand. “How to explain, when so much has gone into this—so much that would interest a man of your persuasion. Is belief or non-belief a matter of genetic make-up? What do you think?”

Bartram shrugged, eyeing the scotch the other side of the machine.

“What if,” Jesus continued, “such things we hitherto considered immaterial substance—I refer to the soul, etcetera—actually come down to material substance, the brain, nerves, so on, do you follow?”

Jesus spun to face Bartram, one hand on the machine. “This we are attempting. We have located this God gene, and everyone has such a thing here.” He tapped his temple. “At the same time, we have come to acknowledge that the idea of the gene, of genetic make-up, of the double helix we have come to believe some person at some point in time might have viewed with a powerful microscope, are nothing more than metaphors for something we cannot explain. We scientists at the Institute enjoy a little joke now and again, and sometime refer to this gene as the G-spot. Are you with me, Dr. Bartram?”

Bartram nodded, though to what he was not certain. “Do you recall that admonition, in both the Jewish and Christian testaments, of which you often speak, to make a joyful noise unto the Lord? Such a thing exists in every religion, singing, dancing, chanting, humming, even where there is great attention to silences surrounding us. And we have discovered the reason for this.”

Jesus waited long enough that Bartram felt he had to say, “Which is?”

“You ask an excellent question!” Jesus slapped the back of one hand into the palm of the other. “Sound, you see, such as in prayer, or song or rhythmic humming.” He closed his eyes and hummed for several minutes, falling into a rocking motion as he did so.

“So, you see what I mean. Sound activates this God gene, or God self, Godhead, and so religions encourage us to activate this G-spot for worship. Once turned on, the individual may return to it for reassurance. If I continued humming several minutes, and you joined in willingly, you might experience mild forms of the ecstatic, which you could repeat at later moments, when you felt high or low, up or down. Do you understand what I am saying?”

Bartram’s defenses had broken. He might have laughed out loud if he did not still fear this fellow might be out of his mind and have nothing whatsoever to do with the Institute. “So, what you’re telling me is…” Here, Bartram trailed off.

“What I am telling you is this apparatus produces a kind of dog whistle, you see, tuned to the God frequency, the Godhead within, the indwelling spirit. In Christianity, it could be referred to as Holy Ghost, if I am not being blasphemous in any way.”

“No offense taken,” said Bartram with a wave of his hand that sent the final splash of scotch onto his fingers, which he sucked. “You see, I am not a Christian. I am an atheist.”

“Yet, you come from the background of the Christian sect, correct?”

Bartram nodded.

Jesus waved his hand in a rolling circular manner. “So, Holy Spirit—you understand—if I am to turn this dial toward center point, which we scientists playfully refer to as ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’, where I have made this notch and painted it orange on this otherwise drab machine…” When he tapped at the notch, Bartram noted his long fingernails. “And because we are all the same, all human, we may not hear anything for a while, but we will experience mild ecstasy, our Godhead activated, you see. At least in theory. And, as we know, theory and practice may be quite different. Yet, as they come together, bingo! We have lift-off!”

He laughed with delight at his own effusion. “So, you are the perfect subject on which to try this out, as an avowed and practicing atheist who intelligently and willfully rejects the world of spiritual things you cannot see or measure in an empirical sense. This is the very area in which our experiment will rise or fall, succeed or fail.

“Now, I will leave you alone to try this out yourself. If I remain in the room, I would not, or could not, keep my scientific objectivity. So, I invite you to pull your chair closer and turn the dial toward this notch which I point out a second time. Please, do not go further, as the machine is likely to overheat and create disturbances to you and those in the next rooms, if they have not all gone home, as I believe they have.”

Jesus clapped his hands with a beatific smile. “Oh, Dr. Bartram, the effect should be far better than that scotch you have been drinking. But you can tell me about it after. I will give you some time, and here, allow me to help you move your chair closer. I think that is fine, sit down again. You will not need this glass. You will find this instructive, sir. If you experience what we think you will experience. You may recognize that this may well take place in every person with the normal gifts with which we come into this world, even though many of us never explore the regions of mind or spirit of which you may soon become aware.”

Jesus patted Bartram’s shoulder as he passed, which Bartram took as an encouragement. He heard the door snap shut behind him, though his attention was focused on the apparatus at eye level. He wondered if he should touch the thing, but touch he did. Grasping the dial firmly in the one hand, he held on to it, ascertaining it was a simple metal knob, like so many knobs one has learned to turn in this life. His curiosity got the better of him, and he inched it toward the notch. A third of the way he sat back in his chair, noting he had so far experienced nothing. Except, of course, the dull hum of alcohol revolving through his brain.

He once more sat up in his chair and turned the dial further, though he experienced a bout of laughter at the silly experiment into which he had allowed himself to be drawn. He witnessed again the ridiculous figure of Jesus before him—in imagination—excited beyond reason. What a figure he cut! Of course, he understood he himself had become a figure of fun, even of ridicule—to himself many others, like Dr. Apple. What a fool! Trying to prove God with scientific theorem and mere language, which, of course, could never reach God, or anything like God. Aristotle had explained this centuries ago.

He heard something now, not exactly a ringing in his ears, perhaps a form of music, high pitched, not irritating in any way. Somewhat pleasant, he had to admit. Maybe if he turned up the volume, he could hear it. So, he turned up the volume, until the point of the dial rested in the slot Jesus pointed out with a click of his nails. Very nice. Delightfully pleasant. It lifted the spirit; it filled him inside, made him idiotically happy. He had not even realized how weighted down by the world he had become, but that dissipated, evaporated into thin air.

He might have approached such a sensation that year he lived by the Pacific, writing his first book. Yes, that had been quite an experience. The book lifted him up and carried him away. Now, he realized what Jesus had spoken of, this mild ecstasy—though it did not seem so mild to him at this moment, which made him realize, intellectually, how depressed he had been every day of his life the past few years. He felt the Holy Spirit inside him, elevating mind, recalling a phrase that had not occurred to him for many years: Music of the Spheres. That’s what he heard around him, but was it music, feeling, or pure thought, his mind rising to the best of which it had ever been capable. Tears flowed from his eyes, down his cheeks.

“This is the day the Lord has made,” he cried aloud. But as feeling ebbed a bit, moving back toward normalcy, he had a fear he would return to his previous state, in which he had been so deadly unhappy. Naturally, he cranked up the volume, higher, and then higher, but as he did, something began to change. His mood turned on him as forms took shape around him, one dark robed, hooded figure emerging from the closet—he saw it in the mirror. And leaning beside the door, some wicked creature too human not to be cruel, grinning at him.

Something brushed by him, and he saw what in the mirror, the dark shape, the coldness, and three tiny devils on the shelf beneath the mirror, multiplied into six, watching him, laughing, pointing blades and tridents. A thing behind him whispered: “Who the hell do you think you are? Why have you never listened, when I have so much to tell?”

“Bernard,” the creature emergent from the closet whispered; the demons cackled it. They saw him; what was worse, he saw them. Had they always been there? He had never seen or heard them except in his nightmares of torment. Had these specters always been there, waiting for him? Had he been protected from them by his unbelief? And, if so, could he now return to it? A voice deep inside his mind—his own this time—spoke loudly—turn the damn thing down.

He struggled to reach a hand to the dial, and as he grasped it felt how hot it had become, burning to the touch, taking skin off his fingertips. “Jesus,” he shouted, as rancid smoke emerged from the machine. Jesus ran past him, shouting, “Unplug it, Dr. Bartram.”

But as Jesus lay his hands upon the infernal contraption, it cracked open, sending springs and gears, and wires of red and blue, bolts and nuts spinning outward, bouncing on the shelf, the floor, knocking solidly on Bartram’s skull. “Too late!” Jesus shouted forlornly.

As Bartram watched, the machine melted to a hard, black lump, filling the room with the acrid odor of burning plastic, rubber and metal, and still creatures and shapes and forms did not go away. Not one showed the slightest inclination to cease calling his name. He saw the face of Jesus, frozen in a scream he could not hear above the din that clattered on his ears and vibrated on his skin. “Do not answer them,” Jesus shouted, though Bartram could barely hear him. “Oh, do not answer them, Dr. Bartram.”

But Bartram had sunk into his chair, his mouth and eyes wide in terrible rictus, his fingers fumbling at his face, unable to speak a word to Jesus or to answer demands of voices now calling to him with increasing urgency. When the Institute’s maintenance men found him in this position in the morning, the empty bottle of scotch in his lap, he was taken to a hospital, from there to the morgue, where an autopsy determined that he died of alcohol poisoning.

Stories in newspapers and on television the next few days eschewed sensational details, identifying his various accomplishments. Gloating satisfaction remained to the shock jocks and bloggers who dragged him over hot coals the next weeks, months, and years, until he was all but forgotten—to everyone but Dr. Ollie Apple, who had his own demons to confront. He felt some responsibility for the death of his old friend Bernard Bartram, even though he still felt the joy of victory in their debate. The Institute, the Press, and the talking heads had given him that much.

But, quite frankly, Bartram had lost interest halfway through taping. Apple knew because he had watched it many times over, long after the distance between the words he spoke and what he felt inside caused him to recognize that he no longer believed in anything. As he believed in nothing, he saw no reason to put an end to his career. His wife and children still required a house, food on their table, clothes on their back, all that living in affluent society demanded. In the short or long run, what difference did it make? He would keep talking until he ran out of words.

The choice had been taken from his hands.


 

Robert Pope has published several books of stories, most recently Not a Jot or a Tittle and Disappearing Things from Dark Lane Press. New work can be found at Granfalloon, SORTES, and Fictive Dream.

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