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The City of God
So the theory has it that the universe expanded exponentially from a point, a singular space/time point, a moment/thing, some original particulate event or quantum substantive happenstance, to an extent that the word explosion is inadequate, though the theory is known as the Big Bang. What we are supposed to keep in mind, in our mind, is that the universe didn't burst out into pre-existent available space, it was the space that blew out, taking everything with it in a great expansive flowering, a silent flash into being in a second or two of the entire outrushing universe of gas and matter and darkness-light, a cosmic floop of nothing into the volume and chronology of spacetime. Okay?
And universal history since has seen a kind of evolution of star matter, of elemental dust, nebulae, burning, glowing, pulsing, everything flying away from everything else for the last fifteen or so billion years.
But what does it mean that the original singularity, or the singular originality, which included in its submicroscopic being all space, all time, that was to voluminously suddenly and monumentally erupt into concepts that we can understand, or learn-what does it mean to say that ... the universe did not blast into being through space but that space, itself a property of the universe, is what blasted out along with everything in it? What does it mean to say that space is what expanded, stretched, flowered? Into what? The universe expanding even now its galaxies of burning suns, dying stars, metallic monuments of stone, clouds of cosmic dust, must be filling ... something. If it is expanding it has perimeters, at present far beyond any ability of ours to measure. What do things look like just at the instant's action at the edge of the universe? What is just beyond that rushing, overwhelming parametric edge before it is overwhelmed? What is being overcome, filled, enlivened, lit? Or is there no edge, no border, but an infinite series of universes expanding into one another, all at the same time? So that the expanding expands futilely into itself, an infinitely convoluting dark matter of ghastly insensate endlessness, with no properties, no volume, no transformative elemental energies of light or force or pulsing quanta, all these being inventions of our own consciousness, and our consciousness, lacking volume and physical quality in itself, a project as finally mindless, cold, and inhuman as the universe of our illusion.
I would like to find an astronomer to talk to. I think how people numbed themselves to survive the camps. So do astronomers deaden themselves to the starry universe? I mean, seeing the universe as a job? (Not to exonerate the rest of us, who are given these painful intimations of the universal vastness and then go about our lives as if it is no more than an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History.) Does the average astronomer doing his daily work understand that beyond the celestial phenomena given to his study, the calculations of his radiometry, to say nothing of the obligated awe of his professional life, lies a truth so monumentally horrifying-this ultimate context of our striving, this conclusion of our historical intellects so hideous to contemplate-that even one's turn to God cannot alleviate the misery of such profound, disastrous, hopeless infinitude? That's my question. In fact if God is involved in this matter, these elemental facts, these apparent concepts, He is so fearsome as to be beyond any human entreaty for our solace, or comfort, or the redemption that would come of our being brought into His secret.
-At dinner last night, code name Moira. After having seen her over the course of a year or two and having spoken to her only briefly, always with the same sign within myself, I have come to recognize some heightened degree of attention, or a momentary tightness in the chest, perhaps, or a kind of, oddly, nonsexual arousal, that usually gives way in a moment to a sense of loss, to a glimpse of my own probably thrown away life, or more likely of the resistant character of life itself in refusing to be realized as it should be ... I understood as I found myself her dinner partner why, finally, it was worthwhile to endure a social life in this crowd.
She wears no makeup, goes unjeweled, and arrives habitually underdressed in the simplest of outfits for an evening, her hair almost too casually pinned or arranged, as if hastily done up at the last minute for whatever black-tie dinner she has been dragged to by her husband.
Her quiet mien is what I noticed the first time I met her-as if she were thinking of something else, as if she is somewhere else in all our distinguished surroundings. Because she did not demand attention and was apparently without a profession of her own, she could seem entirely ordinary among the knockout women around her. Yet she was always the object of their not quite disguisable admiration.
A slender, long-waisted figure. Fine cheekbones and dark brown eyes. The mouth is generous, the complexion an even ecru paleness that, unblemished by any variation, seems dispensed over her face as if by lighting. This Slavic evenness, particularly at her forehead under the pinned slant of hair, may account at least in part for the reigning calmness I have always felt from her.
She nodded, smiled, with a clear direct look into my eyes, and took her place at the table with that quietness of being, the settledness of her that I find so alluring.
Things went well. Let me entertain you.... I spoke my lines trippingly on the tongue. She was responsive, appreciative in her quiet way. On my third glass of Bordeaux, I thought, under cover of the surrounding conversations, I should take my chances. My confession drew from her an appreciative and noncommittal merriment. But then color rose to her cheeks and she stopped laughing and glanced for a moment at her husband, who sat at the next table. She picked up her fork and with lowered eyes attended to her dinner. Characteristically, her blouse had fallen open at the unsecured top button. It was apparent she wore nothing underneath. Yet I found it impossible to imagine her having an affair, and grew gloomy and even a bit ashamed of myself. I wondered bitterly if she elevated the moral nature of every man around her.
But then, when dessert was about to be served, the men were instructed to consult the verso of their name cards and move to a new table. I was seated next to a woman TV journalist who expressed strong political views at dinner though never on the screen, and I was not listening, and feeling sodden and miserable, when I looked back and found ... Moira ... staring at me with a solemn intensity that verged on anger.
She will meet me for lunch up near the museum and then we'll look at the Monets.
-And everything flying away from everything else for fifteen or so billion years, affinities are established, sidereal liaisons, and the stars slowly drift around one another into rotating star groups or galaxies, and in great monumental motions the galaxies even more slowly convene in clusters, which clusters in turn distribute themselves in linear fashion, a great chain or string of superclusters billions of light-years on end. And in all this stately vast rush of cosmosity, a small and obscure accident occurs, a chance array of carbon and nitrogen atoms that fuse into molecular existence as a single cell, a speck of organic corruption, and, sacre bleu, we have the first entity in the universe with a will of its own.
Message from the Father:
Hi, the answers to your questions, in order: the Book of Common Prayer; surplice; clerical collar with red shirt; in direct address, Father, in indirect, the Reverend Soandso (a bishop would be the Right Reverend); my man was Tillich, though some would stick me with Jim Pike. And the stolen cross was brass, eight feet high. You are making me nervous, Everett.
This afternoon in Battery Park. Warm day, people out. Soft autumn breeze like a woman blowing in my ear.
Rock doves everywhere aswoop, the grit of the city in their wings.
Behind me the financial skyline of lower Manhattan sunlit into an island cathedral, a religioplex.
And I come upon this peddler of watches, fellow with dreadlocks, a big smile. Standing tall in his purple chorister's robe. His sacral presence not diminished by the new white Nikes on his feet.
"Don't need windin, take em in de showerbat, everyting proof, got diamuns 'n such, right time all de time."
A boat appears, phantomlike, from the glare of the oil-slicked bay: the Ellis Island ferry. I will always watch boats. She swings around, her three decks jammed to the rails. Sideswipes bulkhead for contemptuous New York landing. Oof. Pilings groan, crack like gunfire.
Man on the promenade thinks it's him they're after, breaks into a run.
Tourists down the gangplank thundering. Cameras, camcorders, and stupefied children slung from their shoulders.
Lord, there is something so exhausted about the NY waterfront, as if the smell of the sea were oil, as if boats were buses, as if all heaven were a garage hung with girlie calendars, the months to come already leafed and fingered in black grease.
But I went back to the peddler in the choir robe and said I liked the look. Told him I'd give him a dollar if he'd let me see the label. The smile dissolves. "You crazy, mon?"
Lifts his tray of watches out of reach: "Get away, you got no business wit me." Looking left and right as he says it.
I was in mufti-jeans, leather jacket over plaid shirt over T-shirt. Absent cruciform ID.
And then later on my walk, at Astor Place, where they put out their goods on the sidewalk: three of the purple choir robes neatly folded and stacked on a plastic shower curtain. I picked one and turned back the neck and there was the label, Churchpew Crafts, and the laundry mark from Mr. Chung.
The peddler, a solemn young mestizo with that bowl of black hair they have, wanted ten dollars each. I thought that was reasonable.
They come over from Senegal, or up from the Caribbean, or from Lima, San Salvador, Oaxaca, they find a piece of sidewalk and go to work. The world's poor lapping our shores, like the rising of the global warmed sea.
I remember how, on the way to Machu Picchu, I stopped in Cuzco and listened to the street bands. I was told when I found my camera missing that I could buy it back the next morning in the market street behind the cathedral. Merciful heavens, I was pissed. But the fences were these shyly smiling women of Cuzco in their woven ponchos of red and ocher. They wore black derbies and carried their babies wrapped to their backs ... and with Anglos rummaging the stalls as if searching for their lost dead, how, my Lord Jesus, could I not accept the justice of the situation?
As I did at Astor Place in the shadow of the great mansarded brownstone voluminous Cooper Union people's college with the birds flying up from the square.
A block east, on St. Marks, a thrift shop had the altar candlesticks that were lifted along with the robes. Twenty-five dollars the pair. While I was at it, I bought half a dozen used paperback detective novels. To learn the trade.
I'm lying, Lord. I just read the damn things when I'm depressed. The paperback detective he speaks to me. His rod and his gaff they comfort me. And his world is circumscribed and dependable in its punishments, which is more than I can say for Yours.
I know You are on this screen with me. If Thomas Pemberton, B.D., is losing his life, he's losing it here, to his watchful God. Not just over my shoulder do I presumptively locate You, or in the Anglican starch of my collar, or in the rectory walls, or in the coolness of the chapel stone that frames the door, but in the blinking cursor ...
-We made our plans standing in front of one of the big blue-green paintings of water lilies. It is a matter of when she can get away. She has two young children. There is a nanny, but everything is so scheduled. We had not touched, and still did not as we came out of the Met and walked down the steps and I hailed a cab for her. Her glance at me as she got in was almost mournful, a moment of declared trust that I felt as a blow to the heart. It was what I wanted and had applied myself to getting, but once given, was instantly transformed into her dependence, as if I had been sworn to someone in a secret marriage whose terms and responsibilities had not been defined. As the cab drove off I wanted to run after it and tell her it was all a mistake, that she had misunderstood me. Later, I could only think how lovely she was, what a powerful recognition there was between us, I couldn't remember having felt an attraction so strong, so clean, and rather than being on the brink of an affair, I imagined that I might at last find my salvation in an authentic life with this woman. She lives in some genuine state of integrity almost beyond belief, a woman of unstudied grace, with none of the coarse ideologies of the time adhered to her.
From the Hardcover edition.
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