Because Beatrice died so recently, and the lightning cremated Faith so thoroughly, their funerals were held together. Their urns were arranged on a lawn by a lazy river. Beatrice’s urn was creamy and marbled while Faith’s was matte white. Jay didn’t recognize half the mourners. He knew Faith’s uncle by his tinfoil fedora, and he heard Dan sobbing, but everyone else was just more friends and family.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Jay said to Uncle Featherway.
“You’re Faith’s friend, right? Do you know what happens when you die?”
“Um.” Jay looked at the urns. “What do you think?”
“Aliens made humans to mine gold,” said Uncle Featherway. “When we die, we’re reincarnated to keep mining. At the end of time, the aliens will collect our gold, and everyone loyal to them will board their spaceship.”
“Wow,” said Jay. “Does the tinfoil keep aliens from reincarnating you?”
“The tinfoil is for different aliens,” said Uncle Featherway. “The mind-readers have battled the gold-miners for eons.”
“I see,” said Jay. “Faith told me you attended a lecture at Sheridan Cliff-Side College. Before you leave for Wyoming, could I interview you regarding Virgil Blue?”
“Sure,” said Uncle Featherway. “Blue didn’t say anything, though,”
“I want your impression anyway. When are you free?”
“After the funeral I’ll wait for my train in the sports-bar across the street. Hey, is that your friend over there? He’s pretty beaten up.”
“Oh. Excuse me.” Jay walked to Dan and pat his shoulder. “Dan, have you eaten today?”
Dan absorbed his tears with his black gloves. “I haven’t eaten since Faith died.”
“Let’s try eating, then. I’ll pay.”
Dan turned to the urns. The urns were framed by the river, which Jay thought was a fitting metaphor for impermanence. Dan concentrated on the scene like he wanted to freeze it forever in his memory. Finally they left the funeral. “Where should we go?”
“There’s a sports-bar across the street,” said Jay. “It’ll have the essentials.”
Dan declined to order. Jay ordered only water and bought Dan a tuna-sandwich. Dan picked crumbs from the bread until he built enough momentum to take a bite. Soon Dan discovered he was ravenous and finished the sandwich, so Jay bought him another.
“Thanks,” said Dan. “Jay, you’ve put up with me for a decade. Just… thanks.”
“Knowing you has been a pleasure,” said Jay. “I know Beatrice and Faith would say the same.”
“Really? I killed them.” Dan chewed his second sandwich. Jay didn’t know what to say. “Both of them are dead because of me.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know, I’m…” Dan put down the sandwich. “Can I order a drink?”
“Did you drive here?”
“I walked.” Jay ordered Dan a pint of stout. “Beatrice left the centipede-party because of me.” Dan drank half the pint the moment it was put before him. “I made her shake my hand and she couldn’t stand me anymore. She pretended she was called by the hospital and left in such a hurry she didn’t see the bus.”
“Dan, even if that were true, it wouldn’t be your fault.”
“And that’s assuming she didn’t throw herself under the bus to get away from me for good.”
“I can’t imagine she did.”
“And Faith—oh, poor Faith—”
“Faith was struck by lightning, Dan. That’s no one’s fault.”
“I looked so pitiful she offered to get breakfast,” said Dan. “I basically stabbed her in the back.”
Dan finished his pint and ordered another. He finished his sandwich while he waited for the drink. “I killed my dad, too.”
“I’m sure you didn’t, but I’m listening.”
Dan sipped the stout. The pint was thick like mud, but its head was white cream. “My parents were divorced, so I only saw my dad for a few hours a year at his university. Each year, he gave me a book. Before senior-year of high-school, my mom dropped me off in the campus courtyard and I climbed the stairs to his office. He asked how I enjoyed Dante’s Inferno, and I said it was the best book he ever gave me.
“So he gave me the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. I was taken aback; he’d never given me two books at once. Seeing my expression, he asked if I had any questions.
“I asked, ‘What happens to Dante’s guide, Virgil? I hope he was only put in Hell to lead Dante to God, and he’ll be admitted into Heaven for his service.’
“And he said, ‘I’m afraid the Virtuous Pagans are in Hell forever, but on the outer rim, their only punishment is distance from God’s light, which they never even knew in life. So they’re free! Wouldn’t you rather spend eternity with those rejected scholars than the stuck-up prudes in Heaven?’
“So I—” Dan interrupted himself by ordering another stout. The bartender topped off Jay’s water. “I asked him for more book-recommendations. Suddenly his face went pale and his hands shook, and he apologized for being absent most of my childhood, and for only interacting with me through academic literary discussions. I said that was okay, because it got me great grades in English, and I wanted to study religion in college.
“But he said there was so much more to life than reading books professors gave me. So I asked for books I wouldn’t see as a Religious-Studies major. If there was more to life, show me.
“He said, ‘Let me give you the essentials.’ He started with sci-fi. ‘This one’s based on Dante’s Inferno. It’ll make you look at religious texts in a new light. See, literature is written by people, and anyone can write anything. Fundamentally there’s no difference in legitimacy between this sci-fi novel based on Dante’s Inferno, the real Inferno, the bible, or the koran.’
” ‘Then how do you know what to believe?’
” ‘There’s no such thing as believing. Consciousness is neurological background radiation from which reality bubbles like particles and antiparticles.’ He passed me a physics textbook. ‘Everyone has a world-conception implied by the alignment of their synapses. We mentally test hypotheses in this mental theater, making us reject some stimuli and seek out others.’
“He produced a thick tome. ‘Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Logic is no escape from the epistemological problems innate to the human condition. Rather, the infeasibility of complete and consistent logic points directly to the ultimate truth: the self is an illusion, arising from nothing and returning to nothing when it’s done.’
“He kept piling books in my arms. ‘Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. You’ll see them as a Religious-Studies major, but they’re worth reading early. There’s a heartbeat behind humanity. The only permanent station is unity with the Universal Conceptualization of All Things. Says Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita, ‘The body, the ego, the senses, the vital forces, and the indwelling monitor of the Ultimate Consciousness: whatever action a being performs, proper or improper, these five factors are its cause… Being one with the Ultimate Truth, joyous within the self, neither lamenting nor craving, equipoised to all things, one achieves transcendental devotion to me.’
” ‘Oh, and one more.’ He gave me the last book on the shelf. ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ ”
“While I struggled to fit the books in my backpack, my dad looked over the courtyard. ‘Dan, before you read the Purgatorio, you should know Dante’s Virgil is more tragic than you realize. His Aeneid saved a soul from Hell, yet Virgil is still barred from Heaven. In justifying Alighieri’s Almighty, I can only suggest that transporting souls to salvation would be more pleasurable to Virgil than Heaven. To grease cosmic mechanisms would be Virgil’s utilitarian delight. Every aspect of Hell is necessary to maintain Dante’s ultimate scheme, even the woods of suicides. So thank you for visiting me, because teaching you is the only resolution I could hope for. I know I’ve given you the tools to recover from what I’m about to do.’
“Then he stepped out the window. His body broke branches and he splattered on the ground.”
“Oh. Wow.” Jay ordered Dan another tuna-sandwich and another pint. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
“It’s okay,” lied Dan. He downed the stout.
“You didn’t kill him, though.”
“Recommending books was the only thing keeping him alive. I sucked that from him like a vampire.”
“You were the best aspect of life for someone obviously struggling.”
Dan bit his sandwich, but suddenly lost his appetite. “Anyway, you can understand why school was difficult that year. The worst was in late May, when…”