‘The Hook I Hang On’ by Thomas Gordon Reynolds

soft cartel may 2018

So I said to her when we were in the car, “One thing I’ve learned about myself. I can’t be trusted. Not that I’m a liar or anything. I’m not. Though I lie sometimes, everybody does sometimes. And not because I’m always mistaken; I’m sure I’m not always mistaken – though I could be mistaken. It’s just that I have no other experience to measure life against than my own. Even someone — you, say — telling me about your life, is still just me experiencing you telling me about your life. You see? It makes relationships between the sexes difficult.”

“Is that what does it?”

“Yes. I feel I should tell you that my mental health may not be good.”

“You look okay.”

“I hope so. I run two miles every day in a circle. Kind of pointless really, getting up extra early to run two miles in a circle. The thing is, wherever you start your approach to life, and you have to start somewhere, someone will ask you what led you to that point and you will not be able to answer, because if you could, you would have started there. Still, you have to start somewhere. I start by observing that at some point we find ourselves alive in this world, and the question is always what is the correct response.”

“Um, speaking of starting — the engine? If you turn the key…”

“Right. Where do you want to go?”

“You said dinner and a movie.”

“Dinner? Don’t tell me you eat. If you didn’t eat you wouldn’t have to shit – excuse my French. I ask you, is that a fair trade?”

“The car?”

“All right.” I cranked the engine. “We’ll go downtown.”

“Good.”

“I can drive and talk at the same time.”

I pulled out of her driveway. It was still early evening out. Or late afternoon.

“It all begins, every date begins, with science,” I said.

“Yes, chemistry.”

“No, not chemistry. Well, yes, chemistry, but philosophy. The aim of the process of science is to take a long sheet of paper and write down every fact there is about the universe. The theory of everything. Complete and total knowledge. And what will we do, when we have this?”

“Be like the Gods. I want to be Minerva. Nobody knows about Minerva. Can you imagine what it would be like to be one of those Greek gods?”

“No, I can’t. And Minerva was Roman.”

“Sorry for speaking. You were saying?”

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be Minerva. I’m sorry. I just get a little touchy about Greek gods, physique-wise.”

“Perfectly all right.”

“They say that if you’re not happy without a lot of money, or knowledge, you won’t be happy with a lot of money, or knowledge. That money just makes you what you were, only with money.”

“Funny, I’ve never heard that. Look out! There. You hit it. I think it was a cat.”

“It was a skunk.”

“Oh. That’s all right then.”

“I’m going to say that if we had complete knowledge we’d do with it what we do with the partial knowledge we have now. Build new ways to kill each other, a few medicines — for people who can afford them. New ways to entertain ourselves. Ways to travel farther — we can get where we are going in one hour instead of four, so think how much more productive we could be.”

“You’re a pessimist. I didn’t have you figured as a pessimist. And what does this have to do with dating?”

“We wouldn’t be in this car if it wasn’t for science. I would not be wearing special but unscented male pheromones if it wasn’t for science and you would not be subconsciously but irresistibly attracted to me. Even the Kama Sutra is science.”

“The Kama Sutra is art. I have a coffee-table-book in the original Sanskrit.”

“It’s biology. It required experimentation and observation and note taking. And it was published. No doubt reviewed by peers.”

“Is this restaurant far?”

“What restaurant? Oh, I’m sorry, the restaurant. No, we’re on the freeway now.”

“The freeway?”

“But there’s bound to be a restaurant in the next town.”

“It had better be expensive.”

“Science is wonderful. I love science. Art is just science you do without thinking. And what is the criteria which gives science its prestige and justifies its position as the ultimate arbiter of all disputes?”

“The pocket calculator?”

“Exactly. The pocket calculator. Technology. If the scientific method had produced no material goods, no wealth, no increase in our ability to manage nature, no microwave ovens or plastic bags or machine guns or measles vaccines – don’t take vaccines, by the way, they make hair grow on your back. I think I missed my turn-off. It would be just like philosophy. Idle people spending idle time arguing over what ‘good’ meant, or what an ‘atom’ was. The bomb — there’s an argument for you.”

“And there better be wine.”

“It’s irresistible. It’s unalterable. To assume that anything that can be explained matters. We, of course, are the great explainers. The world matters because we are in it. But why do we matter?”

“There’s a policeman behind you.”

“I’ll lose him.”

“You’ll what?”

“I’ll pull over. Probably thinks you’re a minor.”

“That’s sweet.”

The officer tapped on the window. I power-rolled it down.

“ID,” he said.

“Ego,” I said.

“What?” he said.

“Superego? Is this word association?”

“You high?”

“Our first date. What do you think? Nice, eh?”

My date leaned across the front seat. “I’m terribly sorry officer. I’ve never been in this car before.”

“I’m taking both of you to the station.”

“Any particular reason?”

“Think I want to stand out here all night?”

“Anyway, it’s all the same,” I said to her in the back of the police car, “If it’s about the meaning of life, life doesn’t have one. If it’s about values in life, just pick one. If it is about the proper occupation in life, that is to get the right chemicals into the brain.”

“Ah,” she said and clapped her hands together once, “you see, I was right, chemistry. It all comes down to chemistry. What’s hot is hot and no lie there.”

“No talking in the cruiser,” the officer said.

“I have the right to free speech.”

“I have the right to do a cavity search.”

“Why are we being arrested again?”

“You’re not being arrested, you’re being brought in for questioning.”

“About what?”

“If I told you that you’d have time to think of an alibi.”

“I thought we weren’t being arrested?”

“No talking in the cruiser.”

I reached out and held her hand. I wanted to be reassuring. Show I was still in control; that we were in this together.

“Besides,” the cop said, “what do you mean life has no meaning?”

“Because there is nothing that can happen to you in your life that will ever make it better for you that you were born than if you had never been born. If you had never been born you would miss out on all life’s pleasures, But, since you were never born, you would not know you were missing them. You would never know the feeling of a satisfied desire, but you would never know the desire the satisfying of which brings pleasure. If you don’t know you are missing something pleasant – because you do not exist – it should not bother you.

“There is no non-existent you to compare the existent you to, to be able to say, ‘Look at poor non-existent Constable so-and-so, missing out on the joys of beer drinking an existent Constable so-and-so could have’. Where there is no you there is no you to miss anything.”

“My name’s Turner. Constable Turner.”

“Like the painters,” she said.

“Yes,” the policeman said, “Just like.”

“That’s rather presumptuous.”

“You’re not depressed are you?” he said to me.

“He’s a pessimist,” she put in.

“I get that a lot,” Turner said.

“But,” I said, “if you had never been born you would never experience any of life’s evils. And not experiencing an evil must count as a positive. So if you never existed, you would not experience pain – that’s a good thing – and you would not miss not having pleasure – that’s not a bad thing – so on balance there are more positives to not being born than to being born. Nothing that happens in your life can change that.”

“But I was born,” said the officer.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” my date said.

“Number one or number two?” Turner said.

Pardon?

“I can only go so fast.”

“Put on your siren.”

“Don’t do that,” I said, “you won’t be able to hear me talk. No one asks what the meaning of a rock is; it’s just there. Why then expect life to have a meaning? Why should it? Why does life require a meaning but a rock doesn’t?

“Start with a world of rocks. Just rocks. Add life. Do the rocks gain anything by there being life? No. Does the life gain anything from existing? No.” And here he turned on the siren so I had to shout. “A world without life cannot not regret life’s absence.”

“Sometimes I wish I was alone,” she said.

“Sometimes you are alone.”

“True.”

“Can you wait until we make Tilbury?” he said.

“Why Tilbury?” she asked.

“McDonald’s.”

“You realize, of course, that people have no intrinsic value.”

“I risk my life to save people,” Turner said, and made a high speed turn down a side road that sounded like gravel.

“Value is something one life ascribes to another life, or thing. The Nazis treated their concentration camp prisoners as non-persons; they ascribed no value to them. We say they were wrong to do that, but we say it because we do ascribe value to those prisoners. The principle is the same. Value is, or is not, ascribed to persons by others.”

The car pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. “Listen buddy,” he said, “I don’t like being told I have no value, understand? Don’t make me get my nightstick out.”

“Ooh,” she said from beside me.

“Go there,” he said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I don’t want you going in my squad car.”

“Fine then. Open the door.”

He opened his own door, took out his handcuffs and came round to her side. He opened her door and snapped one on her left wrist and one on his right wrist.

“You’re a prisoner,” he said, “I can’t take chances. I won’t look.”

“Oh for crying out loud. Of all the male chauvinist, boorish things…“

“Do you have to go or not?”

“I’ll go, I’ll go,” and she got out the open door and I scooted along the seat after her and got out too.

“Now as I was saying…” I began as the two of them headed to some shrubberies. Turner stretched out his arm with the handcuff and she wiggled down out of sight except for her left arm, which she stuck out phallically from the bushes.

“Just a minute,” he said, and took out his gun and pointed it at me. “Go on.”

“The drive, the will, to survive — no matter what we tell ourselves — we want to live simply because we want to live. It is a drive built into us. Randomly occurring and naturally selected for. There is no purpose to this drive. There can’t be. No matter how we dress it up.

“So if the drive to survive and the drive to reproduce are not rational, as in reasoned-to, serve no purpose — you can’t say the purpose of reproduction is to produce offspring because what is the purpose of the offspring?”

“To produce more offspring.”

“Oh that helps a lot. How can anything, including science or philosophy, or police work, be built on reason when life itself is not reasonable. Reason is not reasonable because life was not reasoned-to. Life itself is not reasonable. Life did not rationally decide to create itself. It’s just there. So any action you take will be insane, irrational, a non sequitur, founded on no reason.”

“So don’t do anything.”

“You cannot not do anything. Even suicide is a choice and not at all the same thing as never being born. We need to act, and to act we need a motivation, and no motivation, including sex and survival, can be considered either ultimately rational, or sufficient to make our own existence worthwhile to ourselves.

“Whatever you think the most important value in life is, be it love, or honesty, or humility, or patriotism, or bravery, or freedom  or sex  or money, when there is no life, because there is no capital-L Life beyond life, those values will cease to exist. More than that it will be exactly the same as if they had never existed at all.”

“No it won’t and don’t try any funny stuff, I’ve got my eye on you and an itchy trigger finger. I could hit you easily if I fired four or five times.”

“We are constantly adding to and subtracting from the past. When the last link between a past event and the present moment is broken, that event drops from the past —remember, there is no God keeping track of all this — and becomes exactly the same as if it never happened.”

“That can’t be right.”

“Imagine something happening or existing that in no way effects any other thing, not even by taking up space something else could be occupying if it weren’t there. Could that thing be truly said to exist?”

“It smells like somebody shit,” he said, sniffing.

“Pay attention,” I said, and sat crossed-legged on the grass. “We must act and so we must choose a motivation, a value, in order to decide how to act. And since all our values will cease to exist or to have ever existed… “

“Hold on a moment big-shot. I’m a feminist. A thing doesn’t have to be permanent to be meaningful,” he said.

“No, but it does have to be current. And when it stops being current it is as if it never existed at all.”

“The jitterbug isn’t current.”

“Sure it is. You know about it. It is part of you, and you are presently current.”

“And accounted for.”

“Absolutely. At some point the human race is going to go extinct. How can we not? The universe is 15 billion years old. Can we really expect to be here 10 billion years from now? 5 billion? 200 million? 300 years? And when all life is gone there will be no location for any of our values to exist in. The meaning of life lies in relationships and there is no Life after life for our values to relate to. ‘Love,’ ‘courage,’ ‘freedom’; those words will have no substance; they will not even be known or remembered. So then there will be a time when our values will not be current and therefore will be as if they never existed.”

“So?”

“So how can they exist now?”

“You’re taking a long time,” he said into the bushes.

“I can’t find any leaves.”

“Do you have a handkerchief,” he said to me.

“You’re not suggesting…”

“You hoping to get lucky tonight or not?”

I am one of the few men (well the only man) I know who still uses handkerchiefs. How the cop knew this I had no idea. I took one out and looked at it. “Good-bye,” I said, “You’ve been a good hanky. It’s not your fault.”

“Just give it,” she said.

“Don’t you leave it on the ground,” the officer said, “that’s littering. You don’t want that on top of your other offences.”

“Um, what are our other offences?” I had to ask.

“We’ve been watching you, Mr. Bicycle. We know all about you.”

“How did you know my name?”

“I just said we’ve been watching you.”

“Why?”

“You know.”

“Oh.”

Back in the squad car my date and I sat on opposite sides of the back seat, as far away from each other as we could. It was a mental thing.

“I’m not happy,” my date said suddenly.

“Did you just realize this?”

“No. But I wanted everyone to know.”

“I should take notes.”

“Don’t good police officers rely on their memory.”

“We write down what we observe. It’s scientific nowadays. You’d be surprised.”

“And if I don’t accept that the scientific goal of listing every fact is just obviously the ultimate, supreme, most noble calling in life, the thing that gives humanity a meaning it would not otherwise have, the best, the greatest, the most human of things we can do? Would Carl Sagan just have to say ‘but don’t you see? Don’t you get it? It’s science. It’s the mystery of everything. It’s the ultimate question’? And could I not just say, ‘So? Sorry. I don’t get it’?

“It takes a little faith to see knowing all physical facts as somehow the saving task of being human.

“Different people respond to different things. Go to a university. Some students are studying math, some English, some business – why doesn’t everyone see mathematics as the most exciting, rewarding, important thing they can do with their lives? Why do some people respond to the word ‘spiritual’ as if it had a real, interesting, tugging at them, meaning, as if they ‘get’ it, and others dismiss it as a non-word, having no meaning and carrying no substance?”

“I’m a Buddhist,” the officer said.

“I’m Wiccan,” my date said.

“Religions draw their adherents only from the pool of people who find ‘spirituality’ something that resonates with them. Given that resonance, that sense of oneself as having a spirituality, of there being something to it, something there, a given religion can provide a structure, a story, a direction, a language to develop that spirituality in ways unique to that religion. I feel the tug of the word ‘spiritual’. I suspect it, smell it, it is a taste in my mouth I cannot identify. If I had been born in Iran I would be a perfectly happy Muslim. If I had been born in India I’d no doubt be a practicing Hindu.”

“Where were you born?”

“California.”

“So what are you?”

“I’m a Practical Nihilist. If you ask the person of faith why they have faith, they must fall back on ‘But don’t you see? Don’t you get it?’ And, ‘No, I don’t’ is always a perfectly responsible answer.”

“What is a practical nihilist?” my date asked, almost reluctantly.

“A nihilist believes that ultimately nothing matters.”

“Do you believe that?”

“I see no way around it.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Nothing matters because there is nothing, no-one, no capital-L life for life as a totality to relate to. There is no Life beyond life for the idea of life to relate to, certainly not once life, as a totality, is gone. The fact that that will be the situation in the future means that that is the situation in the present. If the idea of life has no meaning or value, how can individual instances of that idea have meaning or value? That is the nihilist part. The practical part is that if nothing matters then it doesn’t matter that nothing matters – otherwise something matters – and we shouldn’t let the fact that nothing matters influence our behaviour.

“We have to act, so we need a motivation, so we must choose a value and treat it as if it was sufficient, even though we know it is not.”

“If nothing matters,” said Turner, “you won’t object if I shoot you.”

“Remember, I have a survival drive. Randomly occurring, naturally selected for, but still there.”

“Yes, but I have a gun.”

“He’s got you there,” my date said.

“What we treat as Nature’s — capital ‘N’  — Way or Plan, using the word ‘Nature’ the way people used to use the word ‘God’, is really just an empty circumstance. The urge all creatures have to reproduce is pointless. Once life has been randomly started it can be naturally selected for very easily, since life is, in a sense, the mechanism for natural selection. Without reproduction natural selection would just be death. We do not reproduce so we can evolve; we evolve because we just happen to reproduce.

“There can, of course, be design without there being a designer. What is necessary to see design in something is to have an observer. If you threw a handful of gravel on the ground randomly, I am quite sure I could look at it and see an outline or pattern. Look at what the Greeks did to star constellations. Do you think Orion really looks like a hunter? What would we call, or see in, the Big Dipper if actual dippers had never been invented? We’d see that pattern as something else.”

“Son of a bitch,” Turner said and braked, turned sharply to the left. His exclamation made it seem best if we didn’t speak. Soon we turned, again sharply, right.

“There’s a holdup going on at a Gas Bar. We’re almost there. This could get ugly.”

Silence. Then I ventured, “Um you do realize we are still in the car with you?”

“Don’t I know it. There’s the place. Okay you two, keep your heads down.”

“Keep my head down?” I said, “I can’t, it’s on the top of my body.”

“You’d best scrunch down behind the seats.”

“I don’t think this is fair, after all…”

The car jerked to a stop under some lights. The seat belts dug into our shoulders. Turner opened the driver’s door, crouched behind it and pointed his gun through the open window. We got down behind the front seat.

“How effective do you think the back of a car seat is at stopping a bullet?” I asked. My date did not reply. She was obviously giving me the silent treatment. I imagined I had better get used to it.

There was a lot of shouting. Turner ran off somewhere.

“It’s interesting,” I said, “to consider why we value life. We think of it, and especially human life, and usually our own life, as an ultimate, unquestioned good. Why? It is because of the genetic, random, naturally selected for, non-reasoned-to, goalless instinct for self-preservation. Whatever you think the reason you want to live is, it is the survival instinct. Indeed, wanting to live is defined as the survival instinct, as much as visa versa. Life is not a good idea or bad idea. It simply is, and when it is not, it simply is not. You, my love, however you think of yourself, and may I say you are as pretty as a teapot this evening, are a thing. Molecules, dust, matter. Still, a thing. We are all objects. The illusion of being a subject is that we are aware of ourselves as objects and call that awareness-of-objectness our subjectiveness. But the fundamental thing is us as objects. We view a car as an object and it is an object. I look at my own body, thoughts, life as objects – that is the only way we can look at anything – but because it is ‘my’ body, ‘my’ life, I credit myself with being a subject. So there is my definition. To be able to view yourself as an object is to be a subject.”

“I object,” she said, and not pleasantly.

I put my finger up to my lips in a ‘hush’ sign and nodded my head sideways at whatever was outside the car.

“Don’t you shush me.”

There was a gunshot. There was another gunshot. Some yelling. The car door slammed shut and the car shot forward.

“Jeez,” I said and sat up. I put my belt back on. My date stayed on the floor.

“Oh,” I said. I was not looking at the back of Constable Turner’s head – and believe me, the sight of the back of Constable Turner’s head was burned into my mind – I was looking at a bald head with a thick neck and a tattoo that covered both. The man was cursing and must have caught sight of me in the rear-view mirror.

“Who the hell are you?” he said.

“I might ask you the same question.”

He held up his right hand, which held a large gun.

“On the other hand, I might answer yours. Two civilians unfortunately placed at an unfortunate time.”

“Two?”

“Oops.”

“Who else?”

We were speeding and he only had one hand on the wheel and kept turning around to look at me. My date slowly raised her head above the front seat level, sheepishly, and punched me hard in the nuts as she did so. “Um, hi,” she said.

“Jesus Christ,” he said.

“No, not really, but an easy mistake to make. My name is Ike, Ike Bicycle. And you are?”

I leaned forward and held out my hand to shake his but all I got was the barrel of a gun skinning my forehead.

“Shut up and let me think,” he said.

“This may take awhile,” I informed my companion, who was looking like she needed to go to the bathroom again. So soon?

“Shut up,” she said, “He could kill us.”

“Yes,” I said, “but why would he want to? Why we consider the death of a three year-old a tragedy and the death of a 90 year-old a blessing is not clear to me. What value do the intervening 87 years provide? The one thing you must be alive to do is have experiences, and when we mourn the death of a three year-old so, we are mourning all the experiences he or she never got to have. As if experiences have value as experiences. For the sake of themselves.

“Ask an atheist how he finds meaning and value in life —I have actually seen this done on television — and he will say that he is looking forward to a good lunch that afternoon and then plans to make love to his wife. ‘Life is to be lived,’ as people, well, students, used to say when I was a student. The question, ‘Yes, but how?’ was answered with ‘fully’. A ‘full life’ is one that has many experiences in it. The 90 year-old, for example, must have racked up quite a few experiences in her time.

“The idea is to see Europe first, then die. How is dying after you’ve seen Europe better than dying before you’ve seen Europe? Well, obviously,  you’ve seen Europe.

“We know some experiences are better than others: ‘rewarding experiences’, experiences that matter. But that matter to whom?

“To you. And who are you again? What are you? Why do you matter? Not because you are a human being, because human beings are a species of animals and species of animals routinely go extinct. Is your experience of a really good movie privileged over a whale’s experience of really nicely temperatured water? Both you and the whale are alive and capable of having experiences.”

The car pulled up in front of a large metal, brown building.

“Get out,” he said.

“What, us?”

“Yes. You two,” and he pointed his gun at us. We got out. “You are my hostages.”

“Watch out for Stockholm syndrome,” I whispered to my date.

“In there,” and we went inside the warehouse. “Up,” he said, and we hurried up some stairs. “In here,” he said, and we went into a room called ‘office’ on the door. “Sit. Against that wall,” he said. We sat.

“Anyway,” I said, “we’ve solved the problem: the point of life is to have experiences, and pleasant experiences are more pleasant than unpleasant experiences. Experiences even add up to something: they add up to you. And you don’t really exist.

“Oh, you exist now, no doubt. But the time will come when you are dead. And, of course, the time will come when there will be no humanity. Because we die out one at a time, so to speak, and we come into a world influenced by others, influence the world while we are alive, and when we die we leave that world we have influenced behind for others to live in and be born into, we overlook this.

“Of course, you say, your life really did happen. You say. History requires a point of view. Where there is no point of view, no life, then there is no history. A rock is not aware of the last day’s weather’s effect on it. The rock may exist in time and space, but time and history are different things. Time without a point of view to count time from, or recount time from, is not history. It is just the now, the now, the now.

“Even when we look back at the earth before there was life, it is us, life, alive, looking back, providing a point of view from which to centre or unravel things from.

“What life provides that the inanimate world lacks is a point of view. Experiences can be broken down into isolated slices. They are all meaningless without the ‘I’ to provide a narrative, a centre, a point of view for experiences to cohere to.”

Our captor looked out the window. “I don’t see anybody,” he said.

“Of course, since life is meaningless and we just have to pick something and pretend that it matters, I can’t tell you what you pick is the wrong thing to pick. I can only tell you the consequences of your choice.

“I can’t tell the rapist that valuing raping as if it was the one thing that really mattered in his life is a wrong choice — since nothing matters, one pretence is as good as another — but I can point out what valuing raping people above all else will mean: being hunted, arrested, the trial, jail time, raped in prison himself.”

He started looking around the office, opening desk drawers, filling cabinets.

“Where the fuck are the cops?”‘ he said.

“Yes. Where are the cops?”

He pulled out a roll of duct tape. At this point my heart sank. He ripped off a strip and came over to me.

“Now, now, don’t be hasty. I won’t shout for help. Why would I? I don’t matter.”

He placed the tape firmly over my mouth. “Take that off and I’ll kill you,” he said, then he turned to her. “Stand up,” he said. She stood up. He looked at her like you-know-what. “Not bad,” he said.

“You can’t be serious,” she said, “not at a time like this. Is that all men think of?”

“I figure I got thirty or forty seconds to kill before the police get here.”

“Wonderful.”

“Give me a kiss.”

She slapped him.

“Ow. You hit me. You little bitch.”

“Kill me and you’ll have to have sex with a corpse.”

“Christ, what do you think I am, a pervert? Sit down.”

He thought for a moment. “I could kill him,” he said, and pointed at me.

I could kill him,” she said.

“This is the police,” a voice boomed through a tinny bullhorn, “we know you are in there. We know you have hostages. We want to talk.”

He looked at us. I shrugged.

“It’s over with,” the voice said, “you can’t escape. Come out and talk with us.”

“Which one of you two will be my human shield,” he said, waving the gun barrel between us. I put up my hand.

“Okay,” he said and yanked me up, stood behind me, twisted my arm behind my back, put the gun to my head and marched me down the steps. I stumbled and his hold hurt my arm as he pulled me back up. I still had tape on my mouth.

“One false move and you’re dead,” he growled in my ear.

I pondered what a ‘false move’ could be. Pretending to run away but not really running away? Starting to faint but then stopping half way through? Nodding my head like I agreed with him when I really didn’t?

He kicked open the outside door by booting the bar handle that ran horizontally across the inside. He thrust me out and kept close behind me, and close to the door.

“I got a hostage,” he shouted, “I’ll kill the fucker.”

“We know, we know. But we don’t want that to happen. None of us want that to happen. You don’t want that to happen. Not really. You want this to end peacefully, calmly, just like we do. Some things are just wrong.”

I used my free hand to pull the tape off my mouth.

“Actually,” I said, “nothing is wrong in an existential sense. Different actions just have different consequences. You could say that you know torturing innocent children is wrong. But what does ‘know’ mean? I know I react to the torture of children with upset, but I don’t ‘know’ it is wrong. Other people don’t react that way. What would make it wrong? That it is children — torturing an eighteen-year-old disabled woman is fine? Or that it is torture? Not everyone is offended by torture. Not every government refrains. If it was an objective truth wouldn’t we all have to agree? If  all ‘know’ means is ‘reacts with’ and ‘reacts with’ is not universal, then knowledge is not objective.

“If no humans exist, human kindness would still be a timelessly true, good thing, even without God. I’ve heard that said. To whom though? Where would that truth be located? How would it have existence, even as a concept?

“A truth needs to be apprehended by someone to be true. A fact does not. The words ‘true fact’ add nothing to the word ‘fact’. It is either a fact or not a fact, not a ‘true fact’ or an ‘untrue fact’.

“A fact does not need to be apprehended to be a fact. A fact is not a truth unless it is apprehended because truth is knowledge, knowledge requires apprehension and apprehension requires life. Where there is no life there is no truth. Truth cannot be just an apprehended fact, because if truth is related to knowledge it is possible to have knowledge that is not factual.

“A prehistoric observer  could do an experiment by looking up at the sky, making the observation that the sun moves across it and come to the conclusion that the sun goes around the earth. All his contemporaries could repeat the observation with the same result. They are perfectly justified in considering their conclusion as knowledge. Except they’re wrong. So they had knowledge, but the knowledge was wrong. Whatever knowledge we have today may be seen likewise 200 years from now. Knowledge is provisional. If we are going to claim that what we have now is real knowledge, while accepting that in the future it may be disproven, then we have to accept that what our prehistoric sun observers had was real knowledge, even though they were clearly wrong.

“Indeed, if we extend our thinking…” Someone from the police side shot at us. My captor and I scattered, in opposite directions, me behind a garbage can, him behind the hood of a car. My hostage-taker then fired several shots at the police over the top of the car. I did not consider that a wise idea.

Then it came. A volley of police fire in response, aimed at him not me, although a bullet came close enough to me to make me jerk my head back against the wall.

“Excuse me,” I said, standing up and approaching the police, “aren’t you supposed to be saving my life?”

A police officer rushed over to me, crouching down as she ran, grabbed my arm and pulled me behind police lines. “Sit,” she said. I sat on the pavement well behind the drawn up police car. “He’s down,” someone shouted, then, “looks like he’s still breathing. Get the medics.”

“It’s all over,” she said to me, “You can relax.”

“I am relaxed. But there was another hostage in the building. A woman. He tried to kiss her.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere he could, I imagine.”

An officer came out leading her to us. She was shaken up. They gave her a blanket.

A man, muscular and tall, dressed entirely in black except for a shiny metal name tag on his shirt pocket that said “Buchanan 632” came over and confronted me.

“Come on, Bicycle. We didn’t save your butt so you could just walk off.”

“I didn’t think so.”

“There’s a chopper waiting around back.”

“First class then. Can she come?”

“She may have useful intelligence, I suppose.”

“I couldn’t swear to it,” I said.

“Wait here,” and he left.

She turned to me. “Who are you? What are you?”

“I’m a soldier.”

“You don’t look like a soldier.”

“And how do soldiers look, then?”

“Well, usually muscular and attractive.”

“Yes, well, I’m AWOL. This spare tire is part of my disguise.”

“You’re AWOL?  I’m going out with an AWOL soldier?”

“You didn’t mind before.”

“I didn’t know before. Ignorance is bliss.”

“Which must mean that knowledge is sorrow. But that may just be something the stupid use to feel superior to the intelligent in. Lots of famous men haven’t fought in wars. Jesus Christ never fought in a war.”

“He would if he lived today. Is that what happened? You get religion?”

“I converted to Christianity.”

“What did you used to be?”

“American.”

“You can’t be both?”

I shrugged.

“Seriously, you can’t be both?”

I hated that question.

“They’re going to take me back to base and court marshal me.”

“I’ve never seen a court marshal. I suppose they’ll be other soldiers around. Fit, clean-cut young men in pressed uniforms with big guns all lined up for inspection. Waiting to be looked over and chosen.”

“You’re supposed to be on a date with me.”

“Oh our date is over, mister. I’m not going out with a traitor. I have some standards. I admit they haven’t been much in evidence as of yet but I have to draw the line somewhere.”

“Actually, you don’t have to draw any line at all.”

“I had such hopes for you.”

All I could say was, “I’m sorry.”

The man came back and handcuffed my hands behind my back.

My date smiled at me. “Marsha Mellon, military police,” she said.

“Who?”

“Me. I’m a military policewoman, stupid. I caught you. Just thought you’d like to know.”

“Really?” I said.

“How do you think they found you? You’re slated for eternal damnation, pal. And prison.”

She led me to where we had to scoot bent over to a helicopter, side-by-side and strapped in. Because of the noise there was no real chance to talk.

I knew what lay ahead for me. People are evil. Well, people are sinners. The problem is that no amount of good deeds undoes one bad deed. No amount of making tea for your mother after supper undoes one act of saying something cruel to her. The cruel words remain said. You cannot be good enough in the future to undo them. No amount of money given to the humane society in your will undoes one teenage act of torturing a cat.

They weren’t going to care about any of the good or positive things I may have done. They would not make up in their eyes for the ultimate act I was guilty of. It will be a military court. They shoot people like me. Or used to.

 

The guard talked to me.

“You’ve heard the verdict then?” he said, “Life in prison.”

“That’s what I figured. Same as everyone else, then.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

Now you don’t want me to be stupid?”

“Look, you’re not going to be one of those depressed prisoners are you? I hate that. If you’re good I’ll let you look at my issue of Soldiers Screwing Women.”

“He’s Christian.” It was Marsha Mellon, come to gloat.

“No he’s not,” the guard said, “If he was a Christian he’d be a patriot. Patriotism and Christianity go together like pans and cakes. You can’t separate them or you don’t have anything to eat with your syrup.”

“Patriotism,” I said, “is just what tribalism calls itself when it gets dressed up to go to out.”

She nodded to the guard, “Can we have a moment?”

The guard went and stood farther away down the hall. Stake-straight, like the faggots were piled around his feet.

“Listen,” Marsha said, “I’m pregnant.”

“Why tell me?”

“I thought you’d like to know.”

“I’m not the father.”

“You could be. If you wanted to.”

“Look, I’m going to spend the rest of my life in jail.”

“The baby needs a father.”

“The baby has a father. You just have to figure out who and track him down.”

“You could, as a father, write him letters. A word or two from a father can make a big difference.”

“No one would understand.”

“Well, obviously I wouldn’t tell him you were bat-shit crazy. I’d tell him you were in an enemy prison camp. That you were brave. Fighting for our freedom. Fighting so he could go to school and get all A’s and become a doctor. Make something of himself.”

“He could join the army.”

“Yes, or fly a jet plane. Or land on the moon. I mean on Mars or Pluto or something. Or be an actor and make action films. Or be President and make action films. Or make action films first and then be President. He could grow up to have his face on our money, or a disease — he could discover a cure for insulin or invent a cell phone you can cook microwave dinners in.”

“That would have to be a large cell phone.”

“Not really. Just very small dinners.”

“I tell you what. I’ll be the child’s father, if you let me raise him in here with me.”

“In prison?”

“Yes.”

“Deal. It beats being a single mother.”

“And you want him to go into the military. Or her.”

“I’m flexible. Now, what about the pregnancy?”

“What about it?”

“I’m not going through nine months for free, you know. Let’s say $30,000.”

“$30,0000. That’s my life savings.”

“It’s a baby.”

“True. All right. 30,000.”

“Good. I can’t tell you what a weight lifted off my shoulders this is. And I know you’ll be a good father. You’ll have plenty of time to give him all the attention he needs.”

“Or her.”

“I just know it’s a boy. God wouldn’t make me pregnant just to give me a girl.”

She motioned the guard back and exited the cell. The guard looked in at me.

“You should consider yourself lucky we aren’t shooting you,” he said.

“You should consider yourself lucky you aren’t shooting me,” I said back. I don’t think he understood.

So, how do you know that my saying life is meaningless is not me saying that recognizing the meaninglessness is somehow meaningful. How do you know that when I say there is no hope or value I do not harbour a hope that there is some value in saying there is no hope or value? How do you know my saying there is no advantage to being born over not being born is not me as a born-creature looking back and imaging myself as an unborn-creature, which, if I had never been born, I could not do?

Myself, I have come up with my own theory. It is based on the idea that there is Something Going On In The World, and that maybe, just maybe, all it takes is for one person to figure it out. Then the gods will intervene and call the whole experiment off and declare the joke over, someone finally having caught on. Then we will sit around and talk and laugh about how long it took us to get it and how foolish we feel and about what a good joke on us it really was. And maybe the reason there are billions and billions of us is just to increase the chances that one of us will catch on.

Ha bloody ha. lol.

Thomas Gordon Reynolds is a Canadian writer living in Amherstburg, Ontario. He has written much and published some, been in school a long time, won some awards for creative writing, and goes by three names because of another writer in England. He is married, has two rescue dogs, and knows what it is like to have psychotic breaks.

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