Everything ends: civilizations fail; the mightiest buildings crumble and fall; continents shift and, as Lord T. said, “After many a summer dies the swan.”
It’s, ultimately, what makes us human and distinguishes us from all other creatures: we know that everything must end, and that we must accommodate ourselves to that fact — we hope — with grace and dignity rather than terror and despair. From the day of losing or breaking our first favorite toy to losing or breaking up with our first girlfriend or boyfriend, to the day when that first elderly relative dies; we learn that all things must pass.
That is why there are stories. Authors write and we read. They write, exploring the infinite ways that a human might beat the odds to survive another day; we read, hoping that the hero will cling to the edge of the parapet long enough to disassemble the nuclear bomb wedged into the ventilation duct, or that the train carrying the heroine to her rendezvous with her long-lost husband will NOT crash into the car stalled on the tracks ahead. The Entropic Imperative will be overcome, however temporarily. Order will reign and chronology will continue.
I do not believe that there are stories in heaven, because all the stories there are the same, and the conclusions are known. Everything’s resolved; there’s no drama left. All is infinite, pure, static in endless blissful sameness — sameness of an infinite variety, perhaps, but universally equipoised, none the less — eternal stasis. Every story ends identically: “And they died and went to heaven” (or not), but the outcome is known.
Let’s imagine good ol’ Anthony Trollope on his first day behind the Pearly Gates back in 1882. He rises from his heavenly mattress and, sitting down at his desk, sets forth to turn out his accustomed 3,000 daily words (250 words every 15 minutes for an average three hours a day — before he reported to his day job at the post office). There he sat at his Heavenly Desk, Eternal Pen poised above the paper (what’s the stationery like in Heaven?), contemplating. Damme! Who would care to read about the woes of some Barsetshire village squire or milkmaid when everyone in heaven has already put aside any kind of quotidian concerns? Stories don’t matter a whit once you live in an eternal realm utterly lacking conflict. He put down the pen. For want of anything else to do, he started reading the only book in his room, “The Beginner’s Guide to the Harp.” (Well, there is a Gideon Bible in the desk drawer but, well, seems rather superfluous at this point!).
And in Hell? No stories there, either. Reading a happy story while one is being endlessly consumed by flame? Merely adds to the torture. And who wants to read unhappy stories when there is nothing but unhappiness suffusing every single moment of eternity? There ARE some books there, mostly comprising a complete collection of every title ever listed on the New York Times Business Best Seller list, but those, of course, were torture enough during one’s years on earth and, there? Just additional sources of agony.
Yes, all things end, even — if the Second Law of Thermodynamics is correct — the universe itself: slowly burning itself out, an endless furnace converting matter into energy which then goes … well, somewhere (I can never grasp the whole entropy thing with any success). I pity the poor man or woman who’s President when THAT happens. The media will grind them up. Imagine the Final Press Conference:
“Ms. President! What about the space arks we’ve built?”
“Umm… well, Space itself won’t exist after The Collapse, so there’ll be nowhere to go!
“What about the effort to harness dark matter into a defensive wall around the Milky Way?”
“Well, darn it, I’m afraid the tax cuts for the wealthy left that program underfunded and we never could quite FIND that darned dark matter.”
Slim chance of re-election there.
These thoughts occupied me yesterday as I drove to work down El Segundo Boulevard — for the final time. It was the last day of my job at the Big Firm.
I passed the elementary school. The kids who attended there sixteen years ago when I started this job have now finished high school or even college, gotten married, bought houses and started voting against taxes that would help today’s kids get an education or buy houses.
Then I drove past Hawthorne High on my right, the north side of the street, remembering my first trip past it in 1995 when I was still a relative newcomer to southern California. Back then, I was thinking, “Wow, the Beach Boys’ high school! This is the VERY place they were singing about when they sang, “Be True to Your School!” Many of the kids now attending summer classes there hadn’t been born when I made this trip for the first time, and here they are in Algebra pre-Calc and World History and band and school plays (do you think they’re still doing Moliere’s “Tartuffe” and “The Sound of Music?”).
And, finally, I pulled up to a stop at the light at the intersection of El Segundo and Aviation one last time, there in the heart of the South Bay aerospace complex. I looked to my left. There was Ward, Ward Cleaver, shirt neatly pressed, tie perfectly tied (double Windsor, natch) gripping the wheel of the ’62 Fury carefully with both hands. I waved. He waved back, but listlessly, I thought. I buzzed down the window. “Everything OK, Ward?”
He leaned over and cranked down the passenger window of the Fury. “I’m OK, but, well, you see, it’s my last day to make this drive. I’ve been laid off.”
I was dumbfounded. “Ward! How can they lay you off? You’re the very heart of the firm! You’re the SENIOR GUY!”
He looked at me with what — in a man less forthright and restrained than Ward — might indicate a certain type of scorn. I imagined him thinking, “YOU’RE the one who called me out of retirement to this gig, so you ought to know that with all the changes in accounting and drafting, they need fewer hands. Who’s going to go first, the new kid or the guy pulling down the big six figures?” He cranked the window up. I look straight ahead, obviously lacking any appropriate response.
I glanced to my right. Yep, there was Steve, Steve Douglas, there at the wheel of the big ’61 Biscayne, tie askew, hunched over, staring at the red light. I buzzed down the passenger window. “Hi, Steve. How’s it going?”
“Oh, uh, hi there. Um, not so good today. My last day, you know. Just going in to pick up my things. Laid off.”
“Wow, sorry, Steve, uh, good luck, you know.”
“Yes, well, good luck to you,” he said, and slumped back, looking forward.
This was terrible. Here I was, on MY last day (having ALSO been “involuntarily terminated”) (I’m not making that up), only to find that these guys, these male role models from my TV-watching adolescence, have also GOTTEN THE AXE! I admit to experiencing a bit of regret that I wasn’t going to get any sympathy from them about my plight, since it was a fate that they were sharing, too.
Just before the light was due to change, I glanced in the rearview mirror. There was Ozzie, Ozzie Nelson. That guy! The top on the big Chrysler Imperial was down, his golf clubs were poking up out of the back seat, and he sat neatly behind the wheel, wearing a cardigan sweater and a smile. There, I thought, is a guy who — so far as anyone knew — NEVER HAD A JOB. Well, sure, he was a band leader back in the big band days (fronted by that spiffy singer, Harriet Hilliard, who married Ozzie). But, really, the guy just seems to hop in the car with the golf clubs every morning and — we assume — go play golf at the club. So, what the hey. Maybe not so bad. I looked over at Ward until I got his attention and jerked my head back to get him to notice Ozzie. I did the same over at Steve. They both looked, thought, and nodded. The light changed. We gunned it, roaring down El Segundo Boulevard on our last day together. I swear that Ward smoked the tires on the Fury. Let’s go, guys.
Editor’s Note: During all the months of planning for my final day, it never occurred to me ’til this week that three people I’d be saying good-bye to were these cats, who I resurrected from my past while sitting at the intersection — long before I started Under Western Skies. It’s not so hard to say farewell to imaginary friends as it is the real ones. Still, we have stories for a reason, and I’m glad to have made them part of my stories. I wish them well now as their stories continue elsewhere, and we move to new adventures!