Editors note: First published by academicsatire dot com in 1994 with the title “Epiphany.”
Barry Roberts Greer is a-religious, but you have to admit this story was prophetic.
At the World Trade Center she got out of the cab with a wince because of the sharp sunlight and the already uncomfortable humidity. But before sweat could dampen her silk blouse, she hurried into her building, took the elevator to the fortieth floor, and entered the cool, hermetic, potted-plant protection of an office suite with the words Psychometric Decision Consultants: Renée Cartesian, Ph.D. in gold lettering on the door.
“Good morning, Ms. Minion.”
“Good morning, Dr. Cartesian.”
“Do I have a nine o’clock?”
“We’re waiting for a Mr. Gadeau.”
“He’s associated with?”
“Excellent. We have coffee?”
“On the way, doctor.”
“Wonderful.” Dr. Cartesian took Gadeau’s file. “Please call me the moment the market opens.”
“Of course, doctor. Are you anxious about something?”
“Never, Ms. Minion.”
Just as Dr. Cartesian closed the door to her office, Gadeau stepped into the waiting room. He was a balding, round-shouldered little man who wore a wrinkled suit, a shirt that looked slept in, and a tie loosely knotted around his neck. Because of his disheveled appearance, in spite of his place of employment, Gadeau had to produce a major credit card before Ms. Minion would usher him into Dr. Cartesian’s office.
Nervously, Gadeau sat down in one of the two black leather chairs on the client side of a highly polished mahogany desk. The chair sighed. Gadeau sighed.
Dr. Cartesian assessed her client and had to suppress a twinge of worry. After a perfunctory “Good morning” and “It’s a bit warm outside,” she opened the meeting. “You’re at Prudential, Mr. Gadeau?”
“Yes . . . forever, it seems.”
“Then you’re a partner?”
“With everyone . . . I think.”
Dr. Cartesian tried another tact to help her client gain enough trust to describe his decision problem or problems. She leaned away from the desk, crossed her legs, and with a smile said, “The market seems to be picking up. IBM is–”
She raised her eyebrows.
“I can’t seem to find the answer.”
“Well, as I’m sure you know, investment requires specific knowledge in concert with the calculated risk of speculation.”
“I’d just like to have the answer and a little peace.”
“Certainly at Prudential, as a partner, you must feel secure.”
Gadeau reached for his handkerchief, not for his nose but to have something to twist in his hands as he mumbled, “The market doesn’t have the answer.”
“Surely you don’t think that a collectivist system–”
“I’ve talked to theologians, philosophers, physicists, metaphysicists, mathematicians, physicians, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, astronomers, and a thousand other experts, but none of them had the answer. All of their knowledge is fragmented.”
Dr. Cartesian exhaled a slow sigh of relief. “Then you’re not overwrought because of a depressed market?”
Gadeau ignored the question. “Dr. Cartesian, you are my last hope. I need the answer.”
“Yes, well, I will certainly listen.” She paused for two beats to fold her hands. “Could you give me some indication of when you first noticed that you had trouble making decisions?”
Gadeau rolled his eyes. “I have no trouble, they do!” He waved at the window, at the view of a smog obscured Hudson.
Dr. Cartesian thought she detected pejorative humor and smiled. “I realize that New Jersey has many serious problems, particularly inadequate air conditioning.”
“You don’t understand.” Gadeau slumped ever deeper into the leather upholstery. “Nor did the others. You see, I didn’t ask the question in the first place. They did, you did, or some of you did. You think that I have the answer.” He laughed and looked directly at Dr. Cartesian for the first time. “How can I have the answer to a question I never even asked?”
Dr. Cartesian remained silent for a moment, waiting for Gadeau to calm himself and to allow herself a glance at the meeting timer camouflaged as a desktop bust of Skinner. She then decided she’d heard enough and that directness was appropriate if she were to identify the primary issue before the half hour was up.
“Could you tell me, Mr. Gadeau, what the question is?”
Gadeau’s eyes widened with panic. “What is the purpose of my existence?”
Dr. Cartesian smiled a thin, tight-lipped smiled. The Prudential in-house psychologist should, of course, have detected the onset of simple clinical schizophrenia. “Mr. Gadeau, I’m not certain that I’m qualified to answer questions of an existential nature, but I would like to ask if you’ve had any recent thoughts of suicide?”
Gadeau smiled, “I can’t die if I wasn’t born.”
“I see,” said Dr. Cartesian, “But we all have parents of some sort, though with the recent advances in reproductive engineering –”
“I have no genetic parents.”
“Mr. Gadeau –”
“I wasn’t born. I’ve always existed. But I don’t know why I exist, and I had no concern about it until you imagined something you call The Big Bang. Now religion and science are certain to merge, a convergence that will focus human inquisitiveness with laser intensity and lead to empirical proof that I exist and an attempt at direct communication, which means that soon I can no longer depend on the anonymity offered by blind faith and superstition.”
“Mr. Gadeau –”
“If I don’t get the answer soon, then I can’t give them an answer, and it will all become so frustrating that I’ll have to start over again, which would be a shame.” Again he waved toward New Jersey. “They won’t be satisfied with knowing that it was dark, silent, infinite, and boring. I could see, hear, touch nothing.”
“I had no senses.”
Dr. Cartesian tried again. “Oblivion?”
“No. Death assumes life. It was like being in the middle of nothing. Nothingness. But ‘middle’ isn’t the right word. You can’t be in the middle of something that has no beginning and no end.”
“You remember –”
“I remember being bored.”
“As a child?”
“Always. Until I imagined all this and watched to see what would happen when dream became fact. You seem to enjoy an infinite variety of mutual brutality. And nonhuman existence has become more inventive than I ever thought it would, going far beyond fire and flood–”
“And pestilence, of course,” said Dr. Cartesian as she turned slightly so that her right hand rested near the intercom console. Button one for nonviolent psychotic. Call Neibuhr Memorial. Button two for violent psychotic. Send ambulance from Pavlov Memorial.
“Watching you seek the cures for pandemics kept me amused for several millennia.” Gadeau smiled. “Cancer, for instance, if –”
“Mr. Gadeau,” Dr. Cartesian pressed button one as she smiled and said, “Have you ever considered prodding them for an answer?” She needed to manage Gadeau’s behavior for only five minutes more. Next to the button, a small green light flickered on. Minion had made the call.
“No,” he said.
“The most logical answer,” Dr. Cartesian suggested, “would be to knock the Earth off its orbit.”
“Toward the sun?”
“Or away from it.”
“Yes,” said Gadeau, his eyes widening.
“Or . . .” Dr. Cartesian hesitated without being certain of why she did, knowing only that she felt a fear she attributed, as quickly as she noticed it, to unconscious empathy with her client.
“Or?” said Gadeau.
Dr. Cartesian took a breath, smiled again, and chided herself for such irrational concern. “Or both. You could stretch the ellipse of the orbit to give them an incentive to concentrate harder on finding the answer to your question. Their question. Cataclysmic natural events historically have provoked immediate if superfluous answers to profound questions on existence. An event that had never occurred before might force science and religion apart again.”
Gadeau almost smiled. “Yes, it might, but I haven’t had any practice at it and don’t know how far I should go. I had nothing to do with the original orbits.”
Dr. Cartesian was able to avoid the embarrassment of laughing out loud at a client when Ms. Minion stepped in to ask if she could see the doctor a moment in the outer office. In the waiting room Dr. Cartesian told the two Neibuhr attendants that she had a harmless schizophrenic in her office. She told them to humor Gadeau until they arrived at the hospital. “Don’t, of course, attempt to contradict his reality. Tell Mr. Gadeau that you’re taking him to a place that will provide the answer he’s seeking.”
The attendants smiled. Ms. Minion smiled. They all understood, of course, what the pressures of Wall Street could do to a human being. Gadeau went with them a bit nervously because he was still not yet certain about how to do it.
She had ten minutes before her next appointment and spent the time sipping coffee, scanning prices in the Journal, and dismissing Gadeau. But when Renée tried to read the next client’s file, she shivered, then attributed the feeling to stress. Relaxation for a moment would help. She sat back in her chair and rested her head against the soft leather as she slowly swiveled for a view of the Hudson. She turned away, pinched the bridge of her nose and squeezed her eyes shut. But a moment later she yielded to the urge and looked again.
“My God,” she whispered and blinked once, twice, a third time before she allowed herself to see snow, of course. The snow fell so thickly, so fast she couldn’t see the river and then she could see nothing at all beyond the window glass when daylight faded into black night.
The snow stopped and the sun returned, of course, flaring closer, burning so bright that Reneée had to squint even after she turned away to rush out past a sweating Ms. Minion, out into the hallway, then right, then right again to the stairwell door. She touched the handle and yelped and yanked her burned hand away, then used her hip to push the panic bar down and to open the door a crack. An oven. She let it slam shut and ran back to her office, to the window that had turned brown, ready to crack. She shielded her eyes and could barely get close enough to the hot glass to look down. A few people sprawled lifeless on the plaza, those who couldn’t get to shelter fast enough. Their clothing smoldered or burned.
“Dr. Cartesian,” Ms. Minion called out, “has the air conditioner failed again?”
“No,” Renée screamed, “No!”
*Warning: Princeton scholars beware of William Howarth’s interpretation. Although he did use the word “prescient.” Seven years so.