It was about this time he heard from his best friend, Omar Bentem, who flew in from Los Angeles for a few weeks to visit his father. The senior Mr. Bentem’s business was buying old hotels and renovating them, several of which were in the Chicago area. His son maintained a permanent apartment in the oldest of these in River North near the gallery district.
Omar never knew his mother, who readily gave him up to be raised by his father. Aloysius’ father worked for Mr. Bentem and followed him from Memphis to Chicago; consequently the two boys were never long separated. Omar later moved to California to go to law school, but despite taking up permanent residence in the state and passing its Bar, he never pursued law as a career. Aloysius was not sure what his friend did with his time apart from his two socially marginalized passions: metaphysics and (unapologetically) prostitutes. Still, Omar was significantly more outgoing than the standoffish artist, although the mutual friendship both men shared was clearly the most valued society either would claim.
Aloysius, having been a clumsy boy with no athletic interest, was the target of bullies in school, and the sturdier boy was only too glad to be his protector. It was a perfect marriage of passivity and assertiveness, both in a social and intellectual sense. Their childhood bond was also reinforced by a common love of speculative science fiction. Even though the inevitable pulls of life ended up taking them in different directions, the two never went more than a month without speaking to one another.
On this occasion, they decided to meet at an old haunt of theirs, a trendy bohemian coffeehouse on the Near North Side, before the artist’s departure.
The door of the establishment was propped open with a ceramic Buddha, and the ceiling fan generated a cross breeze to dampen the smell of fresh turquoise paint on the thrift store furniture. Aloysius was the first there, as usual; his friend strolled in some minutes later. It was a study in opposites to see them together.
Omar’s arrival into any room was somewhere between Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and Nietzsche’s Zarathustra descending from the mountaintop. In short, the former high school wrestler was a force of nature. (Even his small gestures were combustive.) His short-cropped salt-and-pepper hair crowned his massive head like starlight, and he never smiled, except at someone’s expense. Still, he bore a generosity of soul that was as spontaneous as his every utterance was calculated.
Aloysius by comparison was tall, delicate of bone, and painfully introverted. Where his friend was largely impervious to details in his immediate environment, the painter was blinded—even immobilized—by them. He was rarely talkative, but even when quiet was incapable of hiding his feelings to any beneficial degree.
On exchanging hugs at the door, Omar handed his friend an unmarked mailer pouch; Aloysius knew what was in it.
Seeing their favorite table near the window was available, the two men settled into their coffeehouse routine: Omar drank his latte with unbridled gusto while Aloysius nursed his like a baby chick. After dispensing with obligatory niceties, the two caught up on recent history. The mysterious benefactor intrigued the lawyer. When he inquired whether the person was a he or a she, his friend erupted, “Well, who else is going to buy one of my paintings? Have you ever known a woman to like my art? Why do you think I’ve never had a real girl friend? They’re afraid I might kill them in their sleep after they’ve seen my paintings.”
Omar chuckled. “I tell you, man, if you painted naked women, you’d have a sweet setup. You wouldn’t have to anesthetize them in a chair like some pervert dentist wanting to cop a feel, or put hidden cameras in the female employees’ changing room like a voyeuristic restaurant manager. When the girl shows up for the job interview, tell her to drop her drawers in lieu of the three character references, and hell, there you go. She would already have her clothes off. In my book that constitutes consent and foreplay.”
Aloysius frowned at the libertine ethics.
Omar expanded on his advice. “Look, Ally. Painting naked chicks is a great way for someone socially retarded like yourself to meet girls. Besides, after you’ve slept with them—if you have any energy left—you might actually paint them. Maybe sale what you make.”
The artist was eager to change subjects. “Have you been to Stonesthrow? I hope it’s more than one gas station along the road where people stop to pee.”
“It’s a college town. I’m sure they’ll have at least one coffeehouse—and one cute girl to look at while you are sipping your brew.” Having said this, the friend eyed the tattooed barista working the espresso machine. He spoke bluntly. “You know, Grasshopper, when she is fifty, those tattoos will be faded and sagging on her flaccid arms. She’ll look more like a carnie than a muse.” (Omar often referred to Aloysius as Grasshopper when he assumed the role of teacher over his susceptible friend.)
The pretty girl was suddenly a distraction.
The lawyer sought to win back his friend’s attention. “I see where they’re showing The Day the Earth Stood Still over on the Northwestern campus Saturday. We should go before you leave.”
Aloysius nodded absently and surveyed the tiramisu in the pastry case.
Omar’s expression took a puckish turn. “I think The Day the Earth Stood Still is a liberal’s benign view of space aliens, whereas Invasion of the Body Snatchers is conservative. You see the same relationship between E.T. and Alien.”
“Which do you think will be the case?” snickered Aloysius. “Are aliens going to be peaceniks or conquerors?”
Omar glowed and pondered, which was an overture. “When we look to the heavens, it is only to find our own faces in clouds: Fears of a coming World War set the mood for The War of The Worlds. The clandestine Cold War created the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Leisure-class computer nerds dreamt up the virtual baddies of The Matrix. The boogeyman is always defined in terms of the prevailing culture, as are the aliens of our better nature, like E.T. and Klaatu.”
“What can we expect from higher intelligence then, if they’re not going to stand on the gangplank and lecture us on our shortcomings like Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, or hide themselves in the woodwork like in The Matrix?”
Omar flicked his wrist dismissively. “Higher intelligence is a misnomer—unless you’re foolish enough to believe technology equates with intelligence.” He sat his empty coffee mug down with deliberation. “For all our dribbling-on about nanobots and artificial intelligence, what we know with certainty and do with impunity in this universe makes for a paltry list. The Space Shuttle dates from the era of the eight-track tape deck. Its barely flies with spit and duct tape.”
“So aliens aren’t going to be godlike? Hopping around from galaxy to galaxy in wormholes?”
Omar was quick to disabuse his friend of the notion. “Jacques Vallée’s variant on these manifestations, where they are Jungian archetypes who stay just ahead of an developing civilization, might give their vagueness a degree of intellectual cover, but subjective reports lack the empirical heft of ray guns torching cities to the ground. I am more inclined to call these little green men mischievous demons and goblins since galactic conquest is clearly not the object of their gaslighting and college pranks. On the other side, there is The Anthropological Argument, which states that ‘advanced intelligences’ do not interact with us because they do not want to interfere with our natural evolution, either for reasons of scientific observation or because they have the superior ethics that apparently come with superior intelligence. This, I fear, is little better than a self-reinforcing delusion, though of loftier and rarified construction.”
“What’s out there, if not little green tourists?”
“Like I said, we are the true subject matter of any picture we paint in the sky, which leaves only the canvas itself—infinity—unaccounted for in the total picture.”
Aloysius sighed. “How is infinity analogous to anything? You can’t put it under a microscope or see in a telescope.”
Omar frowned, settling into his professorial tone. “I intend my analogy to canvas in this regard: Infinity is the presupposition that prefigures every other supposition nested in it. But you are right. It can’t put it under a microscope or telescope. Infinity is God’s glass ceiling—His sublime joke! It would be humbling if it were not so invisible.”
“What’s the point of bringing it up?”
“Because it’s a clue. A clue greater than any message or visitation from a spaceman. Its presence in our mind is more allusion than illusion."
(Aloysius knew an explanation was to follow.)
“We have trouble thinking outside our space/time continuum,” the philosopher continued, “of imagining, for example, reality in itself might be something apart from the universes we suppose to come and go in it. Yet whatever reality is in itself, it is not time or space sensitive by definition. Its highest achievement does not exist in some brave new future or fabled past, but always in the here and now.”
“What would this ‘highest achievement’ be?”
The friend propounded. “If all reality is surface, and has a finite beginning, then it should be a simple matter to draw up a list mapping their connections and rough order. Right? Yet every cause begs another one to precede it, and so on and so forth, ad infinitum. We work our way through these chicken-and-egg riddles, one at a time, until they exhaust at an inconceivable ‘first cause.’ We can either accept this last brick in a wall as a final explanation, or not; but few who walk away from finished walls carry off an empty wheelbarrow.”
“And this puts us at the glass ceiling you mentioned?” hazarded Aloysius.
“We are trapped,” the friend stressed, “in a labyrinth of infinite regression, from which we cannot extricate ourselves. Our only recourse is to envision more walls, and with the hope we can shuck and jive our way to an explanation that ends our insatiable appetite for explanations.”
The listener despaired of the conundrum.
Omar probed his idea further. “The question arises: Is there anything inside this maze that points to an outside of the maze? Is there something beyond our realm of endless bricks begetting bricks, and walls begetting walls? Something suggested by the very nature of infinity?”
The teacher pushed away from the table, freeing up his arms to gesture. “Every child ponders the endless heavens with puzzlement, and in a way adults cannot answer. Yet this world-strangeness children find themselves thrust into leaves them feeling like abandoned orphans at a bus depot. There are no ladders in or out of this place, but every child has a sense memory of just such a ladder.”
A breeze rose in the open doorway to disrupt this disquisition, catching a stack of loose flyers and sending several sailing over the threshold.
Omar fanned his large hand over the top of the table. “Remember when we were playing children, Ally? How larger-than-life everything was then? How the further back we go in time, the more wondrous it becomes?”
The artist smiled. “Yes.”
“Do you remember your birth?”
“Of course not.”
“Do you have any recollection of a beginning to you? A point where you were new in the world?”
“Do you remember the first time you saw a starry sky or heard a bird sing?”
“The first time you felt a desire?”
Omar paused. “Do you feel like you’ve always existed? Have never not existed?”
Aloysius thought on it. “Now that you mention it—yes.”
“That your life had no actual beginning?”
The friend squeaked in his chair, darkening. “That’s because your memory preceded you into the world.”
A stronger wind wafted in from the sidewalk, smelling of rain somewhere down the street. It wrapped a loose flyer around the Buddha, hiding, for the moment, his smile. Both men looked over to see the fuss, and the gathering clouds pushing the last of the late afternoon light up the block.
The congregant spoke disconnectedly. “Memory?”
Furrows on Omar’s brow deepened in the dipping light. He tapped the edge of the table. “A piece of a puzzle lies in every experience of sense, Grasshopper. A picture already finished in our heads at the time of our births. Our coming to it is not a process of discovery but of recovery; and from our inception it passes into us with such transparency we experience no discontinuity in receiving it. Reality’s highest accomplishment is we’re born knowing everything, even as we are bound of necessity to commit most of it to forgetting on leaving the womb.”
Aloysius offered a challenge. “Couldn’t all this Platonic stuff be a recasting of your childhood through rose-colored glasses?”
Omar stiffened. “Everything we are—everything we value—dates from our childhood. Native Americans say we inherit the Earth from our children, and it’s true.”
“I think many folks abort their inner child early on,” empathized Aloysius.
Omar sighed. “When it comes to recovered memory, some opt for minimum coverage. They wake up in a dark room with a flashlight in their hand, and have no interest in knowing how they found the flashlight without first having a flashlight.”
The friend agreed. “A flashlight may be able to cast light on everything but itself, but what it illuminates is enough for most. It’s like your riddle of infinity: It hurts people’s heads to think about it too much.”
The philosopher could not refute the point.
Aloysius segued. “The things you talk about may feel true, but you can’t demonstrate your noumenal realm exists.”
Omar stared off through the panes. “There is a reason why we forget at birth, Grasshopper. And even method in what we imperfectly recover. We forget because to retain that memory in full would be too terrifying—too beautiful—to endure. Forgetfulness is the price of admission to enter this earthly realm, and what we recover is only what serves us in this place until, in death, we can bear to have the remainder of that memory restored.”
“I don’t understand.”
The friend glanced again out the window. “Do you remember what we started talking about?”
“About space invaders. About how we see ourselves in them.”
Omar paused to establish a mood. His voice became subterranean, worming its way under the tablecloth toward his friend. “Here is the proof of the noumenal realm, Grasshopper, uncolored by fond remembrance.”
Aloysius, hearing thunder over the skyline, moved in closer as the Sun shrank from the windowsill.
The professor continued in his graver tone. “The boogeyman is also an enigma born of childhood. But, unlike infinity, this enigma can grow legs and bump into furniture.” He looked over the table like a chalkboard. “Do you remember when we used to play Bloody Mary as children? How we would say ‘Bloody Mary’ three times and turn back to look in a mirror in a dark room?”
Aloysius’ response was hesitant. “Of course.”
Omar picked up the empty coffee cup at his elbow and placed it in front of him. His eyes hardened in a hypnotic way. “Is this cup in motion or not?”
“Well, the atoms inside it are moving around.”
“Exactly.” Omar shoved the cup toward his friend. “I want you to pretend you are a cosmic camera and blink your eyes as if a fast shudder, yet the increment of time the shutter will be open will be so infinitesimally small that the atoms in this cup will effectively be frozen for the duration, and appear crystal-clear to you.”
Aloysius, studying the cup for a second, obliged with a bat of his eyes.
Instantaneously a bolt of lightning seared the windowpane beside him. The brief hot white flash sent the shadow of the coffee cup crawling away slowly over the tablecloth like a black finger; the artist shivered.
Omar broke the rumble that followed. “Was something still in motion?”
The professor tapped the cup. “Was some part of this mug still moving?”
“The shadow,” came the terse reply.
“What was your impression of it?”
Aloysius pondered the afterimage burned in his cornea. “You know Hans Holbein’s painting, The Ambassadors?"
The artist recalled the crucial detail of the Renaissance painting. “At the feet of the ambassadors, there’s a dark, attenuated form running diagonally across a mosaic floor. It is distorted beyond recognition, and only viewing the painting edgewise restores the image as a skull.”
“A skull, then?”
Aloysius’ look was harsh. “You planted that stupid idea of Bloody Mary in my head.”
Omar eased back in summary. “If we could approach the innermost realm of reality as a perceptual matter, then the last thing we would see still in motion would be the shadow of what was, in truth, unmovable and out-of-time.” He pulled the cup away. “We share this surface-begetting labyrinth with an interceder, Grasshopper: a Minotaur.”
Another crackle of lightning underlined his words. The flyer wrapped around the Buddha tore free in a gust to scurry under the table and onto the painter’s feet.
The philosopher gazed over the dimming environs with a face larger in the delineated glow of the table lamp. “This monster can be conjured up out of our space and time, although it is barely in either. It always moves in slow motion for us because it is the last thing in motion for us. When the airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, when people leapt from those buildings ledges to keep from being burned alive, when the towers came tumbling down—the Sublime reached up through the world to slow its spin, almost making it stop. Our taken-for-granted surfaces were briefly embodied like a glove, and by ancient and outsized fingers that reminded us in no uncertain terms that our surfaces are only doors.”
Aloysius was meeker. “Then this Minotaur in the Maze is the boogeyman of our childhood?”
The friend explained, “The arms of the angel that bears every child into the world becomes those of a devil in letting go. This recollection lingers in every adolescent imagination to become a monster hiding under the bed, somewhere between sleep and death.”
“And what becomes a devil on the way in becomes an angel, once more, on the way out?”
The artist brightened. “It’s like in the movie, Jacob’s Ladder, where the chiropractor quotes Eckhart about angels and devils being the same thing. Only in different contexts.”
Omar, approving, added, “Lucifer, the most beautiful angel, only became the Devil in being cast out of Heaven.”
A sharp ring pierced the tenebrous veil that had settled over the table; Aloysius again jumped.
Omar reached in his pants pocket for a cell phone. “Hello?” There was a pause, one marked by his customary shade of opaque. The lid was clicked shut without another utterance.
Aloysius noted his change of facial expression. “Wrong number?”
Omar poked the mailer pouch at his friend’s elbow, indicating it was one of those questions he was not required to answer.
With his curiosity quelled, the painter retraced a step. “The occasional intrusion of the Sublime into our workaday world, then, is proof something exists beyond this labyrinth of infinite regression?”
Aloysius sank back in his chair, grinning solemnly at his friend. “We started out talking about movies and ended up talking about metaphysics.”
Omar laughed. “We started out talking about The Day the Earth Stood Still and ended with Jacob’s Ladder. Where did we veer off-course?”
The student looked up to see the first plops of rain striking inside the doorway by the Buddha. His voice was still searching. “So we carry the boogeyman into adulthood with us. Make stories and symbols out of it. Revere it even as we fear it. Yet it is never very far away, hiding in our surfaces with the balance of our memory. Hiding behind our faces in clouds.”
Omar finished his lesson. “Where we chase meaning in this world, we chase enchanted monsters. In one guise, we seek to exalt our likeness to God; in another, we seek to tear down this likeness as the last barrier that stands between God and us. But it is never not the case that our likeness is the crucible by which we attempt to make the Ineffable effable.”
Aloysius puzzled. “There’s this astronomical Redshift Survey map where some eleven hundred nearby galaxies are plotted relative to The Milky Way. Collectively, as points, they resemble a human figure.”
With a nod, and what might have passed for a smile, the mythic friend stood up and returned the phone to his pocket. “As Einstein said," he concluded, “‘Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.’”
Seeing an end to it, Aloysius followed him to the door.
Chapter Two, Section Three/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.