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The International Writers Magazine: Prophets


The Nature of the Universe
Michael Hoffman
“Father, can I speak to you?”
“Come in, come in.”
“What’s that you’re reading?” He leans forward across the desk. “Ah.” He laughs. “It’s Greek to me.”
“Me too.” A joke we’ve shared for years.

Lottery

“Father… I think I’m in love.”
“You don’t say! Sit down. Tell me about it.”
“If I were a poet like you, maybe I’d be able to.”
“A poet like me!”
“You have the soul of a poet.”
What is he babbling about?
“You can speak poetically about love. Not me. All I can do is feel it.”
“That in itself is a great deal.”
“I was thinking – how about if I brought her home for dinner some night?”
“Home? For dinner?”
“Her name is Tomoko. She’s…”
He talks on about his Tomoko. My attention wanders. It’s true, he does not speak well. Young people don’t. They’ve lost the power of speech. I notice it in my classes. Language in their hands has become a blunt instrument. It can no longer express nuances. Soon there will be no nuances to express.
“By the way. I have a confession to make. I stole 1000 yen from your wallet the other day.”
“Oh?”
“And bought a lottery ticket with it. It’ll win. Tomoko said so.”
“What is she, a fortune-teller?”
“No, she just knows things. She’s in tune with the… the… the…
“The forces of the universe? The music of the spheres?”
“She said I had to buy the ticket with money taken from your wallet without your knowledge, or else it wouldn’t work. She’s never wrong. She’s amazing, really. Why don’t you let me bring her home? I know you’ll like her.”
“Who says I won’t let you bring her home? It’s your home as much as mine.”           
“It’s the way you sort of… flinch when I suggest it.”
“I flinch easily these days.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
Should I tell him? Why not? “I’m about to lose my job.”
“No! Really? Why? What happened?” He finally takes a seat, sitting across from me and leaning his elbows on the desk, like he used to when he was a child.
“They caught me having an affair with one of my students.”
“You’re joking!”
“Why should I be?”
“Well…”
“You’re right, I am joking. The fact is, no one’s interested in the past anymore.”
He waits for me to go on, though really, there’s not much more to say.
“My subject is ancient history. Enrollment in my courses is down. People have no time for that sort of thing nowadays, no attention to spare for it. Who cares that 2500 years ago the Greeks defeated the Persians, or that Herodotus, the world’s first historian, wrote about it in immortal prose? Who cares about Homer, Sophocles, Plato, or about… Anyway, to make a long story short, I’ve been asked to take early retirement.”
“I see. Well… What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I could fight it, I suppose. On the other hand…”
“You’re too young to retire.”
“It’s kind of you to say so.”

* * *
                                   
The journalist, I forget his name, has a positively astonished look on his face. What did I say? “What’s wrong?” I ask.
The sunshine streams in through the windows, flooding the room and obscuring with its glare the young man’s face. Perhaps his astonishment is only in my imagination. “Excuse me a moment.” I push back my chair and, reaching behind me, draw the curtain. “There, that’s better. Really, this sunshine…”
“Don’t you like sunshine?”
“Too much of a good thing! The golden mean, as Aristotle said! I’m sorry. I interrupted you.”
I should never have agreed to this interview. What’s the point? But he was quite insistent, and it occurred to me that, as the beneficiary of unearned wealth, I have an obligation of sorts to cooperate with people. So the journalist is here, and a photographer, with all his paraphernalia…
“My face,” I said to the photographer, “has absolutely nothing to do with me.” I meant it as a joke, because he seemed to be making such a fuss, as though something terribly important were at stake – but he didn’t laugh, didn’t crack a smile; I may as well not have spoken. Words don’t interest him, I suppose.
“You were saying, I think,” the journalist resumes, “that your son purchased the ticket – ”
“On the advice of his girlfriend, yes, who prophesied – she’s a prophetess, you see – that if he bought the ticket with money filched from my wallet…”
“A prophetess?”
“Evidently so, since her prophecy came true.”
“And has she any other… prophecies to her credit?”
“I really don’t know. Why don’t you interview her?”
“And how did you feel when you first heard the news?”
“How did I feel? I don’t know… surprised, happy…” What does he want me to say?

They leave at last, the journalist with my feelings, the photographer with my face. Ha ha. Actually, I’m not laughing. Far from it. I am exhausted, drained – emotionally and physically drained. And tomorrow… tomorrow I’ll read all about it in the newspaper... What on earth is that? A horrible rattling, clanking… it seems to be rolling this way, getting louder and louder, closer and closer – but when I pull back the curtain and peer out the window into the sunshine I see nothing… It’s gone now. Strange. All kinds of things go on out there, all kinds of inexplicable things, things of which I know nothing…

What was I saying? Oh yes, the newspaper. Well, take it in stride. You can’t win twenty million yen in a lottery and keep it secret, certainly not in a small town like this. Life doesn’t work that way! Why did I have to blurt that out about “the prophetess,” though? Stupid, stupid! Anyway – forget it. I won’t look at tomorrow’s paper, that’s all; anyway, it’ll be buried somewhere in an inside page, nobody’ll notice it, and… hm. Perhaps, just to be on the safe side, I’ll vanish for a few days, go away somewhere. By the time I get back – What’s that? The phone? Let it ring, let it ring! I won’t answer it!

                                                ***

“Seriously, Tomoko, do you love me? I mean – ”
“Well? Go on – tell me what you mean. You can’t, because you don’t know yourself.”
“I do know, it’s just…”
“Just what?”
“I know, but I don’t know… it’s the words I don’t know.”
“There’s no such thing as love. It’s as nonsensical a notion as God, the gods, the soul, ether, or any of a million illusions the human brain has spun for itself down the millennia. Love! I like you, I enjoy your company, I like sleeping with you. What more can you ask of me?”
“Maybe if you told me you’d feel that way forever and ever…”
“What a child you are! How can I possibly tell you such a thing?”
“You could if you wanted to.”
“How? How can I possibly know?”
“I know that I’ll always feel the same about you.”
“No you don’t. You just think you do.”
“Well, tell me you think you’ll feel – ”
“Oh, stop this now! This is beyond childishness – this is infancy!”
“If the future of your own feelings is so dark to you, how did you know my father would win the lottery?”
“I didn’t.”
“You didn’t? But…”
“I told you, it just popped into my head, the way random wisps of thoughts do, out of nowhere. Just a meaningless wisp of thought, that’s all it was. I said it out loud, but I could just as easily have kept it to myself. You took me seriously, but could just as easily not have… only you’re such a clown, you take everything seriously.”
“But it came true, didn’t it? He really did win the lottery.”
“Somebody had to win it. It happened to be him.”
“Tomoko – I want you to tell me you love me. Even if it’s not true, even if you don’t mean it, I want you to tell me.”
“I don’t understand you! Really I don’t! Why should it mean so much to you to have me tell you something that isn’t true?”
“Then you don’t love me?”
“Why do you insist on making me repeat myself? Love doesn’t exist! If it existed, I would love you. There! Won’t you be satisfied with that? Come, it’s getting late, we better get up. If I’m late for work again they’ll fire me.”

                                                ***

“Her parents are dead. She’s working her way through school. Can you believe it? A girl studying astro-physics, whose quest is to discover the nature of the universe – and who surely will discover it, with her brains! – working part-time at 7-Eleven! And not minding it, either.”
“If you tell me everything about her,” I say, smiling, “there’ll be nothing for us to talk about at dinner.”

He’s talked me into it. All right, we’ll have us a little dinner party. It’s the least I can do, I suppose, since, in a manner of speaking, I owe this sudden fortune of mine – more burden than blessing, I’m inclined to feel (perversely, I admit).
“I can’t help it,” he says. “I love talking about her almost as much as I love being with her. What a mind she has! What can she possibly see in me, I wonder?”
“Don’t sell yourself short! You’re a handsome boy, much handsomer than any son of mine has a right to be.”
“True – you’re certainly no beauty!” We both laugh.
“Her parents are dead, you say?”
“Yes, killed in a plane crash in Hawaii in 1989. She was three years old. She has no memory of them at all.”
“How terrible! Who raised her?”
“Her grandparents. Kind people, she says, but from another age. Hearts and minds in the past, the present another planet as far as they’re concerned.”
“Hm.”
“I know what you’re thinking – that you can sympathize. Right?”
“Right.”
“I can read you like a book.”
“Wait, my son, just wait! One day you’ll be old – ”
“You’re not old!”
“Well, aging. What’s that?”
“My cell phone. Hang on. Hello? Tomoko!” His momentary excitement immediately turns to dejection. “Oh! I see.”
It’s not difficult to guess what’s happening – she’s bowing out.
“Well, another time then… She can’t make it,” he says to me as he snaps his phone shut. “There’s this paper she has to write. She thought it was due the end of next week, but suddenly remembered it’s the end of this week. She’ll be up all night working on it.”
“Oh. Well…” It’s relief I feel; I try not to let it show. It’s more shyness than misanthropy, though the latter is probably better suited to my time of life. “What’s her paper on?” I ask. “The nature of the universe?”
“She told me but I forget. I have no head for that kind of thing.”
© Michael Hoffman March 2011
Otaru, Japan
www.michaelhoffman.squarespace.com


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