"The Wager": Part 1
(© 1998, 2006, Doug Tarnopol. All rights reserved.)
Henry looked at his watch for the fourth time in as many minutes. No question, he was going to be late for his section. This would be very embarrassing, since just last week he had dressed down several students for their habitual tardiness.
He gripped the overhead handrail like a javelin, silently willing the bus forward, in defiance of natural law. Unheeding, the bus sauntered up the his stop on Market Street. Henry began removing his headphones as he pushed toward the door, jostling with stubbornly unmovable standees, his overfull backpack challenging his balance as the bus decelerated.
He almost made it. As the bus disgorged him, he tripped over himself on the last step, his belongings fleeing in all directions, his limbs stretched out; an asterisk on the sidewalk.
As he gathered himself together, he noticed a young woman smiling as she passed by. She was not the only person smiling -- just the first one he saw -- so she bore the brunt of his private indignation. He, it need not be said, would never have laughed at such a misfortune! What shocking callousness!
Salving his bruised ego with the balm of moral superiority, he limped into the Russian department.
Helen was only a few blocks away from her new boyfriend's apartment. She knew Carlo was waiting for her. Lust quickened her gait and lightened her steps. She saw Carlo's dark hair, his ever-present stubble, his athletic body. As she cut a wake through the humidity, an eddy of air brushed a wisp of her hair against her ear, adding to the fluttering in her stomach. She could feel her t-shirt swaying over her nipples, even through her bra. Even now, still on the sidewalk, her lover not yet in sight, the crescendo was building. Her palms dampened, heart pounded, cheeks flushed, breath quickened.
I wonder if I'm in love with this one? she thought.
Helen smiled, her eyes dilating and already far away.
"1. Verily, Man is steeped in Sin. I leadeth, but he followeth not. 2. Does not the Prideful, Reckleff man cause his own Downfall? Does not Weakneff of Spirit lead to Arrogance, and Arrogance to Mendacity? O my Children, Sin builds upon Sin. 3. And blind are the Lustful to but their Desire. They march past the Fallen, heedless of the Plight of their Brethren. 4. Weak is Man, and his Corruption demands a stern Taskmaster. Thus saith the Lord."
Mephistopheles could take no more. He took his cigar out of his mouth.
"For Christ's sake, Old Man, it's the twenty-first century! Couldn't You adopt a more contemporary idiom when You talk to me? I'm not Abraham; You don't have to impress me. And if You keep numbering your sentences, I'm leaving."
The Lord flashed Mephistopheles an angry look.
"There's no need to bring My son into this."
A touchy point.
"Fine, forget I said it." Mephistopheles shuffled his wings as he shifted his position in his chair. "Look, don't You think You're overreacting? Henry's got a good heart. He's just a little insecure and self-righteous. Considering his childhood, that's not so bad. And as for Helen, she's excited. What is with You? You'd think You'd be used to a normal human female's sexual response by now. Don't make her out the be the Whore of Babylon."
The Lord exhaled disgustedly.
"Morality is always a matter of degrees with you, isn't it? You'll note that the tablets I carved for Moses contained the Ten Commandments -- not the Ten Suggestions."
Mephistopheles frowned and looked upwards, shaking his head in frustration. It was a longstanding argument.
The Lord jumped up from behind His desk.
"Where are you looking? I'm right here!"
"Sorry, it's been a while since I've been up here. Why am I here, by the way?"
The Lord glowered at Mephistopheles, turned slowly, and walked behind His chair. He contemplated the Earth in the large flatscreen monitor on the wall.
"Look, Mephistopheles," the Lord said in his most Prophetic tone, as the monitor raced through the history of mankind. "Look at what they've made of My world. It is rife with sin. These two are just the last straw. Ever since Adam, this flock has done nothing but transgress. I loved them; I gave them paradise."
The Lord sneered and continued in a nasal singsong.
"But, no, that wasn't enough for them. They wanted knowledge, and self-knowledge, and free will."
He spun around and adopted a thunderous tone, with calculated design.
"So I threw them the hell out of there!"
Mephistopheles drew on his cigar and put his feet up on the Lord's desk, an amused expression that threatened to slide into bored distaste on his face. The Lord changed tactics.
"I should have wiped them out then," the Lord continued in a tone meant to inspire admiration of His honest self-appraisal. "But I figured I'd see how it went." But the Lord couldn't maintain such an unnatural tone for long.
"If I hadn't given in to Noah's constant nagging, I wouldn't be in this fucking mess now!"
A sly grin stole onto the Lord's face. He looked over both shoulders and leaned over his desk toward Mephistopheles.
"Oh, I tell you, Mephisto," He continued, sotto voce, "those were the hardest forty days of My existence. 'One big wave...just one big wave...' It was all I thought about." The Lord lifted His left hand and addressed it wistfully. "I held this hand right over the boat the whole time, debating whether to give it a nice, good splash."
Savoring His performance, He slowly closed His hand as He straightened Himself. He turned His gaze on Mephistopheles as the fist sprouted a large finger pointed right at the demon.
"Well, this time, I've had enough!"
Mephistopheles yawned and leaned back in his chair.
"This is what You got me up here for? You starting with this crap again? Look, You can't wipe them out. You promised Noah, remember?"
But the Lord wasn't listening. He was pacing back and forth behind His desk, working Himself up into a righteous fury.
"I should have done this eons ago. What have I been doing all this time, allowing My subjects to flout My laws? At least they used to feel guilty about it, thought a punishment would be coming. Now some of them think I'm dead! Dead -- can you believe it?"
He stopped and turned toward Mephistopheles.
"How is that son of a bitch, anyway?"
Mephistopheles blew some smoke at the ceiling and lied.
"Oh, freezing in the lowest pit of Hell, don't worry."
Actually, Mephistopheles had just been chatting with Nietzsche in Lucifer's drawing room the previous evening. Only the most interesting company could be found at Lucifer's parties.
© 1998, 2006, Doug Tarnopol. All rights reserved.