When we were nine or ten years old, our grandfather, Papa Nick, took it upon himself to introduce my twin brother Gareth and me to “the essential manly arts.” (If my dad took any offense at this presumption on the part of his old reprobate of a father-in-law, I never heard about it. My father is in fact a walking cliché of the Absent-Minded Professor, and while I learned a great deal from him, it’s true that having a catch in the back yard wasn’t one of them.) Gareth had no patience with Nick, and anyway considered himself exempt, as he was even then a battle-scarred veteran of the Hard Knocks Academy.
On the other hand, I was an eager pupil, although to be sure Papa Nick’s “manly arts” list was, like the old boy himself, a bit eccentric. Some of his essentials were right out of the Boy Scout Handbook: woodcraft, archery, every knot known to man. Others were all over the map: sewing, cooking, tai-chi, kite-flying, portrait sketching, even fiddle-playing. (Papa Nick wouldn’t be caught dead with a “violin,” but he was a fantastic fiddler.) He always claimed he was going to teach me bear and/or alligator wrestling, but somehow we never got around to that. I still never had that catch in the back yard either, but one summer when I was twelve or so we did spend a lot of time up around Bear Lake practicing the skill that topped Nick’s list: fly-fishing.
The old scamp was a maestro at it. Somehow, casting a line was, in his hands, his whole manly arts list combined—the fiddling, the portrait sketching, the woodcraft, the tai-chi, all of it. Watching him at the edge of a stream was a private audience with a force of nature; like standing in the corner of Picasso’s studio, or watching Ali shadow-box, or Toscanini wave his baton.
Of course I felt like a bemittened moron next to him, but Papa Nick declared me a natural. Then, just as I was really starting to get the hang of it, I had a truly bad day. Tangled my line, miscast by a mile, snagged in the trees, you name it.
Finally, Papa Nick took pity on me, called it a day. As we packed up he said, “What’s the matter, Sparky? You seem kind of disconnected today.” (For some reason, he’s always called me Sparky. Seems to amuse him. Fortunately, no one else ever picked up the habit. To balance things out, I started calling him “Nick,” sans the “Papa.” He didn’t seem to mind.)
“I dunno, Nick. I just can’t seem to get in the zone today. I’m trying, but—”
“Well, there’s your trouble. You’re thinking about it too much.”
I said he was probably right. “But you know what it is? What if the fly was real? You know, a real bug on the end of the line?”
Nick smiled. “Ah. A ‘thought experiment.’ Like Schrödinger’s cat.”
“Huh?” I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Never mind. I love thought experiments. Go ahead. The fly on the end of the line?”
“Well, I don’t know why, but I keep thinking about it from the fly’s point-of-view.”
He looked at me for a moment as if I’d just said the most profound thing since the Gettysburg Address. Then his leathery old face split in that white-toothed grin, and he laughed his wonderful laugh. “I wouldn’t have thought of that in a thousand years,” he said, wiping away a tear. “That would be a helluva ride.”
In the next few seconds/eons after I disappeared from my audience with Gabriel, I got an abject lesson in the fly’s point-of-view.
After the initial Transition gap, I found myself outside. As disoriented as I was, I was still able to immediately get my bearings—I was in the Disneyland parking lot. Goofy 19.
I turned toward the park, and found it was no longer there. In its place stood a towering...thing. It was utterly unlike anything I’d ever seen, as weird in its own way as the gray Nowhere I had just been booted out of. I realized I was looking at the outside of the golden ceiling that had appeared in the Disneyland sky: from out here it was a gargantuan, opaque, shimmering pyramid, or maybe a ziggurat, pulsing with a purplish glow, as if that golden energy was giving off massive amounts of ultra-violet radiation. It probably was. The longer I looked at it, the less I wanted to.
I looked down. Nearly at my feet, an old man wearing a Dodgers ball cap and those ridiculous wrap-around geezer sunglasses knelt next to his dead wife. Her eyes were open, and seemed to be looking directly at me.
My ears ached; air pressure must have changed radically from one side of the barrier to the other. The sobs and pleas of survivors came from all directions, but as if from a distance. The shimmering golden-purple pyramid hummed like a mighty fluorescent fixture. I yawned to clear my ears. Then behind me there was a whoosh and a screaming metallic explosion.
I turned just in time to see the fireball blossom. In an instant, I had just watched at least four hundred people die, maybe hundreds more on the ground, depending on where exactly it came down. Then, before I could even feel the heat, I was snatched away, like the fly at the end of that line.
Transition. I had time enough to wonder if the crash I’d just witnessed was the same 747 I had seen falling from the sky at the moment the pyramid had appeared. But that had been hours ago, hadn’t it? Yes, from my perspective. Apparently only a few objective seconds had ticked off during my surreal sojourn into Gabriel’s gray realm.
I appeared outdoors again, with a powerful reverse inertia. I landed hard on my bare ass in some hardscrabble dirt. Wherever I was, it was sunset. Somewhere in Europe, I think. Another ephemeral Angel towered in the sky. As I staggered to my feet, I noticed smoke billowing to the north. Planes were probably crashing all over the world, wreaking terrible havoc at a horrible loss of life. At any given moment there are what, ten or twelve thousand planes in the air worldwide? Dizzy and disoriented as I was, this hit me with a two-fisted wallop of grief and fury. What about hospitals? Submarines? The astronauts on the space station?
I heard a low, plaintive sound, turned in its direction: a cow mooed, no doubt a bit nonplussed that a naked man had just tumbled to the ground out of the void. Must have shaken her up even more as I was yanked away again.
Back to Goofy 19. Inertia now at my back, I stumbled forward and fell right over the grieving Dodgers fan, scraping my knees and elbows on the tarmac. Even though the 747 crash was some distance away, I could feel the heat from the blazing fuel. I managed to get up to one bloody knee, then lurched off into Transition again.
I’ve seen all those alien-invasion movies where we zigzag all over the world and see what’s happening at the Eiffel Tower, the Kremlin, the Statue of Liberty, whatever. This was nothing like that. As far as I know, my positions around the globe were picked at random. My next stop was in full darkness under a cloudy sky. Again, fires in the distance. I had just enough wits about me to notice it was chilly. Might’ve been China. Then another wrenching Transition, and back to the Disneyland parking lot.
And again and again. I lost count. An Asian city, lit by scant moonlight, torches, and more fires. An American town named Fayetteville; I saw the sign. Arkansas? North Carolina? I couldn’t say. Still more fires. Fields. Factories. Wildernesses. Figures of Angels towered over all of them.
I began to feel like the mythical kid that manages to swing all the way over the top of the swing set and is turned inside-out.
Finally, it was over. I was once again at Goofy 19, the exact spot I had first touched down. I collapsed to the ground. If the goal was to break me, then mission accomplished. I’m not Gareth; I had no last act of defiance left in me. I closed my eyes. The fluorescent hum, the wails of the bereft, the distant crackle of flames, all added up to a sort of aural snow bank; if I could just lie here awhile and let this ultimate white noise wash over the empty space where my mind used to be, I’d be fine. Wait for the Cosmic Trout to rise up and drag me to oblivion.
This psychogenic surrender lasted less than a minute. A gentle hand touched my shoulder. Eventually, I heard a voice break through the ringing hum in my ears, echoing in my tortured brain. “Son,” the voice said, “Wake up now. Come on.”
I opened my eyes. The old man with the funny sunglasses looked down at me. He pulled the shades away; the prescription lenses he wore beneath magnified his eyes in a way that at any other time would have been comical. Now it was heartbreaking—he was bereavement personified.
“Son, can you help me?” he said. “I can’t seem to get my car started.”
I opened my mouth to speak. His eyes stopped me. I took a breath. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s see what we can do.”
He offered me a hand up. I took it. It was even money which of us was more wobbly, but I got to my feet. “What happened to your clothes?” he said, as if noticing my nakedness for the first time. Perhaps he was. “Were you mugged?”
I nodded. “Yep. I was definitely mugged.” As far as I was concerned at that moment, truer words were never spoken.
Maybe half an hour had passed here in the “real” world since the Trumps sounded; an hour at most. Most of the parking lot survivors I could see were huddled together near a stalled tram. We passed several bodies as we walked to the old man’s car, many with their faces covered with a sweater or a jacket.
Somehow the old man had gotten his wife into the Lincoln’s passenger seat. It was fully reclined, and the poor thing looked almost comfortable. Mercifully, her eyes were now closed. “I believe Ruth Ann had a stroke,” the old man said. “I don’t think she suffered.” He opened a back door and pulled a plaid lap blanket off the seat. “Here you go. Until you can find some clothes.”
“Thanks.” I wrapped it around myself. He settled into the driver’s seat, turned the key. Nothing; not so much as a click. “You see?” he said. “Wait, I’ll pop the hood.”
I pretended to tinker a bit, but obviously the Angels’ electrical power shut-down included automobile starters. Finally, I admitted defeat. I asked the old man his name. “Bill,” he said. “But everybody calls me Coach.”
For reasons I can’t begin to understand, that little tidbit made me misty-eyed. “Well, Coach, the car’s not starting. I’m pretty sure no cars are starting today. Why don’t we walk out of here together, look for someplace to stay tonight.”
“No. No, I’m not leaving Ruth Ann.”
“We’ll come back tomorrow. Find some help.”
“No.” I kept trying. He kept refusing. Finally, I leaned on his windowsill and offered my hand. He took it, gave it a squeeze. His eyes were dry. That made one of us.
“Good luck, Coach.” As I let go of his hand, I noticed the little plastic praying hands hanging from his rear-view mirror—the symbol of the so-called “Serenity Prayer”:
God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.
As I turned to walk away into the bleary world, I said out loud, “Amen, Coach. Amen.”