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The Gentle Inquisitor and Other Stories
by Richard Seltzer

Revolution
Hands
Heavenly Gossip
The Gentle Inquisitor
Yanni


Revolution
 
Copyright 1991

Once there was a kingdom where the farmers were unhappy, the tradesmen were unhappy, the soldiers were unhappy, and even the king himself was unhappy.

The farmers blamed it on the tradesmen.

The tradesmen blamed it on the soldiers.

The soldiers blamed it on the king.

And the king was the unhappiest of all because he had nobody to blame it on.

Then one day a farmer's son, who had gone far away to a great city and had studied at a university, returned to the kingdom.

He told everyone that the farmers weren't to blame if everyone else was unhappy. And the soliders, the tradesmen and the king to blame either. Rather, it was the system, the superstructure.

If things remained as they were, people would always be unhappy because people couldn't really "be themselves."

They were forced by the system to act out their assigned roles as farmer or king. Regardless of who was a farmer and who the king, things would always be the same -- so long as there were farmers and kings. What they needed was a revolution that would do away with such distinctions.

Everyone was delighted to hear what the student said, especially the king, who was the unhappiest of all. So they had a revolution -- a glorious, merry revoluton. Farmers and trades men and soldiers and even the king himself forgot that they hated each other for making each other miserable. They marched together through the streets carrying signs and chanting and singing and making speeches about how great everything was going to be after the Revolution.

While everyone was making merry, the student drew up a constitution and started planning the way things would be in the future. Everyone was so happy with the Revolution and the Constitution that they immediately elected the student president.

He proclaimed that no longer would farmers be farmers and tradesmen be tradesmen and soldiers be soldiers, but rather all would be workers doing their share as a team for the good of the Republic. There would be new tasks that would need to be done, and all could choose among them according to their skills and inclinations. There would be agricultural workers and industrial workers and defenders of the Republic.

Everyone was delighted that everything would be so different in the Republic.

Years passed, and things settled into a routine, with people choosing to do work that they understood and were good at. The farmers became "Agricultural Workers." The tradesmen became "Industrial Workers." The soldiers became "Defenders of the Republic. Their jobs had much fancier titles now, but, in fact, they were all doing exactly what they had done before -- all except for the student and the king, who had traded places.

The king had found that he was unsuited to be an agricultural worker or an industrial worker or a defender of the Republic. In fact, he found it hard to imagine himself being anything but a king. So he had left the Republic and gone to the great city and to the great university where the student had studied. There he, too, diligently sifted through the great works of history and political science.

More years passed, and once again everyone was unhappy. The agricultural workers blamed it on the industrial workers, and the industrial workers on the defenders of the Republic, and the defenders of the Republic on the President; and the President was the unhappiest of all because he had nobody to blame it on.

Then one day the old king returned, dressed in the garb of a student, with several huge books under each arm. He told everyone that he too had been to the great university; but having stayed there longer, he had read more and learned more than the student who had become President.

He pointed out to them that everything had fallen back into its usual place, with only the names changed. There was no reason to blame the student for this turn of events. The student had been right, as far as his theory went. But if he had read a bit further, he could have found that the superstructure depends on the super-duper-structure.

So long as the super-duper-structure remains the same, everything will eventually fall back into the same pattern as before. The only way to have a "true revolution" is to attack the root of the problem: the super-duper-structure itself.

Now, they were all so unhappy and so anxious to change their lot that they all wanted to hear what this super-duper-structure was and how they could change it.

The old king told them that so long as people needed food and water and sleep, and so long as they unthinkingly obeyed the law of gravity, people would remain pretty much the same. It was the super-duper-structure of natural necessity that they must fight.

Then the super-structure could really and truly be different, and the government be different, and everything be different. Then everyone could live happily ever after.

So commando teams were formed. Some challenged the limits of gravity by training for the high jump and pole vault. Others experimented with flight by hot air balloon. Through science and conditioning, others tried to stretch the limits of human endurance in such areas as hunger, thirst and sleeplessness.

The old king was made Chief Commando and oversaw all these varied revolutionary activities. Being a kind, understanding man, and realizing that there is a limit to the fervor of even the most zealous patriot, he declared that every other day should be a holiday, with feasting and drinking and merrymaking of all sorts. That way the commandos could renew their strength, and, for having tasted the fruits of Revolution, would work with enthusiasm on their days of work.

But soon, the commandos found the pace was too much for them. Both the revolutionary acts and the merrymaking were wearing them out. Besides, they were running out of food with which to feast and wine to get drunk with, because no one was working to make more.

So every third day was declared a "Day of Replenishment," and the men who had been farmers plowed their fields, and everyone else did their accustomed tasks.

Weeks passed, months passed, and the commando rules gradually changed. Now just one day a year was set aside for jumping and fasting and going thirsty and without sleep. The next day was a day of great feasting and merriment. And the rest of the days were as they had always been, with all the people going about their accustomed tasks, and everyone unhappy.

One day the Chief Commando asked the President why he didn't go back to the university, since the office of President was now no more than a title. "If I went to the university," explained the President, "I would conceive of another revolution and would once again become the ruler -- the most unhappy man in all the land.

"As it is, everyone in this land has an assigned task but me. I can simply do whatever I please. I am the happiest man of all."

Indeed, he did just what he pleased. He took up gardening as a hobby. And when his father the farmer died, he planted a garden on the old farm. Soon all of his spare time, which was all of his time, was spent in farming the old farm, in quiet content.

Hands

Copyright 1991 

"Look at these hands!" That's what I'll tell them. "Look at these hands. Do they look lazy? Did they get those callouses being lazy?"

I'll show them. I'll prove I'm not lazy. I've got a wife and a car and a house. I've held onto my job for six long years. And now I'm going back. Back to show them I can hold a job, I can have a wife, I can be as good as any of them. Back to show them my hands.

"Take a good look at these hands." That's what I'll say. "These hands have packed tons of meat. These hands are hard. There's no feeling in them. They're my proof of how hard I've worked. And here's my wife. Would she have married me if I were lazy? Could I support her if I were lazy?"

I was a nothing, a bum, a neighborhood joke. I couldn't keep a job for more than a week. Nobody thought I ever could. Everybody laughed when I tried. But now I've showed them.

They'd laugh at me, and I'd start to shake inside, and I'd drink to stop the shaking. Then I'd start shaking outside, and the next morning I'd wake up shivering in the gutter, and they'd be right because I lost another job. And they'd laugh all the louder. I couldn't stand their laughing and that shaking I felt inside me. I hopped a train to Cleveland.

That's where I met my wife. Not right away, of course. At first it was as bad as before. No, maybe it was worse because everything was stronge and harsh and cold. It's better to be hungry some place you know and where you know somebody, even if they do laugh.

She wore a red and white striped dress the day I met her. They were thin stripes, very thin. And her hair was tied together in a ball in the back. She smiled. It was just after I'd woken up, just after I'd dared open my eyes to see what the day would be like. And the street I was lying on was soft, so soft; but no, it wasn't the street -- it was a bed, and she was standing there beside me and smiling.

I don't know how they got me in there. I didn't ask. When somebody gives me something, I don't ask questions. But she was there, and they were going to "rehabilitate" me -- that's what they said. They would help me get back on my feet.

When she talked, she always smiled. My wife always smiled back then.

When I left that place, I was still a nothing, and nobody believed in me, nobody but her. Her eyes told me she believed. She didn't slap me or spit in my face. She didn't think I was dirt. She wasn't like the others. When I held her, she smiled and said, "Your hands are so tender. There must be a wealth of love and feeling in anyone with hands so tender as these. For the hands are the mirror of the soul." That's what she always said. My wife always had a way with words.

She believed so hard that soon I too believed that I could get a job and keep it, and she'd be proud of me and marry me. And I did, and she did, and we were happy for a few months.

I really believed. As the days became a week and the weeks a month, then two, I knew I wasn't a bum and I wasn't lazy. I knew I could stop the laughing of the guys who had known me before. I knew I could prove it to them. I had to.

I worked hard packing meat. The harder I worked, the surer I was that I was somebody as good as anybody else.

At first my hands were very sore. The skin came peeling off, layer after layer. There were sores and cuts. Damn those tender hands! It was like my hands were determined to destroy me. They'd make sure I didn't work. They'd make sure I'd have to quit. Those hands could peel so fast and ache so hard. Those milion little red gashes would all laugh at me, knowing that they'd break me. And I'd shake inside when I saw them laughing. But I wouldn't drink. No, this time I wouldn't drink. I'd win this time.

Sometimes I'd almost give up, but my wife was there, always. She'd kiss those raw, aching hands, and the pain would go away for a while. She'd bandage them ever so carefully, saying, 'The hands are the mirror of the soul. Take care of your hands.' She'd say that every night, softly, kindly. And her eyes said that she believed in me.

So I believed and worked. If my hands ached, I worked all the harder to spite them. And I didn't mind when I cut them because I knew those hands were my proof. Those sore hands that everyone could see showed how hard I worked and how much it hurt me to work that hard. I was glad when I cut them because that was another proof, another scar to add to the others to show everyone that I am not lazy.

Time passed, and one day I was shaving and the blade slipped out of the razor, and I grabbed it in mid-air. It cut deep, but it didn't hurt. I couldn't even feel it.

I ran into the living room with the razor blade still sticking in the skin, and I told my wife, I shouted and laughed to her, "It doesn't hurt! Nothing can hurt my hands anymore. Just look at these callouses!"

She looked at my hands, and she looked in my eyes, and she wanted to call the doctor because something really bad must be wrong.

But I said, "No, don't call the doctor. Nothing's wrong. Everything's right. These hands can't stop me now. I can show everybody. And these hands are my proof."

She cried a bit, but she got used got used to them. I got used to the work, and she got used to my hands. Anybody can get used to anything.

That was a long time ago. Now I'm going back home with her to show all those guys who knew me back then -- to show them my hands and my wife.


Heavenly Gossip

Copyright 2009 

A few months ago, I read Other People’s Money by Emile Gaboriau, who was a popular mystery writer before the days of Sherlock Holmes. In reading that book, I was struck by the similarities between late 19th-century Paris and present-day America. Some characters have no conscience, no sense of wrong doing when dealing with “other people’s money”. 

That started me thinking, and I woke up the middle of the night with the idea that become the following story.

“What’s wrong?” boomed the Chairman.

“Madoff.”

“Wall Street.”

“Main Street.”

“The moral fabric of society has been ripped apart.”

“There is no moral fabric left at all.”

“And what good do answers like that do us?” the Chairman boomed again. “They offer no hint of what we could do to fix this mess.”

“Gossip,” came a whisper from the far end of the table.

“What was that? Speak up!”

“Gossip,” she repeated louder. Everyone stared at her in disbelief not at what she had said, but that she had said anything at all. This was the first time in over a hundred years that she had spoken at a board
meeting.

“Gossip? What kind of answer is that?” insisted the Chairman.

“The lack of gossip is the problem.”

“Lack of gossip, you say? With all the tabloids and celebrity magazines and television shows? There’s more gossip today than ever in the history of mankind.”

“I don't mean tabloid gossip.  And I don't mean nosey busy-body gossip. I mean neighborhood gossip. Talk by ordinary people who are concerned about the doings and feelings of their friends and neighbors. It's how a community holds together and knows who is in trouble and how to help.  How the community regulates itself.  Today, most people don't know their neighbors enough to talk to them or about them. The lack of that kind of gossip is the problem, and bringing back that kind of gossip is the way to rebuild the moral fabric of society.”

The silence was only broken by the numerous involuntary twitching of wings, dozens of pairs of wings.

“Explain, young lady, whatever your name is.”

“Prudence. My name is Prudence.”

“And your role and rank?”

“Gossip Specialist, First Class.”

“We still have gossip specialists? I thought the advance of technology and the growth of global awareness had eliminated gossip as a major source of trouble.”

“Unintended consequences.”

“What?”

“Reducing gossip to isolated social ponds led to the problem you are talking about. Now the issue is too little gossip, not too much.”

“Gossip! You want to encourage more gossip? What, in the name of Saint … Saint … in the name of Myself, are you talking about?”

The Second Deputy Chairman, sitting at the left hand of the Chairman added, “Gossip is people nosing into one another’s business. Nasty mean-spirited talk.”

“No,” Prudence continued. “Gossip is people discussing standards of behavior and deviations from it. It means looking beyond the surface of what happens and speculating on the real meaning of events and gestures and words. It builds social intuition at the same time as curbing disruptive behavior.”

“It’s the opposite of freedom and independence,” pursued the Second Deputy Chairman.

“Exactly. It’s the slow cumulative process of building a social sense, of valuing social coherence and responsibility.”

“And what of the sacred right of privacy?” objected the Second Deputy Chairman.

“No, she’s right,” added the First Deputy Chairman, sitting at the right hand of the Chairman. “We need balance. We need balance between the rights of the individual and of society.”

The Chairman interrupted, “We don’t need a theoretical debate. We need a plan of action. Prudence, what possible use is this gossip idea of yours?”

“Just let me try.”

“Try what?”

“To restart the web of gossip on a small scale, to prove that it can be done and that it affects people the way I believe it can.”

“Done!” exclaimed the Chairman, with a bang of his gavel.
__________________

The Second Deputy Chairman introduced Prudence to her assignment.  "Silver Street, South Roxbury, a Boston suburb.  McSweeney, Smith, Mirijanian, Maxwell, Darby, Dwight, Kazantzakis, Lopez, O'Leary, Donahue, Mason, Rodriguez... There's the complete list.  Twenty families in all.  These are all two-story clapboard, single-family homes, built between 1920 and 1940.  Those that were appraised two years ago, for refinancing, came in at between $400,000 and $500,000.  Half the families have young children and have lived on this street for less than ten years.  The others have grown children who have moved away.  Those have lived here for more than 30 years.

"The kids, with few exceptions, go to different schools -- half to private and half bussed to other parts of the city.  In the summer, the kids go to camp -- half to day camp and half overnight.  With few exceptions, the wives as well as the husbands work.  On summer weekends, if the weather is good, the young families leave town to relax and have fun elsewhere.  The older couples stay inside with their air conditioners on.  Aside from the occasional lawnmower, the street is quiet.

"The average resident can name no more than three other families on the block, and might not recognize any of their neighbors if they chanced on them in a different context.

"At Halloween, half the kids go to parties in other neighborhoods.  The other half trick-or-treat at the houses of neighbors who probably wouldn't recognize them even if they didn't wear masks.

"A realtor would describe this as a quiet friendly neighborhood.  Stable.  Racially and culturally mixed.  An ideal 21st century community.

"And you want to transform this modern Eden into a hotbed of gossip, with all the neighbors meddling in one another's business? I sincerely doubt that you can do that."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, sir."

"You have just five days, and everything you do must appear both natural and legal, from a human perspective."

"Of course, sir."

"So what do you propose to do?"

"I'll move in."

"What?"

"I'll take the empty house on the corner.

"The one that's foreclosed and up for auction today?"

"Yes."

"And what?"

"That's all.  Human nature will do the rest."

_______________

The original owners had moved back to Indiana to live with family and prepare for a fresh start.  Two speculators had planned to go to the auction.  One had severe stomach pains -- probably a virus or  maybe it was the peppers in his mother-in-law's spaghetti sauce. The other was stuck on Route 128, with an over-heated radiator.  He had been warned it should be replaced, but had put off the work because money was tight. The bank representative, who was supposed to establish the minimum bid, was immersed in family squabbles, trying to save his marriage.  The auction slipped his mind.

Prudence was the only buyer who showed up for the auction.  She bid and paid $100.

A few minutes later, a moving van pulled up with her furniture.  The van's gears ground with a penetrating shriek, and it maneuvered into a parking space by the curb, with loud beeping backup noises.

Neighbors came to their doors; and, within seconds, word had spread from one stranger-neighbor to another -- $100, just $100."

"Well, she certainly is one lucky lady," said Mrs. Darby.  "That's like winning the lottery."

"That's way beyond luck," said Mr. Mason.  "She must have connections upstairs."

"Upstairs?"

"Like way upstairs. Miracle upstairs."

"Somebody must have screwed up royally," said Mr. O'Leary, who worked for a bank. "Things like that don't just happen every day.  The bank should have set a minimum bid, say $200,000.  Enough to cover their investment. What an unthinkable mistake!"

"That's great for her, sure.  But for us..." Mr. Rodriguez began.

"We're screwed," confirmed Mrs. McSweeney.

"What were the last two sales on this block?" asked Mr. Mason.

"The Dowlings for $430,000 and last year the James's for $420,000," answered Mrs. Mirijanian.

By now at least one adult from each house on the block was standing in the street, watching the movers in action.

"$137,000," concluded Mrs. Lopez, who worked part-time as a realtor.  "That's what this sale just cost each of us. $137,000."

"What?" asked Mr. Donahue.

"She's right.  $137,000," confirmed Mr. O'Leary, who worked for a bank.  "When you want to buy or take out a home equity loan or refinance, banks depend on appraisals to establish the market value of  homes. That market value is based on an average of three recent 'comparable sales' in the neighborhood.  for us, that average just dropped from about $420,000 to $283,000."

"That's what I said," repeated Mrs. McSweeney.  "We're screwed."

Prudence interrupted the financial speculation, shaking hands, introducing herself and inviting everyone to a spaghetti dinner that night at her new house.   She had a new recipe she wanted to try.

_____________

All of the couples showed up for the dinner, but they left their children at home.  At first, aside from formalities, all the conversation was between husband and wife, quietly, cautiously -- smiling at their neighbors, but reluctant to initiate real talk, embarrassed to have lived so near them for so long and never have gotten to know them.

They walked around, with drinks and food, checking out this house they had never been in before.  Structurally, it was very similar to their own homes.  None of them had known, except by name, the people who had lived here for more than 20 years.  No one had suspected that they had had financial problems.

Prudence smiled at each of them as she served the spaghetti.  She knew their foibles, their weaknesses, their ambitions.  She saw the way Mr. McSweeney's eyes wandered to Mrs. Lopez, and that other couples noticed that and commented.  She saw Mr. Kazantzakis and Mrs. Dwight at the back window, admiring the garden they had never seen before.  She saw the Masons and the Maxwells take out and share pictures of their children who went to different schools and different summer camps.  She saw Mr. Rodriguez in a Red Sox cap scowling across the room at Mr. Darby in a Yankees cap.  It wouldn't take much for these strangers to become friends and rivals, for small incidents in their lives to be magnified and transformed in the conversations of their neighbors, for them to become aware of and concerned about what their neighbors might think and say of them.  Her purchase and her spaghetti were just catalysts. These strangers living near one another by chance could and would become a community.

"What a mess.  What a stinking rotten mess," Mrs. McSweeney muttered outloud to herself  She was too upset to eat.  "This Pru may well be a fine person and a social neighbor.  But the fact remains, her windfall is our downfall.  The way I figure it -- $137,000 times 20 houses -- we have collectively lost over $2,700,000 today."

"But that's collectively," Mr. Lopez corrected her, after a few inspiring forks full of spaghetti.  "We're not alone.  And as long as we're not alone, we're not helpless."

"Meaning?"

"Well, the fact that this house sold for cheap has dropped property values.  But if this same house sold again for its old value, we'd be right back where were yesterday."

"And who is going to buy it for such a price in today's market?"

"Why not us?" Mr. Lopez suggested.

"Sure, mister.  We've got $400,000 sitting around. Or some bank is likely to lend us that on a house that just sold for $100."

"Well, there are twenty of us -- twenty families.  If we could each come up with $20,000..."

"I don't know about you and the others, but to me $20,000 is more than pocket change.  How am I supposed to come up with that kind of money?"

"Well, you only need to commit that money for a few weeks.  Then you'll get it back."

"You mean you expect to resell this house at full value in just a few weeks?  It's people like you who made Madoff rich."

"We've all got a stake in this.  And if we pull together..."

Mrs. McSweeney paused to reflect, ate some spaghetti, ate some more, then smiled broadly.  "Come to think of it, you're right.  If each one of us could come up with the short-term cash, one way or another, we could do it.  We could buy this place out-right.  That would prop up the market value of our houses and this house as well.  We could then mortgage this place and use the proceeds to pay off our $20,000 investments."

"But how would we pay the monthly mortgage bills?" asked Mr. Mirijanian, who had overheard this interchange.

"Divide that mortgage payment by twenty and it becomes manageable," Mrs. McSweeney answered. "At today's rates on a $400,000 mortgage, that's probably less than $150 per month per family.  And when the economy turns around, we can sell and pay off the mortgage."
______________

Prudence returned to the board room, triumphant.

The Second Deputy Chairman humbly congratulated her.  "Not only did she do all this in less than five days, but her efforts will yield a profit of $400,000, which could finance some very important charity work."

"Well, not quite.  There is, of course, the matter of income tax -- state and federal."

"Yes," he admitted, "that could be substantial.  It's unfortunate you couldn't have used the money to buy another house and so avoid the tax."

"Or I could have given the money back to the people who paid it to me."

"But that would have negated the effect of the second sale on the market value, and it could have led to some nasty legal problems."

"Yes.  Instead, I bought another nearby foreclosed house."

"You didn't spend all the money, did you?"

"Not on that one.  That would have been foolish since I could buy it for a fraction of its former market value -- though higher than the first one because, of course, the bank and the local speculators had learned from the first experience."

"So you now own another house?"

"Actually, three more houses.  The first one sold for so much less than $400,000 that there was plenty of money left, and since I wasn't going to be able to make the tax problem go away, I had to factor that cost into the project."

"But if this approach worked for one neighborhood, it could work for another and another.  The neighbors of those other houses will band together to buy back these other three houses from you and that could give you enough money to buy nine or ten more houses. And the money from that... Why in a few months you could buy every foreclosed house in the city. And then you could expand to other cities, then other countries.  Why this is like Madoff in reverse.  You're creating value and the benefits snowball."

"No. Everything you do has consequences you can't foresee.  People knowing this happened before will get in the way of it happening again.  But this little experiment could have a lasting effect."

"How?"

"The story spread on the news -- print, broadcast, and online.  And it seems likely that legislation at least at the state and maybe at the federal level will change how homes are valued for mortgage loans.  Foreclosures won't be counted, and now they'll average 30 instead of just 3 recent sales, making the values much more stable, without any need for federal funds.

The Gentle Inquisitor

Copyright 1977 first published in Aspect #68

Estaban had always been a zealous Dominican, wishing to do all he could for the good of the order and the glory of God. He had been in monasteries since the age of ten, and he loved the life: the tranquility, the libraries with their theological treasures, the tradition of so many lives over so many centuries devoted to the service of Christ. At an early age he had been ordained as a priest and had become a professor at the chief theological academy in Seville.

But somehow he felt that it was selfish of him to spend his life so quietly and securely feeling the presence of God about him. His students had all taken their vows, had given their lives to Christ; but outside the academy walls, millions of people rarely thought of Christ or thought wrongly of Him. He had read of such people time and again. And many of his former classmates were directly confronting such people, taking an active part in the Inquisition. So Estaban requested that he too might take part in that great work of saving souls from perdition.

That was how it came to pass that one day a young priest found himself as the chief prosecutor in the case of a young Jewess who had paid lip service to Christ while continuing in the bominable ways of her ancestors. The highest dignitaries of the church were assembled with all the official robes and insignia of a great religious festival. He tried to restrain himself from the sin of pride, to remember that he was acting in the service of God, that what mattered was not his own eloquence, (which surely was superfluous since she was known to be guilty), but the soul of the young Jewess who must be forced to confess and must be burnt at a great and glorious Auto de Fe that she might, with the grace of God, be granted everlasting life. And so many others like her needed saving: a great new career in service to God was opening for him.

But he found himself saying things he never expected to say, found himself, in fact, pleading in her behalf in front of the entire Court of the Inquisition. It was quite embarrassing, a shocking display. And to make matters worse, he spoke well, too well, much better than he had ever spoken before. It was all quite unfortunate. She was acquitted, and ever after that he had her soul on his conscience. All his prayers and penance did nothing to erase his guilt: his action was unthinkable.

He apologized again and again to his superiors and friends; and they could tell that he was sincerely penitent. They tried to comfort him, assured him that he meant well and that in the eyes of God that was what mattered. They would see to it that he would never again be placed in such a difficult situation. He was evidently unsuited for the pressures of courtroom oratory. Another task would be found for him so he might work for the good of the order and the glory of God.

But, unfortunately, the young Jewess, through his folly, had never been brought to a true understanding of her sins, had not been humbled to repentance, in fact still considered herself perfectly innocent, had no fear for her soul at all; and was grateful, immensely grateful to Father Estaban for saving her from the flames. And her family was grateful (though they were now much more careful about their public behavior). And her friends were grateful (though in public they dared not let it be known that they were friends). And Estaban kept receiving, even months after the trial, anonymous gifts and tokens and letters from well-wishers. The gifts he donated to the order. The tokens and letters he destroyed, trying to erase that scandalous incident from his mind.

His superiors wanted him to return to his old professorship, but Estaban requested that he be given a task, however humble, that involved the saving of souls. So Estaban became the confessor of several of the greatest nobles of Seville. And at first the job delighted him: having contact with real people and real problems, being entrusted with the care of souls that were in daily danger. But then it struck him how trivial were the sins that were confessed to him: mere matters of lust and avarice, pride and ambition. And he became more and more deeply convinced that he was a greater sinner than any of them, having lost the soul of the poor young girl. Who was he to absolve anyone of anything? It was more likely that his advice would corrupt rather than cleanse the moral lives of these fine upstanding people. Estaban requested to be relieved of his duties, to be given some still humbler task of saving souls, one befitting such a sinner as he.

And so Estaban became a seller of indulgences. And he was a fine salesman, quite eloquent about the miseries of hell and purgatory, quite adept in his argumentation, in the way he summoned masses of evidence in support of the effectiveness of indulgences. And though his superiors were disappointed that such a fine young scholar insisted on taking up such a lowly task, they were pleased with the results, for many hundreds of souls were advanced in the celestial hierarchy toward lesser misery and much fine marble could be bought for St. Peter's in Rome and the glory of God.

But it soon came to light that Father Estaban had on occasion given indulgences to beggars. It would have passed unnoticed, for he paid for them out of his own pocket: but it so happened that one of the beggars took offense, was quite loud in his complaints that he asks for bread and this priest gives him a fancy piece of paper ;that promises in Latin that after he's dead he won't have to suffer quite so many years.

It created quite a scandal: giving indulgences to beggars. Why in no time everyone would be expecting the Church to just give them away. Why It was contrary to the whole spirit of the thing. And Estaban recognized his error, did penance for having been so weak, for having forgotten that pity is one of the most powerful weapons in Satan's arsenal.

In his guilt and despair, Father Estaban returned to his books, buried himself in the abstruse studies of his youth; and it was in such studies that he discovered his true calling.

He felt drawn to heresies, to their intricacies and subtleties. It was amazing how rational and convincing some of them were, how subtle the ways of Satan. It would be easy for someone, anyone, even he Father Estaban to be seduced into taking the false for the true, the Anti-Christ for Christ.

Of course, in retrospect, the scholars of the Church always untangled the true from the false, pointing out the very source of the error. But to be confronted with a new heresy, one that was not yet officially recognized, that had not yet undergone such painstaking analysis: that would indeed be frighteningly difficult for a learned priest to properly understand, much less the ordinary lay believer. And time and again throughout history, hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of souls were lost, damned for all eternity before the Holy Catholic Church had time to diagnose the disease and begin its curative efforts.

It occurred to Estaban that if heresies could be described and analyzed before they captured people's imaginations, many millions of souls could be saved. And the very logic of heresies, the reasonableness that made them so convincing, made it possible for someone well versed in theology to imagine the ramifications of shifts of emphasis, of slight changes in the True Doctrine as they were logically developed and expanded. He dreamed of compiling a monumental compendium of all possible heresies, completely and conveniently indexed, so that even the simplest carpenter could check his idle musings and be assured that he had not unwittingly fallen into deadly error.

The Grand Inquisitor was not particularly enthusiastic about the idea. But he gave his approval nonetheless, pleased that the zealous priest now had a harmless task with which to content himself, a task that might, in fact, prove useful.

So Father Estaban set about his work. And he was amazed at how easy it was to dream of new heresies. In just a few years, he composed 7000 heresies, and they continued to flow readily from his pen.

Just the slightest change in wording or in interpretation of a word could lead to the most mortal of all sins. For instance, in the opening sentence of the Gospel of John, the standard interpretation rendered the preposition "pros" as "with." But in classical Greek it was quite possible for "pros" plus the accusative to mean "against." On the basis of such a slight change one could claim that "In the beginning was Reason and Reason was against God and Reason was God." In other words, Reason by its very nature is opposed to God but, in fact, is itself God Himself. Variations on those opening passages of John alone gave rise to 2153 heresies. And there would have been still more if Estaban hadn't grown weary of the theme.

He loved best the heresies that dealt with Christ incarnate as man, with his man-ness and his god-ness and their varying degrees and interrelations. That was the most difficult point of theology: how God could be man. And a simple carpenter. It was so hard to connect the abstruse formulations of theologians with the life of a simple carpenter. But to fail to do so was heresy, a heresy that every carpenter since the time of Christ had probably fallen into, had probably only avoided by never asking the question.

And Christ himself, the carpenter -- could he have known that he was God? Of course, all is possible to God, but God-as-man? How far a man? Perhaps he was even man enough not to know all these subtleties. Perhaps he considered the behavior of his disciples extraordinary. He was amazed at his own behavior in front of crowds, saying things that he never intended to say. This interpretation would clear up some of the apparent contradictions in the gospels. Sometimes he spoke as God and sometimes as a man who, as far as he knew, was just a man, unambitious, finding it difficult to explain his own behavior and to restrain the reactions of his friends.

And he had been among us twice: both before and after the Resurrection. And if he didn't know that he was God the first time, perhaps he didn't know the second. And one day waking up in a stone cold tomb, enshrouded and anointed like a corpse, he quite frantically unbound himself, trying all the while to convince himself that this was just a nightmare, though he found it difficult to remember the other world he lived in when he was truly awake. He stumbled as he walked out into the bright Easter sun, so painful to his unaccustomed eyes. Two women who saw him screamed and ran away. He didn't mean to frighten them, or the soldiers either. But that was the way with dreams -- sudden shifts of scene, transformations, and people forever over-reacting.

It was all probably symbolic of something he wanted -- the holes in the hands and feet probably indicated that he was nailed down to some job, some pattern of life that he found deadening and wished to break away from at all costs, in order to start a new life in a new place among new friends.

All these people and places struck him as unfamiliar. He kept hoping it would end soon. And it did. But from beginning to end, it was an extraordinary dream in which he was forever amazing and frightening himself with his own behavior.

And, reasoned Estaban, if Christ had been among us twice unbeknownst to himself and had on those occasions announced at inspired moments that he would return again, then perhaps he had returned, perhaps many times, but had passed unrecognized. Perhaps he is even now among us.

Father Estaban broke out in a cold sweat as he reread his pages. They were in a sense "inspired." He had let the words and ideas carry him whither they would. They struck him as unfamiliar as he reread them now. "Exceptionally good," he told himself near the start. "A veritable gem," he told himself as he neared the end. "It alone will make my compendium a work of at." He tried to restrain himself from the sin of pride.

But now he remembered the last sentence, and he was afraid to read it. He dared not turn that last page, dared not see the sin of sins committed so clearly in his own hand. He painfully remembered the incident with the Jewess, tried to excuse the present circumstance as another case of that madness. But, fortunately, this time it was only his own soul that was at stake. No one had yet read the words. Not even he had read those words of his madness, not his words, even though he had written them. No, he wasn't the author. And no one would ever read them.

He pulled himself together, took several deep breaths, then calmly and quietly gathered up his manuscript and calmly and quietly burned it in the same hearth where he had burned the tokens and letters from friends and relatives of the Jewess. But as the last page went up in flame, a doubt arose in his mind. He was no longer certain that the words on that page read, 'I am the Christ, the son of God." He was no longer sure, and it disturbed him profoundly that it might not have been so.

As he wandered through the streets of Seville in despair, he was disturbed that he was disturbed. He needed to speak to someone, to anyone though he dared not turn to his fellow Dominicans, for how could they sympathize with a priest who wanted to be Christ, who wanted not just to be like Christ, but to be Christ in the flesh -- to forever do the "right" without necessarily even thinking of God.

Yet he didn't know and couldn't believe that that was in fact what he wanted. It was just an illusion. He had never written it. And afterwards he was simply distraught, not in command of his senses, having just destroyed in a matter of minutes his life's work. And he couldn't tell the Jewess or her family either, as they welcomed him with great rejoicing and spread a feast before him.

And so it came to pass that Father Estaban no longer worked for the good of the order and the glory of God, that, instead, he learned the trade of a carpenter and lived a simple, long, and quiet life.


Yanni

In a rare moment of silence, Gayle heard a bed squeak rhythmically. The Greeks had finished their argument. It was twilight. Across the alley, lights were going on one by one. Through an open window, she could see the old woman, still mopping. Occasionally, she heard the water sloshing and the clank of the pail.

Sounds carried strangely in the narrow heat-charged alley -- like disembodied spirits, they roamed and reverberated. One moment what happened close at hand was almost inaudible. The next moment a slap behind a remote window resounded clearly.

Her phone rang. Gayle picked it up. No one was there. She could swear the call was for her; but no, it was someone else's phone ringing again and again in some empty apartment.

She returned to the barrage of noise at the open window: the Greeks, the trucks, the record players, radios, and televisions. She was listening for the drop-like beat of Yanni's drum.

Gayle thought of herself as independent and self-reliant. She was proud that she had a good-paying secretarial job and that she lived alone in the city. The decision to come to Boston had been a major one. Her parents had never accepted it, insisting that an attractive young girl like her should marry some nice boy from Lakeview and settle down, have children of her own. She was nearly twenty-eight now and quite comfortable living by herself.

Whenever she left her two-room Chestnut Hill apartment, she locked the door with three heavy dead-bolt locks, pulling down the shades, and leaving the lights and television on. She took the stairs instead of the elevator, even though it was five flights down to the street.

It was on the stairs that she had met Denny. It was hard to miss him, a boy of about 13 or 14, with uncombed blond hair, sitting in the middle of the stairs, huddled over a book. He smiled and nodded as she went by. Sometimes she smiled back.

One rainy day, her grocery bag was wet and she had to grip it tightly to keep it from ripping open. When she smiled at Denny, her hand loosened at a weak spot, and a can of tomato juice tumbled out. She reached to try to catch it, and the grapefruit, spaghetti and milk went tumbling after.

Denny helped her gather them up and carry them to her apartment. She invited him in.

He explained, "I read on the stairs because of all the noise at home -- TV and phone and stuff."

She turned off her television and offered him cookies and milk.

Denny came often after that. Gayle would bake brownies and cup cakes in anticipation of his visits.

He read books about Indians and King Arthur and the Trojan War. Mostly, he liked Greek myths and Norse sagas.

Gayle sat in the armchair and watched him read, or picked up a paperback volume of "the world's greatest poetry."

One night, a week before Denny was going to move away, he just sat on a kitchen chair, leaning back and balancing a half-eaten brownie on his right knee. It was a rare moment of street silence, between twilight and night. They smiled at each other.

Then she heard for the first time the distinctive sound that had haunted her ever since. It was a faint metallic beat from the alley below. At first she thought it was rain dripping on trash cans. But Denny said, "There goes Yanni again."

"Yanni?" she asked.

"Yeah, the kid with the tin drums."

"What tin drums?"

"Don't you hear it?"

She listened again more carefully.

"It's Yanni practicing. He uses trash can lids and a pair of chopsticks. Sometimes he keeps it up long into the night. He's determined to be a great drummer. And maybe he will be. He's not too bright, but he's got determination. He's out there night after night practicing."

Gayle opened the window wider. It wasn't raining. As she listened closely, the beat was pleasant and playful, even if a bit rough. A baseball game on radio soon drowned it out. She felt ashamed at having thought it was the rain.

Her father had played the saxophone and clarinet. When she was little, he used to play with dance bands on weekends to help make ends meet. She used to curl up on his lap and turn the pages of the sheet music for him when he practiced. Her mother thought it wasn't quite respectable to play with dance bands.

Every day that week, at twilight, she and Denny sat by the open window, listening for the beat of Yanni's drum.

Now Denny and his family were gone. This was the first time in nearly a month that she had been alone at twilight.

She wished that Yanni would start playing, or that the other noises would stop so she could hear him.

Just then she heard the sloshing and the clanking as the woman across the alley emptied a bucket of dirty water onto the roof. She cursed the old woman for making so much noise.

She watched the dirty water rush down the roof to the gutter, and watched as it slowly dripped through rust holes.

It was then that she heard Yanni. It seemed like he must be watching the dripping water and imitating its rhythm. It was a melancholy beat.

Opening a collection of poetry, she read "Chaplinesque" by Hart Crane:

... but we have seen

The moon in lonely alleys make

A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,

And through all sound of gaiety and quest

Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

A bed across the alley squeaked rhythmically, as Yanni played his drum. Then he stopped, and the squeaking continued.

Gayle shut her window. She would read three poems, set her hair, and go to bed.

Then someone knocked.


As George raised his fist to the door, he remembered again what Denny had told him, "There's this old maid. She lives alone, and she's a bit wacky. But she let me read at her place, and it was quiet. She made me brownies and stuff.

"One night I lied to her. I didn't mean it as a lie. I just spun a wild tale that nobody would believe, only she believed it -- she's that gullible. And that silly lie of mine made her so happy I didn't want to wreck it for her by telling her the truth.

"Now I'm going to be gone, I feel like I owe it to her to make it so she can still believe.

"Just do me this one favor -- please. Tell her that your name is 'Yanni,' that you've joined the Army, and you're leaving any day now. Say that I told you about her, and you wanted to say hello and good-bye before you left. She'll probably give you some brownies and milk. For just five minutes of your time, you can help an old lady keep believing that the world's a beautiful place."

Denny was his kid brother's friend. He didn't even know him that well. But he did owe him a favor; and, fool that he was, he had promised. So George raised his hand and knocked again.


When Gayle looked through her peep hole, she was surprised to see a young man. She was even more surprised when he announced through the door that his name was "Yanni" and that Denny had sent him.

When he walked in, she gave him a quick look. He was not at all the way she'd imagined him. Or rather, she'd never really believed that Yanni existed anywhere but in her imagination -- a beautiful idea planted there thanks to Denny's creativity.

It had been bitter-sweet melancholy to think that maybe there really was a Yanni, to sit by the window and listen and imagine what he was like. But if there were such a person, she imagined him much younger -- 10 or at most 12 -- with tuft of hair that always stuck up. She was disconcerted finding this college-age stranger at her door. She didn't know what to say.


George blurted out, "The army. I joined the army. I'll be leaving in a couple days."

"Oh," she finally answered, "Denny must have told you about me."

"Yes."

She paused awkwardly. "Won't you have a seat," she added.

He sat. He looked at his watch. It was only 30 seconds since she had opened the door. He crossed and uncrossed his legs. He rubbed the sole of one shoe against the side of the other to scrape off some annoying bits of mud.

Then he stared at her. That was easier than trying to think of something to say.

He could tell that she was disconcerted by his staring. She kept wringing her hands and glancing now toward the kitchen, now toward the window.

"Brownies?" she asked, finally.

He was so absorbed in his staring that he didn't understand her.

She repeated, haltingly, "Would you like some brownies?"

"Oh... yes... please."

She was much younger than he had thought -- not at all as he had imagined her.

She was in her late twenties, with long brown hair. She was short and a little over-weight, but good-looking and shapely, despite the business suit she was wearing. 


Gayle felt his eyes on her as she walked toward the kitchen end of the room. She felt intimidated, but she didn't know what to do or say. He'd been staring at her for so long, she didn't know how to tell him to stop it without making a fool of herself.

As she reached for the plate of brownies, she realized how absurd this was -- offering him brownies as if he were the 10-year-old Yanni she had imagined. Here he was a full-grown man, or almost a man. He said he'd joined the army. 


"She's no old maid," George thought, settling back in the armchair. "A good-looking woman like her, living alone in a nice place like this. I bet she knows her way around," he laughed to himself.

Suddenly, he got up and started stomping around the room with a self-satisfied look on his face. He picked up and put down pictures, knickknacks, and books roughly.


When he stomped into her bedroom, finally she blurted out, "Don't go in there, please... It's a mess... I wasn't expecting company." But he was already in there before the words came out, and then she felt ashamed for having said it, for being so awkward and timid. She couldn't imagine what could have prompted him to go in there.

When he didn't respond and he didn't come out, she followed him in.

He caught her off guard with his boldness. Maybe, without intending to, she had let her eyes show she thought he was attractive; and he misinterpreted her, approaching her like a tough guy in a movie, who expects to hold and kiss a woman.

When she took a step back, he took two steps forward. She stepped back again, and fell onto a chair. He jumped on her. She pushed him away, but not hard, not insistently. He seemed to take that as encouragement and started kissing and hugging her.

She struggled, slipped out of his arms, and murmured, "No."

His eyes brightened, as if that were a cue in a movie.

She backed up and accidentally fell onto the bed. In seconds, he was on her again. This time she didn't fight.

She was embarrassed to say anything, but she managed to blurt out, "It's the first time. Please... please be gentle."


He thought to himself, "Sure, lady, sure. You don't have to play that game with me." But even in the shadowy light that came from the window in the living room, he could see the pain on her face. "Okay," he thought, "if that's what you want me to believe, I'll play along with it. Yeah, I've heard they like to play the virgin, to make the man feel that he's the first. Right on, kid."

For the last six months he had been carrying a small package of condoms in his wallet just in case the opportunity should arise.

He knew what he was doing. He'd read all about it, and he'd been pretty close with a couple of girls. But they hadn't wanted to go all the way. They'd made a big deal about it, and he hadn't wanted to pressure them because he hadn't wanted to get too involved with them.

With Gayle it was different. She, apparently, didn't think anything of it.

Then he wondered if maybe she really was a virgin. Maybe it really did hurt her. Her eyes were tightly closed, and her teeth were clenched tightly.


While it was happening, Gayle kept hoping that something would click and her whole body would convulse. Afterward, she was relieved that it was over and relieved that she felt no guilt.

"Is this Yanni?" she wondered. She couldn't imagine him out in an alley beating on a trash can lid with chop sticks. Denny must have made that up.

"Do you play drums?" she asked softly.

"Drums?" he stopped short.

"Yes, drums."

"No." 


"Drums?" he wondered. "Women think of the wackiest things."

He felt himself come. He couldn't help it. It all just dribbled out. He felt limp and tired. He rolled over to relieve his arms of his own heavy weight.

Had he done all right? He wondered what she was thinking. How did he compare to other guys?

She probably expected him to do it again. He rubbed up against her side.

"No, please," she said softly. "Let's just lie here like this."

Her voice was warm and comfortable. The muscles of his back relaxed. He was grateful that she seemed pleased and that his job was done.

She looked so helpless and vulnerable. Why had she let him do it?

He reached out and stroked her back gently.

That was the first sign of tenderness he had shown toward her.

She cuddled closer, hiding her head by his side, so he couldn't see her face. Maybe she was ashamed or scared. She probably didn't know what to expect of him.

He reached over and hugged her.

He heard a soft murmur, almost a purr. He wasn't sure which of them had made the noise. His own tenderness frightened him.

Trying to shrug it off, he patted her on the back and withdrew his arm as casually as he could. Putting his arms behind his head, he imagined he was smoking a cigarette. He'd seen in movies and had read that a guy doesn't feel tender right after. He wanted to be cool. After all, she'd done it loads of times. It was nothing to her. How could he let it mean anything to him?

She stretched out her arm, hugged him, kissed his chest, and cuddled up again.

He took that as a mark of approval. Proud of himself, he ruffled her hair.

She was so small and fragile. He felt her pulse beneath her scalp. She had such soft skin.

He'd been too rough with this soft little woman. He hoped he hadn't hurt her much. He hoped he had made her happy. She seemed happy.

He leaned over and kissed her on the nape of the neck.


She didn't say anything. It had been so peaceful lying there with him quietly, after it was over. He had been so gentle then, and warm. But she couldn't expect it to last.

He had probably done it many times before. And he'd said he would be leaving for the Army any day now.

She got up and put her clothes on. Of course, she knew that she'd be going to bed again in a few minutes. But it felt like the proper thing to do. It was a way to signal, "It's over. Life goes on. Thank you. Good-bye."

She made a mental note to remember to set her hair.

They kissed perfunctorily at the door, and she locked the three locks, from top to bottom.

After he left, everything was the same as it had been before, except that she couldn't get to sleep. There was an emptiness about her bed that she had never noticed before. After an hour or two of tossing and turning, she got up and looked at herself in the mirror. Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes sparkled. She looked and felt years younger.

"Yanni, Yanni, Yanni..." Strange thoughts ran through her head as she let herself sink into the armchair by the window. She remembered being shocked when Holly at the office had told her about her recent trip to Greece. Holly had picked up an 18-year-old Greek boy on one of the islands, and they'd slept together on the beach.

"I felt so close to nature," Holly had said, "so close to Greece, to the sand, the sea, and the stars. The little pagan was so bold. He shocked me and pulled me out of my shell. It was the first time I'd really felt anything in years. It was unbelievable -- stretched out on the beach at night. I'd never seen so many stars. And Dmitry was so simple and direct, with no pretense at all. He knew I was leaving in a couple of days."

Gayle listened to the street sounds, hoping that she'd hear the squeaking of a bed, the sloshing of a pail, the drum-like beat of water dripping on trash cans. But it was long past twilight, and the air had cooled. The alley was dark and empty.


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