Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Mother of Pearly-Gates

Ralph MacLean didn’t know quite what to make of it when he woke up in a strange bedroom. Mind you, that wasn’t an entirely novel experience for him. Back when he was a youthful womanizer, he often woke up in strange bedrooms. But unless he’d had one too many martinis the night before, he usually remembered how he got there, even if he didn’t remember the name of his latest conquest.

He got out of bed, walked over to the window, and drew the drapes. He was greeted by a sweeping view of the ocean. He couldn’t quite tell which ocean, although it looked vaguely familiar.

Turning around, he could now view the bedroom in the full morning light. It was palatial, both in size and decor. Once again, it looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it.

As he walked around the bedroom, examining the antique bric-a-brac, he became aware of something else. He felt wonderful. He hadn’t felt this good since he was 20.

That’s something he didn’t notice right away because…well…because you tend notice what’s wrong with you, not what’s right with you. Back when you have it, you take good health for granted. As an old man with the usual aches and pains of old age, he’d forgotten what it was like to feel young again.

Ralph headed for the bathroom, which was every bit as palatial as the bedroom. You’d need a roadmap just to find the bidet.

When he saw himself in the mirror, he was taken aback. He didn’t just feel like 20 again, he was 20 again. At least, his reflection looked like he was about 20 years old, give or take a year or two.

But how was this possible? Maybe he was having a dream—a lucid dream. If so, it was a very nice dream. He should make the most of it before he woke up for real.

He went to the walk-in closet to see if he could find anything to wear. In fact, all the clothing fit him to perfection, as if it was tailored just for him. Tailored for him back when he had the waistline of a 20 year old.

He dressed and headed downstairs. Well, you had to find the staircase before you could go downstairs. The house was enormous. And everything he saw was vaguely familiar.

He finally made it to the first floor and walked outside. Looking over the grounds, he suddenly knew where he was: San Simeon.

Back when he was a kid, his dad had taken Ralph to see the sprawling, baronial estate of the late William Randolph Hearst. And that was a turning point in his young life. From that moment on, he knew that he wanted to own San Simeon when he grew up. That became his ambition in life. That’s why he went to Harvard Law School. Became a corporate lawyer. Landed a job at a top law firm.

His specialty was bankruptcy law. How to cheat shareholders out of their life savings.

Ralph sometimes felt a twinge of conscience at all the widows he turned into bag ladies. But in a godless world, the law of the jungle prevailed: eat or be eaten!

Even though he had a very lucrative career, he never had the amount of wampum you need to buy a place like Sam Simeon. So he was always a bit disappointed. He lived well, but alimony payments to five different wives took a toll on the portfolio.

He went back inside and switched on the TV. He found a news broadcast. But it was broadcasting yesterday’s news. Other stations had reruns of various TV shows.

Feeling hungry, he hunted around for the kitchen, and stumbled across the dining room, which was about the size of a Rhode Island. The table was already set with a buffet of gourmet food and drink.

Ralph was used to gourmet food, but this was exceptional. Never had he eaten so well.

He then decided to do a little tour of the estate. He found his way to the garage, which was full of classic cars. He drove around the estate for a few hours, visiting the gardens.

Everything was gorgeous, but deserted. Even the private zoo was deserted. No people or animals in sight. No boats on the ocean. No airplanes overhead.

He went back inside the house and tried to place a few phone calls, but the phone lines were dead.

He became suspicious. This was awfully long for a dream. True, dreamtime was different from real time. You know, when you wake up in the middle of the night, glance at the clock, go back to sleep, have a dream that seems to go on for hours, then wake up again 20 minutes later.

Still, he’d never had a dream like this. Not even a lucid dream like this.

Maybe it was a trick. Maybe one of his ex-wives was trying to extract some strange sort of revenge on him. Was this virtual reality? Was his sedated body strapped to table somewhere in the real world, with virtual stimuli feeding into his brain? But how could he tell? And it would be a strange sort of revenge. Why the best of everything?

Anyway, he was hungry and thirsty after his outing, so he went back to the dining room to grab a few leftovers. But this time the table was set for lunch. A brand-new buffet, just as scrumptious as the breakfast fare. If this was an illusion, it was a very tasty illusion!

He then conducted a room-by-room search of the main house, but never found a soul. Not even in the servant’s quarters.

On second thought, why not just enjoy the mystery for as long as it lasted? Wasn’t this what he always wanted? He could figure it out later.

And so he made the most of his time there. Slept in a different bedroom for 56 days. Swam in the Neptune pool as well as the indoor pool.

At first it was a dream come true. Heavenly! Maybe he had died in his sleep and gone to heaven? His cardiologist always said that Ralph would probably die of a heart attack. An old man with a heart condition. It was just a matter of time.

Not that Ralph believed in heaven. He used to believe in heaven, as boy, growing up in the local Baptist church. Mind you, the preacher did far more sermonizing on hell. Lurid descriptions of hell. Hell was enough to scare the hell out of any young boy.

As a result, Ralph had been saved more times than he could count. He’d go to the altar, get saved, fall off the wagon during the week, go back on Sunday, get saved again.

It led to a daredevil life as an adolescent. How much sin could you pack into one week, and wipe the slate clean on Sunday? Nothing like zero-sum spirituality!

Of course, that was a gamble. What if you died in a car accident Saturday night?

Indeed, his best friend lost that bet in a drag race. After that, Ralph began to question hell. He couldn’t bring himself to believe that his best friend was roasting in hell. He couldn’t believe that God would torture the damned for all eternity.

At first he switched to annihilationism. His best friend wasn’t suffering. He best friend had been extinguished like a match. Snuffed out like a candle.

But, after a while, he began to question that belief as well. Zapping a man out of existence didn’t seen like a very nice thing for God to do. Wasn’t that the sort of thing Zeus used to do? Strike people dead with a bolt of lightning? Would a loving God make someone go up in a puff of smoke?

So he became a universalist. Surely God was going save everyone. But, after a while, that struck him as wishful thinking. This didn’t look like the sort of world that God would make if God were a universalist. If Ralph was a universalistic deity, is this the sort of world that he would make? Was all this pain and suffering really needed to get everyone into heaven?

So Ralph decided there was no God. Heaven was too good to be true, while hell was too bad to be true.

But now, here he was. He had San Simeon at long last. And that was his idea of heaven on earth.

Indeed, he had San Simeon all to himself. And that was the problem. It was fun at first, but it wasn’t much fun watching a film all by yourself in the private movie theater. (And it didn’t help matters that the film projector only played Citizen Kane.) To eat dinner by yourself at the end of a table as long as a runway. To play solo tennis.

After a while he moved out of Casa Grande and into one of the guesthouses. But even a 6000 square foot guesthouse like the Casa del Mar wasn’t what you’d call cozy or intimate.

The loneliness became crushing. The loneliness and the monotony. Every day was a sunny day. Every night was a moonlit night. Every meal was a feast. The gardens were miraculously trim and well-watered day after day.

The TV played the same reruns. Played the same newscast from the day before he passed away in his sleep. Assuming that he had died. Was he dead or alive? Who could tell?

One time he decided to stake out the dining room to see what happened. Would servants emerge from hidden doors? To his amazement, the food magically materialized out of thin air.

At the outset, he was delighted to have his libido restored. In his youth, that was the center of his existence. But in his old age, all the Viagra in the world couldn’t make him feel like 20 again. He sorely lamented the inexorable loss of his youthful virility.

And now? It was very frustrating to have the mojo of a 20 year old without a woman anywhere on the premises. At one time he was very finicky about the women he slept with. They had to look like fashion models. Indeed, many of them were fashion models. Indeed, he’d married several of them. But now, any woman would do.
And what was the point of owning such an immensely impressive piece of real estate when there was nobody to impress?

Ralph sank into despair. At first he tried to escape. San Simeon had a private airfield. But while all the classic cars were working in mint condition, he couldn’t get the airplanes to start.

Although there were many roads on the estate, there was no road leading out of the estate. When he tried to hoof it out of the estate, he was repulsed by some invisible force field.

Finally, he tried to kill himself. He began with a hunger strike. But while the hunger strike made him hungry, he didn’t drop a single pound.

So he switched to a more direct approach. Several rooms had antique revolvers in vintage condition. He inserted one in his mouth and pulled the trigger. For a split second he felt excruciating pain, then blacked out.

When he came too, there was a bloodstain on the carpet, and his hair was matted with dry blood. But as he felt around, there was no hole in his head. He didn’t even feel a headache.

Evidently, he’d been cursed in immortality. Where in the hell was he, anyway?

1 comment:

  1. This story reminds me of another story relayed by William Lane Craig in his masterful lecture "Absurdity of Life Without God". In the story, an astronaut gets stranded on a baren asteroid. He has no hope of being rescued or getting back home. All he has are two vials. One vial, if drunk would grant him everlasting life, while the other vial will kill him. Seeing his predicament and his fear of lonliness, he gulps down the suicide vial. But then to his utter horror, he realizes he accidentally drank the other one!

    Link to "Absurdity of Life Without God"

    Btw, I came across another of Steve's fiction called "Riverrun". I posted a long comment on the story there too.

    Link to "Riverrun"