Less Than The Sum
|part 3 of 4|
Once upon a time, I was waiting at a neighborhood bank — it doesn’t matter, but it happened to be Midwest Bank, a local institution with a dozen branches. I have lunch with some of the officers now and again at a nearby club. Some play tennis; we all play cards.
I was waiting that day to renew a Certificate of Deposit. A new vice-president was helping me: middle-aged, mostly bald, a little fringe of gray and darker hair, a paunch pushing at the tight belt of his not very expensive suit and starting to edge over the belt like a shelf. He was friendly enough, the kind of fellow who might manage the branch someday.
He was processing papers to renew my CD. A sheet of paper and a couple of cards were on the glass top of his desk. His eyes moved back and forth between a computer screen I couldn’t see and a pad on which he made notations. We chatted as he calculated interest.
My last conversation with the professor — we had gone to a local casino and walked in winding paths among the noisy slots, turning this way and that as we talked, altering the curve of the interface, in case — was on my mind.
In the past, I wouldn’t have said anything. But now, I’m old enough that I don’t care. Let people think I am crazy. Besides, it’s part of the job, part of the latest persona. My current job is thinking about things and saying stuff. At least, that’s how it looks. Like Paul the professor, my puppet “Paul” is intended to look creative, eccentric, be genius-level at times, but always what up here they call “different.”
So as I waited I said to Glen — that’s the new V-P — I said, “Glen, you know, I read this article the other day.” And I told him of the sighting I heard from the professor, about how pilots and air traffic controllers and radar stations all reported the same thing, how huge the thing must have been to make a blip like that, how huge in fact it was, according to both pilots, that they literally soiled themselves, I said, and he nodded, filling in my name on a blank.
“We had something happen on our farm, once.”
“Oh?” I said.
“Yes.” He scribbled on a card. “Up north, on the family farm. One night this trooper came speeding along the road chasing after this bright light flying low along the hills. The thing glowed with incredible intensity, not like something with a light, but as if the thing itself glowed from the inside out. It was white but it was so white, the purest white light, and he skidded to a stop, which is when we heard him outside on the loose gravel and went out to see.
“This thing — whatever it was — had apparently come down behind our barn. The trooper was a guy we knew; everybody knew Luke. He was standing at the open door of his prowler, behind the door like he was hunkering down, looking at this bright light behind our barn illuminating trees and everything back there. We stood there looking at it with him for a long time. He told us he chased this thing from the other side of town through town and out along the highway by our farm.”
“Are you going to go back there?” I asked.
“Hell, no.” He shook his head. No way in hell he’d go back there alone.
“Then whatever it was suddenly rose up so silent, and it moved fast so we couldn’t really see, or it disappeared, one. But one minute this bright white light was hovering over the barn and then it was up there looking like a star and then we couldn’t see it anymore. It was like night descended suddenly upon the house, the pasture, on us, everything, and everything was still again. Then the insects started chirping and we realized they had stopped.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said. He turned two cards toward me and handed me a pen. I signed the cards on the lines with the X.
“That was the end of it, then?”
“Well, no,” he said. “The next morning we went out behind the barn to see was anything there, and we found broken branches in kind of a circle like something had snapped them off. Grass was scorched and the edges of the branches burnt too and some of the leaves.
“But — do you know much about cattle?”
I shook my head.
He said, “Something scared hell out of the cattle. Cattle know about barbed wire. They know what it is. But that night, so many of our cows went through the barbed wire, they went right through it, they tore themselves up so bad, udders and all, we had to destroy most of them, they were so cut up.
“Nobody had ever seen anything like it.”
He folded the CD and put it in a plastic sleeve.
* * *
OK. So I’ve told you the name of the bank where we had this conversation. I can tell you we put money into that bank or another, but money is another null set, isn’t it? Money doesn’t exist, either. Money is energy stored in a form we pretend is real. We act as though money were real, that interest will be paid, businesses exist; and that’s the thing: it’s all held together by couplers that are imperfect but good enough, and it stays together because nobody pulls at it too hard.
You don’t want something scaring hell out of the cattle so they go right through the barbed wire and cut themselves to pieces and have to be put down.
Anyway, that’s what the facilitator meant when he said about cattle: will they stay inside the fence or stampede? He meant what Glen at the bank meant, but Glen meant real cows.
So Herb went to the meeting. Now, I know Herb. I know him as well as one can know another. Or oneself, as I have been saying. Herb went to the meeting intending to weigh in on the side of telling people everything. It’s our planet, he said. People have a right to know what’s happening. It’s time, he chimed like he was an alarm and humanity a clock. Like he knew all about it.
Then he went to the meeting. And when he came back — I’d never seen anything like it — he had turned completely around. He went away one hundred per cent in favor of disclosure. He came back just as adamant against.
I asked him what he had heard that changed his mind but he wouldn’t say. Well, I asked, who was there? He wouldn’t say. I wouldn’t say, myself. Lots of different ones, he said. Most knew a lot more about it than me. He was leaning forward in his wing chair looking like that trooper might have looked, as I imagine him looking in the memory of Glen the vice-president of the bank, staring at the light behind the barn.
He wouldn’t face me exactly. His gaze was at an angle. He was looking out the window but looking at nothing. There was nothing there to see.
“That’s all I’m going to say,” he said. Then he said, “They’re afraid it won’t hold.”
He looked at me with sorrow and I believe pity.
“Paul, we wake up and get dressed and go to work. We have breakfast and watch TV. We buy stuff and cut the grass. It’s the little things, the things you can’t make people do. They have to want to do them. They have to believe in them. They have to believe in their beliefs.
“The way we do it, it’s good enough, it’s not perfect, but it’s good enough. You know that. We can’t take the chance.”
He sat back, sinking into the billowing cushions of his immense chair. His white hair flamed from his face like Einstein’s. I knew why he was upset. And he knew I knew why. The loop completed, as it will.
Is it just chemical, I wondered, looking at it from the outside? Looking at Herb leaning in his chair, looking at how I must have looked, looking at Herb. The way fear is transmitted, I mean? Is it some primordial pheromone that triggers fight-or-flight? That makes the hair stand up on the back of the neck? The heart race and the palms sweat?
That makes us want to get out while we can?
Except that what we’re in is ourselves. And there are no boundaries between us. Each the bridge, each the other side.
And we’re in it together. Us and them and then some.
Old men have the luxury of telling the truth because no one pays attention. Old men are irrelevant to currents of action; reflection is beside the point when life is brutish.
People concede to us wisdom or perspective only because it doesn’t matter.
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by Richard Thieme