14. The truth is lost and maybe never to be found / Like the shadows of my panty line

Kamelot—Sacrimony (Angel Of Afterlife)

Charles is dreaming.

He meets Sigourney Weaver secretly in the back of a cruddy coffee shop, far away from the windows. They are involved in some sort of illicit undertaking, a plot, a heist, or something similar, and they quickly leave the shop, then walk the streets quickly, aimlessly.

Finally, in a large gathering in a roomy house, Sigourney takes Charles and another plot member each by the hand and winks, leading them into a corner of the huge living room, which is dominated by a king-sized canopied bed. She means to take them both to bed, but there are children all around in the living room, clamoring for autographs from Sigourney the star.

She sits on the bed and begins to strip off her clothing. She gestures to the curtains on either side of the bed. Charles jumps up and begins drawing them. Like a hospital bed, the curtains hang by beaded chains and draw all the way around. The kids are on the outside, as is Charles’s rival. Charles winks and says, “See you in a bit,” as he draws the curtain right in front of the other man. Sigourney sits in tailor position on the bed, entirely nude, with her pudenda showing through a wispy beard. Charles examines her labia and is struck by the similarity between the minora and her nose.

The labia are long and narrow and symmetrical just like Sigourney’s nose. Charles theorizes that women’s labia are shaped like their noses, a corollary to the theory that for men, a big nose equals a big penis. Charles thinks amusingly of the various reasons why no one has ever discovered this relationship: the hidden nature of vaginas; men are usually distracted when in the area; prudish attitudes would prevent such research. He thinks of a study he read about once—by a European researcher who performed an exhaustive investigation of female genitalia, categorizing their size and shape. He remembers the guffaws that such research elicited from the professors at the college he used to work at.

Sigourney is glistening and obviously ready for love. Her body is sleek and lean. She has tied her hair back in a loose ponytail and holds her arms out toward him, quite like her character in Ghost Busters. Charles looks down at his body, and, finding himself suddenly undressed, moves over to her on the bed. They kiss and fondle for a while. The children are making noise beyond the curtain. Sigourney says, “We don’t want to get caught. Here, sit up on the bed.” She turns her back to him and straddles him, slipping his rod into her slowly.

He embraces her small breasts from behind as she moves up and down on him. As usual during dream sex, Charles can’t feel anything. He goofily breaks into song: “Anhedonia, Anhedonia! What makes the coming so hard?” When younger, Charles could not even get to the point of entry in his dreams. Now he can enter his dream females, but there is no sensation, and worse yet, this lack of sensation is evident in the dream, so that he is irritated by it even while dream-fucking.

He thinks about his rival having to take sloppy seconds and knows that Sigourney was just being polite in asking the rival along.

Suddenly, a neighbor across the hall starts using a power saw, and Charles awakens from the dream, tight and turgid and frustrated as usual.

He lies in bed and wonders about the meaning of the dream. Still woozy from sleep, he thinks that maybe it’s about the longing for days gone by. The Sigourney in the dream was, after all, the ‘80s Sigourney. But he never really was all that hot for Sigourney Weaver. As he slips out from under the top sheet and swings his legs to the floor he remembers she was nude in one movie—what was it—long ago, probably the ‘80s or ‘90s, in a bathtub—pursued by a bad guy or something.

Awful stupid thing to be thinking and dreaming about, he decides, as he clicks on the bathroom light and turns on the radio. As he shaves, the Atlanta Rhythm Section comes on singing “Homesick.” OK, that’s weird, he thinks. I was just thinking about longing for days gone by, and now this song comes on. He thinks, it’s true. We ’60s children are really trapped in a more vibrant, but past, time. The ’60s youth were the spoon that stirred the culture, which is still swirling, no matter what the conservatives today think—the planet still cannot rest from the ideas that were formed in the crucible of cultural upheaval way back then. He chuckles as he remembers he used to think the song went, “Homesick, to kiss this guy.”

Turns out it’s a Two for Tuesday, and ARS’ “So Into You” comes on. Charles smiles broadly as he remembers when the song first hit the airwaves in summer of 1977. The lyrics seemed way too specific to his situation then: In graduate school for his Ph.D., he was involved with Claire, the quirky Kansan in the poetry class he taught. When he first heard the song, he heard the lyrics as, “I am so into you, I can’t get to know the nurse” and it made him think of Edie. Chuckling, Charles wipes his face and runs the shower. I wonder what Claire is up to now?

Later, at lunch with Chip, Charles tells him about his dream and the synchronicity of his morning. “I have these déjà vu moments all the time,” he says. “Mostly it’s just annoying, feeling like you’ve been here before, but not being able to put a finger on when, where, and why.”

“So, you’re David Crosby, now, Hippie Boy?” Chip says. They’re at a Rasta vegan restaurant in Little Haiti. “I’d worry more about Vu Jà Dé.”

“What’s that?”

“The unshakable feeling that this has never, ever happened before.” Chip roars with laughter at his own lame joke.

“Jeez, man, you’re about as funny as a screen door in a submarine.” Charles takes a forkful of his tofu curry. Chip smiles broadly and digs into another vegan chicken wing.

“Well, I wish you would take me seriously on this,” Charles says. “What if we really have been here before? What if this is Purgatory, and we’re doomed to repeat our pitiful lives until, by luck or chance, we get them right?”

“This ain’t Purgatory, bucko,” Chip asserts around a mouthful of faux chicken. “There’s not nearly enough suffering. And 1 Corinthians 3:10—which our president would call One Corinthians—says there’s supposed to be fire: ‘Each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work.’”

“Hmm. Sounds more like hell to me.” Charles says. “But I thought you heretics didn’t go in for all that Catholic mumbo jumbo.”

“And speaking of mumbo jumbo,” Chip says. “why do you believe in Purgatory? I thought you were a lapsed Catholic.”

“Not lapsed. Retired. I retired for good from all religion while in college, done with pretending while accompanying my dad to church every Sunday. I view religion as a fantastic set of incredible myths that generally describe how people project their inner lives using archetypes.”

“So, you’re a Jung man, old man?” Chip snickers at his pun. “Anyway, Methodism, like the rest of the Protestants, rejects the idea of a purifying Purgatory in favor of thinking it’s a kind of waiting room for Resurrection Day. And, here’s the kicker: There’s no real support for the idea of Purgatory in scripture.”

Charles ponders for a moment. “OK, we’ve gotten off track, here. I don’t really believe that the sense of déjà vu is due to us being in Purgatory; it was just a thought. So, what do you think the dream meant? Could it have been prophetic?”

“Prophetic? That you’ll hook up with Sigourney Weaver? In your dreams! Literally. But as to the meaning of your dream, I dunno. Maybe you’re secretly really hot for Sigourney Weaver and she reminds you of Edie? You know, tall, skinny, small boobs. Maybe you’d rather be in bed with a semi-hot Hollywood actress in her prime than to be picking at your tofu at the Garden of Eatin’ in Little Haiti with me. I know I would. And by the way, doofus, you wouldn’t have had a shot at her even if you’d hit the lottery back in the ‘80s. And prophetic! Ha! If you think I would believe for one moment that you’re somehow going to meet Sigourney Weaver and do the Reverse Cowgirl with her, you’re goofier than I think you are! Finish up. I gotta get back.”

The next day, Charles writes an essay for the atheist and counterculture blog, the Orbit.

I Got Your Messiah Right Here

By Charles Beaumont DeFries

When I was about 11 or 12, I began to wonder if I might be Jesus.

I was clearly smarter than anybody I knew, excepting maybe my parents; I felt I had wisdom, even at that early age; and I had a grasp of the world as it is that I thought transcended not only my peers but obviously most adults who were running things.

I know what you’re thinking. But this was not a full-of-myself moment, really. I truly started to wonder what I was made to do and had to consider the fact that I might actually be the Second Coming.

Having turned this idea around in my mind for several months, I concluded that it was a real possibility that, once I turned 30, I would find my destiny as the new Christ. All of this speculation was completely separate from my attitude about religion and the Catholic Church.

In fact, my experiences in Catechism fed into my feeling of spiritual superiority. So many of the Bible tales the nuns told did not make any sense on the face of them. David and Goliath. The pillar of salt. The parting of the Red Sea. The plagues. There always seemed to either be a rational explanation for these miraculous events, or they strained all credulity. If these Biblical figures had all this power, why did they not subjugate the Earth and bend all people to their faith? Why was the history of the Jews—God’s Chosen People—fraught with such suffering? Wandering in the desert for 40 years after a horrific escape from Egypt? Very little of what they tried to teach me made sense.

As little sense as the Old Testament made, it was the New Testament that really had me scratching my head. And the thing that particularly got me crossed up was the idea that nobody went to Heaven before Jesus died for them. That’s what the Sisters taught.

It just really bothered me that the billions of lost souls in Purgatory before Christ died would never be saved because they had died before his sacrifice could wash away their sin. All of them—the whole spectrum from the righteous and the just-less-than-evil—every last one of them were the same in God’s eyes, destined to wait in Purgatory for the Second Coming.

All this was bad enough, but the question that particularly galled me was: Why did Jesus’ own father, who died before him, not get into Heaven? That’s what the nuns told us. The idea is simply preposterous and, if true, an indicator of a god that had his priorities wrong. That’s why I took the confirmation name of Joseph. The poor guy.

The nuns didn’t take too kindly to my questioning their dogma, especially when I asked if people who were Protestants or Jews got into heaven and was told no. I decided that either this god was not one of goodness and light, or the whole church and the Bible were wrong. The rules of the church and the conflicting messages sent by the Old Testament about the temperament of the Lord confused me to the point that I just set it all aside as nonsense. At 12. In my bedroom.

From what I could tell, Jesus was a pretty cool guy. Almost every quote from him is antithetical to the beliefs and conduct of his purported church. Take as just one example: the rich man and the eye of the needle. Even if you leave aside the slick Protestant preachers—God wants you to be rich!—you’re still left with the ungodly opulence of the Vatican and every medieval cathedral, all built on the backs of the suffering faithful. If Jesus meant that seeking riches was wrong, or turned you away from righteousness, or tempted you to do evil things, how could all this in-your-face wealth jibe with a religion of peace and equality?

I began to think that if Jesus came again, he would find little to like in his legacy: holy wars, persecution, inquisitions, “Christian” political parties, and nonsensical dictates from a splintered church. Why no birth control, for example? If God gave us free will and also gave us the ingenuity to make all the wondrous things our civilization has accomplished, why, when we find a way to control fertility, is that against God’s word? Why isn’t, say, building huge death machines, or cities or, or, or feedlots that foster the suffering of God’s creatures? Why aren’t these things subject to a papal ban?

It became clear to me that religion, and in particular Catholicism, just didn’t make any sense, if looked at rationally. Its central figure, a man of peace—who taught to turn the cheek, to remain humble, to not be rich—seemed reasonable, but the whole apparatus surrounding his teachings reeked of hypocrisy and unfaithfulness. Of course, I couldn’t articulate it quite this way when I was 12.

It seemed to me that Jesus dying had had no real effect, other than to provide religious structures that men could use to justify anything they chose. If he really had absolved us of sin, why didn’t things get better? A major sin—Original Sin—wiped off the ledger. Wonderful! Shouldn’t mankind, and especially Christians, be better off after such a burden was lifted? Even just a little better?

I asked myself: Did Christ’s dying fundamentally lead to a lack of sin or a decrease of sin? No. Were the people who carried on their lives after his passing better in some way? Clearly not. There was more of the same: God’s new People—the Christians—were also persecuted and killed for their beliefs. No change there.

But more important to me was this question: If I was the next Jesus, what was my mission to be? I felt it would be to either return the Catholic Church to its core beliefs of their gentle savior, or to create a new religion that not only espoused Jesus’ theology but provided a means for mankind to live better lives.

This idea terrified me, to say the least. If I really was a messiah, it seemed like a huge, thankless, dangerous, and probably fatal task, given what I knew about human civilization and religious history. I decided to study spiritual history and see if there was ever a religion that had succeeded as I thought Christianity should have.

One of the writers I ran into almost immediately was Reimarus, the German philosopher who created Deism and who asserted that Jesus was  a politically minded secular revolutionary who hoped to establish an earthly kingdom through force. This all went south when he was arrested and crucified. His disciples, hoping to achieve his goals, or at least to glorify themselves, stole his body, fabricated the resurrection story and clothed the Jesus myth in spiritual messiah trappings based on the Jewish concept.

I was fascinated by this possibility. And I also wanted to know: What defined a messiah for the Jews? Did they expect someone to come, die for them, and absolve them of sin? In other words, was this the original concept of the messiah, or had the disciples transformed it?

Come to find out, the Jewish messiah concept was a fairly earthly one, at least early on. Not only did Jewish tradition not prophesy a singular messiah, a messiah didn’t even need to be Jewish. Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, is named in the Old Testament as a messiah for his decree to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple. Far from a spiritual savior, the Jews thought of a messiah as a holy anointed king or high priest for the line of David.

Although the Jewish messiah was not totally a secular guy, he did have a large number of secular tasks to undertake. In addition to starting the Messianic Age, he would gather the Jews back into the land of Israel, usher in an era of peace, build the Third Temple, father a male heir, re-institute the Sanhedrin—the governing council—and so on. Despite the religious meaning of these tasks, they’re pretty worldly in nature, more reflecting a political revolution than a huge spiritual change or awakening.

So, I studied the Messianic Age that the Jewish messiah would establish. It was to be a time of universal peace and brotherhood during which crime, war and poverty would cease to be. This seems more like an earthly utopia than a great spiritual awakening. Sure, it was expected that, given this setting, Jews would be able to deepen their relationship with God, but just look at the secular trappings set forth for this era in the Bible:

They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation and they will no longer study warfare. (Isaiah 2:4)

The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9)

The messiah will bring about vegan lions!

Except for the last bit about being full of the knowledge of the Lord, the rest of these descriptions are very secular. Maimonides did clarify some of the spiritual nature of the Messianic Age in his torah, but that was 11 centuries after Christ, and 18 centuries after Isaiah. Maimonides’ work, even though it became part of Jewish law, may even be seen as an attempt to spiritualize an age that had previously been defined only in secular terms.

Interestingly, the events that presage the coming of the messiah are eerily similar to those of the New Testament Apocalypse—and our current age: a dwindling generation that is either overwhelming wicked or righteous, beset by troubles, and facing enemies all around.

It became very clear to me that all of the Jewish messiah’s acts are grounded in this Earth, not in a spiritual realm. All wrongs done to the Jews will be remedied; they’ll get their land back; all the world will worship the God of Israel; evil will be conquered; death will be abolished; they’ll experience the Torah directly, but nothing essentially changes in their faith. They just get more time to get closer to God.

So, the Jewish messiah’s main purpose is to rid the Jews of their physical suffering, not to forgive any original sin. This is especially true because Jews don’t believe in original sin to start with. Thus, they don’t cotton to the idea of the forgiveness of that sin.

Upon finding this out, I asked myself: So, where did Jesus’ disciples get this forgiveness idea from? The idea of the sins of the fathers passing through the generations was an old one, present in Greek religions and others. But it turns out it was Paul who codified this idea into the concept of Original Sin, created by Adam’s bite of the apple and absolved by the crucifixion of Jesus.

What a great move this was, especially if you wanted to found a church! If people could attain a spotless soul by themselves, they would have little need for a church, priests, or possibly even for an organized religion. But if the only way to obtain absolution is through the mediation of a church and its priests, and this absolution must be refreshed on a weekly basis, well that’s a basis for handing over a huge amount of power (and money) to a religious institution. Religion begins to resemble an addiction.

Paul brilliantly brought into being a framework that has oppressed the world ever since. Today every good Christian is a forgiveness junkie, needing a weekly fix to remain righteous.

I understood all this at 12 and threw off my belief in religion, and a god that could be petitioned to improve my life. But for many years I didn’t shake the feeling that I might just be a messiah. Now, many years later, I have totally given up faith that there was or will be a messiah.

And you should, too.

Charles is so excited about this latest post that he immediately texts the link to Chip. He then begins to wait, in his usual agony over how Chip will respond. He reads the post over and over and becomes convinced that he’s really stepped in it this time. Chip’s gonna hate this. I’m not sad I posted it, but I wish I hadn’t sent it to him. Oh, man. He’s gonna be furious!

After a couple hours of this torture, Chip texts back, “We should meet and talk about this.” They agree to meet at Charles’s place for dinner. As they sit down to a dinner of vegan hot dogs, Chip says, “I got to tell you, Savior Boy, this messiah complex of yours is a little worrying.”

“I got better. I don’t really think that way anymore.”

“OK, but, wow! My psychoanalytic friends would probably have diagnosed you as having grandiose delusions, or even worse, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.”

“Well, do you honestly think I’m sick?”

“In so many ways, beloved,” Chip laughs and winks. “But, seriously, no, you’re just a little odd.”

“You’re a big odd!”

“What are you, a middle-schooler? What a lame comeback.” Charles sticks his tongue out, puts his thumbs in his ears, and waggles his hands. “But seriously,” he says, “what do you think of the post?”

“Well, I follow some of what you say. All human organizations are at least a little corrupt, and, of course, I love it when you attack the Catholic Church. But I can’t say Protestant faiths are a whole lot better. Especially when these charlatan evangelists milk the credulous and feeble-minded for their benefit. And I do like your take on Jesus. I just disagree that, on the whole, religions have entirely corrupted his message.”

Charles nods, and says, “Understood, and I didn’t really expect you to get behind all my points. What do you think about the ‘Paul created Christianity out of whole cloth’ business?”

“Well, of course, it’s very similar to your theme in your Jesús Christos chapter attempt. As a scholar, I can see some support for it. Paul, as you know, was not one of the original Apostles. In fact, before his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul was obsessed with persecuting the early disciples of Jesus. Although, in his defense, not all Biblical writings attributed to Paul are thought to be his. I agree with you that if there were no Paul, there’s a good chance there would be no Christianity. But when he was blinded by the light, Jesus took care of that. After Ananias of Damascus restored his sight, Paul began to preach the Word and began to found churches. In your Jesús Christos chapter, you blamed Christianity, or Paulicism, on him. But I believe if it weren’t Paul, it would have been some other great organizer that Jesus would have chosen to found his church. You got any beer to wash down these terrible vegan hot dogs you gave me to eat?”

Charles nods and gets up to go to the fridge as Chip continues. “As far as the ‘whole cloth’ business, it’s clear that Paul’s sources were the Apostles and others who had heard Jesus’ teachings. It’s not like he made everything up.”

“OK,” Charles says, popping the caps off two bottles of Guinness, “I’ll give you that, but I would be much more likely to believe the Jesus story if he had written anything down. Hearsay evidence isn’t admissible in court, just in religion.”

“Ouch!” Chip says. “Objection, Your Dishonor!” Both men laugh, and Chip wets his finger and draws a vertical line in the air. “One point to Charles the Poopy Pants.” Charles scowls and mimes pouring a beer in Chip’s lap, but he loves getting anything over on his friend. They clink their bottles and drink their beer.

After a bit, Charles says, “Well, speaking of creating religions out of whole cloth, you remember, back when we were talking about the Universe as a simulation, I said I was agnostic on the topic? Well, I’ve done some more thinking, and now I’m a believer.”

“Yes, you are a monkey, not a trace of doubt in my mind.” Charles groans at the lame reference. Chip continues, “Why the change of heart? I thought you were just bringing all that simulated universe stuff up just to bug me.”

“No, bugging you is just an added bonus. I’ve been thinking about some strange, not occurrences so much, more like . . . tendencies—in my life. Specifically, the tendency of snags.”

“That sounds like the title of a shitty transcendentalist essay: ‘The Tendency of Snags’ by Ralph Waldo Thoreau.”

“Funny. Not. What I’m talking about is the constant, sometimes highly improbable, snags in my life—physical snags, like once when I caught my shirt sleeve on a coat hanger while getting my coat out of a closet. Pulled myself into the closet and bumped my head on the clothes rod and fell to the floor. At a party. To great hilarity. Or in high school science class, I was walking to the sink with the remains of my dissected frog and my belt loop got caught on a drawer handle. I flipped backward, ripping my pants, and fell to the ground with my tighty-whiteys showing. The frog flew up in the air and plotzed on my face. More hilarity. Virtually any time I carry a cord or string, it snags. If I untuck my shirt, something will snag on the buttons. Just this week, two big snags. My shoelace snagged on the emergency brake pedal while I was getting out of my car. Has that ever happened to you? Of course not. Probably hasn’t happened to more than a couple people ever! And yesterday, at the World, my belt loop snagged on one of those lever door handles. The lady following me ran into me, slipped on the puddle my Diet Coke made, and fell down. I spun around and fell, with my face in her crotch! It’s maddening, embarrassing, and often comical, and that’s when I started to think.”

“About time . . .”

Charles glares at Chip and flips him the bird. “What if this is some kind of hilarious comic entertainment for whoever is viewing this universal simulation? I mean, you have no idea how unlikely some of these snags have been! My wife snagged her wedding dress in the car door while getting out to come to the ceremony! And simultaneously, her sister, the driver, locked the keys in the car. Delayed the ceremony by 45 minutes until a cop came and jimmied the lock. That one was probably just prefigur­ing later disaster, now that I think about it. Years ago, I started hoping that someday all this snagging will pay off with a snag that saves my life or something. I gradually have begun to feel like I’m in this surreal, in the true sense of the word—above reality—sitcom with some entity or an audience of entities laughing their asses—or whatever organ it is they laugh with up there—off watching my life.”

Charles looks at Chip who says, “Go on,” in a stentorian voice.

“When I thought about it deeper, there have been non-physical snags in my life as well. You know I used to be in startups, right? When I look back, I see improbable snags that doomed many of those companies. The co-founder needs a kidney and is out of commission for a couple of years. A co-founder had planned to finance the development of our mobile app himself and, in one week, a tree falls on his house and his son puts his car in a swamp and, poof! He no longer has the money. It goes on and on. Snags, arrgh!”

“Well, all that could just mean you’re a lousy chooser of startups or startup team members,” Chip points out.

“Yeah, I’ve considered that. But it’s been so consistent. Great promise and, oops. A snag kills the whole thing. My life’s has been chock full of snags—some bigger and some smaller—but they’re constant. And to a certain audience with a sick sense of humor, they could be hilarious. So, recently I’ve started congratulating the puppet masters of the Universe for their novel snags. I engage in imaginary conversations suggesting that they give me a break, or sarcastically thanking them for their attention, or asking them why they have it in for me.”

“Glad you said imaginary conversations there. Yeah, sounds like you’re not just grandiose, you’re also paranoid, or perhaps we all experience the same level of snagginess, and you just are super-sensitive—you are but a delicate flower, after all.”

“Well, there is other evidence.”

“What, pray tell?”

“I think the universe that is controlling ours intersects with our universe at an angle, about 11.2 degrees in fact.”

“Huh? Based on what?” Chip scratches behind his left ear and starts to wonder if Charles is crazy, or just putting him on.

“I’ve noticed over the years that when I’m not paying attention, I hold glasses and cups at about an 11-degree angle. There’s no good reason for this, and not only that, it generally happens at about 11 degrees in a southwest direction. Not so coincidentally, that’s about half of the tilt of the Earth from the ecliptic, and the difference between the North Pole and magnetic north is 11.2 degrees.”

Chip is silent for a minute. What the fuck? Is Charles really going off the deep end? He’s talking nonsense. “Ummmmm. Are you OK, little buddy? That’s some pretty weird shit you’re spewing.”

“Oh, I think I’m more than OK. I think I’ve got it all figured it out. And I also figured out that my messiah complex as a child was most probably because I felt the eyes of the extra-universal audience on me. I’m the star of a hit interdimensional comedy!”

Chip leans forward, elbows on knees and stares at his friend. “But, dude, you’re taking these little incidents or tendencies of your life and going way, way, way too far with their significance. Snags: you could just be a clod. Tilted glasses: you have a bad sense of balance, which could help explain the cloddishness. Messiah complex: you were—or are—a conceited asshole. You’re reasoning from a pretty skimpy set of observations and assumptions.”

“Nope. I’m convinced. I talk to my evil—or perhaps just starved for comedy—over­lords every day.”

“Wait. Do they talk back?” Chip is becoming increasingly alarmed about his friend’s mental state.

“No, of course not. Then I’d know for sure what the deal was. However, recently I think I might have picked up some of their chatter. You know I sleep with earplugs, right? The least little noise wakes me up. Well, I’ve discovered that you can hear some things better when you’ve got earplugs in. Often, when I’m lying in bed waiting to go to sleep, I hear these voices. Well, kind of hear, kinda voices. I hear the rhythm of their conversation but can’t make out the words. It kinda sounds like a far-off radio program.”

Chip’s eyes grow wide. Voices, great. Charles is losing his mind. Chip says carefully, “These voices aren’t telling you to do things, are they?”

“No, no, no. It’s like a radio muffled by a pillow. They are carrying on conversations, and not speaking to me. I’m kinda eavesdropping, like. I can hear the tones of their voices, and it does seem like English, but I can’t make out any words. It’s hard to say if they’re talking about me. Anyway, I’ve decided to follow Max Tegmark’s advice—you remember I mentioned him before, the cosmologist—just keep them interested. Do unexpected things so that those in charge of the simulation don’t get bored and shut you down.”

“I’m getting pretty worried about you, dude. You’re not pulling my leg, are you?”

“I’m as serious as a heart attack. But don’t be worried. I got it all under control.” Charles leans over to pat Chip on the shoulder. “For all I know, you could be my comic sidekick in the sitcom. But anyway, I believe in snags. I believe the Snag Masters control my fate, and that I must please them by reacting to these apparently hilarious snags in a comical way. It’s my new religion. Someday I hope to understand what they’re talking about when I’m lying in bed.”

“Oh, come on, Charles! You can not be serious! How can you build a religion on your clumsiness, your incipient schizophrenia, and your lack of balance?! It just doesn’t make any sense.”

“Religions have been built on less. Snagology makes more sense than following a religion that has a bipolar god—who’s a man, by the way. Why should the Supreme Being have a gender? I wrote a poem once on the subject, called ‘On God’s Cock.’”

“Man, I’d love to read that,” Chip interjects, with a tense laugh.

“Why follow a religion that has such tremendous paradoxes, like tripartite divinity? Holy Ghost? What the fuck? It’s an obvious throw-in from a different cosmology. And such a range of ways you can miss out on Heaven: You’re just as surely damned if you whack off as if you eat a plate o’ shrimp! Or mix dairy with meat! Holy cheeseburger, Batman! This god hands down totally contradictory laws, accepts 32 virgins as his tribute, and condones their slavery without the possibility of ever being freed, kills his son to absolve the evil that he himself put into the Garden of Eden, and seems powerless to prevent bad things from happening to his most devout followers. My Snag religion is a far simpler belief system. I’m the only important person in a simulated universe whose rulers are treating my life as a comical reality show. Rather than getting everlasting life by dying, as in your religion, I’m hoping to get everlasting life by pleasing my Snag Masters, so they renew me every season.”

Chip is stumped, shocked wordless. He slumps back against the couch, almost knock­ing it off the cinder block. He’s torn between being positive that Charles is putting him on and being positive that his friend is going insane. “OK, let’s say you’re right and you’re in a pan-universal reality show. How do you know you’re the only one?”

“That’s a really good question. I can’t rule out the possibility that there are others, or even that everyone else is in the same show. But since the only thing I can be sure of is that I am on stage, that’s what I’m going with. You know, Chaos Magick practitioners believe laughter is the highest emotion because it contains all the others from ecstasy to grief. For them, laughter is the only tenable attitude in a universe which is a joke played upon itself. I think they may be on to something there. If laughter is built into the Universe, maybe that means we’re part of a cosmic Comedy Central, featuring lots of other shows with different kinds of comedy.”

Chip says, “Well, it’s certainly true that the great existential question is: Are we alone in the Universe? Am I alone in the Universe? Descartes obviously battled with it, like you mentioned—the brain in the vat thing. So, you’ve got good company there, with your feeling that you’re the only actor in a cosmic comedy. But I’m very concerned about a lot of the things you’ve said. I have to be honest. You sound like a paranoid schizophrenic, and I’ve seen quite a few in my counseling practice.”

“I’m as sober as a teetotaling priest, dude. I know lots of this stuff sounds crazy, but, as I said, it’s not nearly as crazy as some of the crap religious people believe. It makes as much sense for me to believe in Snagology as it does for you to believe in Christianity. And it’s so much simpler. I don’t have to keep track of lots of incompatible urges and dogmas. I don’t need to worship any god, don’t need to submit to the judgment of any priest. To achieve everlasting life, I don’t need to lead a blemish-free life or pray for absolution of my sins, I just have to keep the Snag Masters entertained. And it should be so much easier now that I’m wise to the gig. If I’ve satisfied them for this many years without even knowing it, think of how much better I’ll be now that I know what I know. I should be able to get renewed for all eternity! And the very best thing is, all I have to do is live. The snags will come; I couldn’t prevent them if I wanted to. But I can subtly improve my reactions to them, and keep ‘em rolling in the aisles, or whatever it is that they roll in up there.”

Chip just shakes his head. He thinks, I don’t know which is worse: thinking my friend is crazy or that he’s running an elaborate con to get my goat. Mental note: keep an eye on Charles.

“Anyway, Chip, there’s a lot of support for the idea that the Universe is an illusion, particularly from Eastern religions. All is Māyā, say the Buddhists, meaning all we experience is illusory.”

“I know what fucking Māyā is, you knob. Religion 101. Hey, speaking of the Universe, I got a great joke for you.”

“I seriously doubt it,” Charles said.

“Here it is. Josey wasn’t the best pupil at Sunday school. She often fell asleep, and one day while she was dozing, the teacher asked her a question. ‘Who is the creator of the Universe?’ Joe was sitting next to Josey and poked her with a pin to wake her up. Josey jumped and yelled, ‘God Almighty!’ The teacher congratulated her. A little later the teacher asked her another question, ‘Tell me who is our lord and savior?’ Joe poked Josey again and she yelled out, ‘Jesus Christ!’ The teacher congratulated her again. Later the teacher asked, ‘What did Eve say to Adam after bearing their 26th child?’ Joe poked Josey again and she shouted, ‘If you stick that thing in me again, I’ll snap it in half and stick it up your ass!’”

“Make . . . it . . . stop!” Charles clutches his head in agony.

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