Gerald Mortimore was a philosopher. That wasn’t his day job. Well, to tell the truth Gerald no longer had a day job. Gerald had taught English to Junior High students for thirty-five years in the Cupertino school district in San Jose, California, until his retirement ten years ago. Had attempted to teach was more like it. Junior High students don’t have a great deal of interest in either proper grammar or classical literature. In fact, they don’t have a great deal of interest in anything other than sex, drugs and rock and roll, although these days it was rap rather than rock and roll. Gerald had to grudgingly admit he was incapable of changing with the times. He still admired Ricky Nelson after all these years.
Gerald had been widowed these past three years. His wife, Janice, had been a school counsellor at the same Junior High school in San Jose where Gerald taught English. She loved the job, but she hated the parents. That’s what she used to tell the neighbors of a Saturday evening when they were invited to sit out on the patio under the Zelkova Serrata Gerald had planted thirty years ago. Chardonnay, crackers and cheese served on a lacquered tray. Gerald still remembered the lacquered tray he and Janice brought back from that summer vacation in Mexico. Hermosillo, it was. They’d taken a day trip to Ciudad Obregon on a battered bus. The marketplace was hot and dusty. The lacquered tray cost forty pesos. Those were the good times.
The bad times were after Janice contracted the virus. The doctors said it wasn’t anything to worry about. Just a flu bug that was going around. Ironic though. After all the horror stories they’d heard about drinking the water in Hermosillo that summer long ago. They’d been so careful. And during the trip not so much as a stomach cramp between them. Maybe if they’d come down with something when they were younger, more hale, more hearty. Maybe they could have built up an immunity.
Or maybe immunity wasn’t what it was all about either. Lately Gerald had been thinking about important things. Things like what’s it all about. He’d started drinking himself silly too, but that was beside the point. Like Dylan Thomas said, do not go gentle into that good night. Rail, rail against the failing of the light. Janice had gone gentle. Not with a bang but a whimper. It’s funny how the poets’ words find new meaning within the context of a loved one’s life. Or death.
Gerald had come to the conclusion that it was all part of the plan. The whole megillah. That the circumstances of our birth, death and resurrection were chosen in advance by the collective and agreed to in principle by the soul. That our existential purpose in this realm was to acquire experiences through lessons learned and to bring those experiences home to the collective. He’d formulated quite an informed thesis about the particulars of that nihilistic worldview.
So, what was this collective? Everything. Everything that was or ever would be, was the collective. A different domain, perhaps. A domain without the physical or metaphysical dimensions we take for granted. Length, width, height, depth, time. Velocity, sensation, lightness, darkness, void. Heat, cold, pain, detachment, death. Crisp delineation surrounded by blurry obfuscation. Comfort, discomfort, wretched excess, privation, serenity. These were the proffered incentives for escaping the secure confines of the collective. A tantalizing promise of individuality. Of being. Of life.
Take the Zelkova Serrata for example. What if Gerald’s entire purpose in life were to have been to plant the tree so that someday a lovely young lass would find her soulmate in its leafy splendor? So that that discovery would result in the birth of the child who would bring healing to the world? Or that that discovery would bring into the world a child whose evil nature might snuff out the light? Neither objective being in and of itself evil or sacred. But either objective being arguably monumental.
Or to make it more personal, Janice had given birth forty years ago to twins: a girl, Theresa, and a boy, Jason. Although Gerald had certainly participated in the conception and the orderly indoctrination of the children, it was Janice who brought them into the world and nurtured them to maturity. Were these offspring the end result of a significant coupling, destined to change the world, or were they simply links in an eternal chain of events that returned karmic essence to the collective?
The whirring of a machine in the background suddenly ceased. The attending physician phoned the children. Please come right away. They hurried to the hospital room where the drapes had been drawn. Their father lay on his back, the crisply ironed bed sheets drawn up to his face. He looked relaxed. Serene.
“Did he suffer, doctor?” asked the daughter, Theresa.
“Only there at the end,” replied the doctor. “We had him under heavy sedation during the worst of the pain, but we can’t say for certain if it did much good. There are so many things we still don’t understand. Soft tissue cancer is a ruthless disease.”
“At least he’s finally at peace,” said the son, Jason. “I realize it’s not politically correct to mention the fact, but now we can get on with our lives. It’s such a waste. Dad’s life, I mean. He was an English teacher, you know, but he was also a deep thinker. What a shame. He could have done so much more with his life.”