Ringing True: Excerpts

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This page contains six chapters and excerpts from the novel Ringing True. 

Ringing True is the story of a group of Seattle twenty-somethings who attempt to address the deplorable state of the human race by creating a new religion. When their laughable attempts at a launch fail, they seek assistance from a self-styled marketing guru who transforms the religion into a for-profit corporation launched via cyberspace. Through guerilla marketing, Internet buzz and financial support from a major Hollywood star in search of enlightenment, the religion—called Ringing True—becomes a worldwide sensation. Success brings a new set of challenges for the founders, who find themselves tangled in a series of plots involving corporate politics, financial sleight-of-hand and a porn star who wants a piece of the action. Events build rapidly to a stunning conclusion where the founders learn what rings true for them.

Ringing True appeals to the reader on many levels. It combines a philosophical powder keg of a story with brilliantly developed and heartfelt characters marked by human failings that make them accessible and endearing. The book is a grand satire of American culture in the 21st century that avoids bitter sarcasm while appealing to both the funny bone and latent idealism of the reader. Finally, it is a beautiful story of love, friendship and the meaning of shared commitment in a world that seems to be driven primarily by self-interest. Whether you are a Baby Boomer in search of something lost or a twenty-something seeking validation of the possible, you will find a part of yourself in the pages of Ringing True.

The excerpts that follow are directly from the book. The text of the religion (called “The Numbers”) can be found at Ringing True: The Numbers on this site. You can also view the video trailer, The Ringing True Mini-Movie on YouTube.

1-Laptop at Night

Chapter 1: Pre-Dawn

It was a clear late-summer night in the Emerald City in the year 2005, and all across Seattle, from then-trendy Belltown to grungy Pioneer Square to the dark metallic venues in the industrial rehab of SoDo, the young were out in force for an evening of music, booze and bar food. Energized by a visible full moon and the rare appearance of clear sky, the lines jerked with the uncertainty of mating rituals, with aimless chatter into cell phones, with fingers dancing over keypads, and with nervous laughter far out of proportion to the quality of the conversation. Whatever one’s sexual persuasion, it was a night designed to help a person forget about the great cultural divide, dismiss all thoughts of two faraway wars and lose oneself in music, brew and commitment-free romance.

Across the lake in the more sedate suburb of Bellevue, the town had pretty much turned over and gone to sleep once the doors of the big downtown mall had closed and most of the young had fled the boredom for the bridges into Seattle. But there in Bellevue was at least one member of that generation who chose not to hang out anywhere at all. This unique apparition was at present stretched on his belly on the living room floor of a sterile apartment carpeted and painted in perfect neutral, staring blankly into the screen of a laptop computer. The face bathed in dim white point seemed utterly blank. It was a good-looking face with soft brown hair, a hint of a dimple on the left cheek and deep, dark eyes—but a face minus the sense of adventure that animated the faces of his peers across the water. Looking more intently, a careful observer would have noticed the right foot shaking at the end of a long, lanky body, a sign of something unresolved beneath the placid surface.

At random intervals a cell phone chimed, indicating incoming communication. The young man invariably yawned, picked up the phone, glanced at the message with something less than a sneer and put the phone back on the carpet. Turning from the face to the screen, one could count at least seven open chat windows; looking down at the keyboard, one could see the flash of dancing fingers working effortlessly in response to the short bursts of information. To the inexperienced observer the speed of those fingers might signify a passion and intensity, but to Justin Raines, the owner of those fingers, it was just what you did. It was automatic generational programming: speed was a part of the package.

It was a bit past midnight and Justin was holding those seven five-word conversations with two friends from high school, three from college and two with people who had sort of dropped in from the ether. The only common thread linking the conversations was that all of them were completely devoid of meaning, fulfilling the sole purpose of keeping total boredom at bay.

Justin really didn’t give a shit that one friend was unlucky in love or that a guy he knew in college had just sold his soul to go to work for an investment bank. He didn’t care that he hadn’t written a syllable of truth about what he was up to or what his plans were that evening. He was bored, pissy and felt entitled to be so. While he might have written instead of the existence of a profound dissatisfaction that had burrowed deep in his soul, he doubted that anyone cared, and anyway, the world he knew was not constructed to deal with soul-level issues. He had thought of spending the evening with a video game, but chose instead to adopt a passive aggressive persona to validate the self-pitying realization that no one gave a shit about him either.

Things were zipping along at a suitably mind-occupying pace when one of his ethermates signed out. Justin felt a sinking feeling in his tummy. Sooner or later all of the chat buttons would blink out, the cell phone would cease chiming and he would be left with nothing but empty screens and the great unidentifiable dissatisfaction inside. He had no plans for the inevitable then.

Justin was at the point where he was tired of figuring things out, in part because he never seemed to be able to figure anything out. He didn’t want to think, he didn’t want a plan, he just wanted to let things go to hell. They were going in that direction anyway, so he thought he’d go along for the ride.

*****

This phase of Justin’s life had its origins in a decision made long ago, years before he was born. His parents had tied his destiny to college and he grew up with the idea that college was some sort of heavenly place where all the answers to all the mysteries of life could be found. College, college, college was drummed into his head ever since he could remember, and it was always, “of course he’s going to college,” as if the admission of any alternative would lead Jehovah or Zeus to strike the entire family with lightning bolts. His time and life were structured around getting into the best college possible, increasing the odds for a scholarship, and preparing for the various tests that marked the way. He hardly knew his parents as people—they were more like old-school football coaches constantly pushing, pushing, pushing for college, college, college. Both parents were successful, upper-middle class professionals who swore they owed it all to college. It struck him some time in high school that college was a lot more important to his parents than it was to him. It was their religion, not his.

His dad often cited statistics as part of the drumbeat of propaganda Justin had been hearing since grade school. “College graduates earn 55% more than high school graduates,” he would say when helping Little Justin with his story problems. Little Justin was always in awe of such proofs, but Pubescent Justin started to wonder a bit without being able to articulate the wonder. By the time he emerged as Teenage Justin, he came to the conclusion that his dad was full of crap.

Still, Justin said nothing and just went along, in part because he didn’t have a better idea and in part because he had no statistics to support an alternative position, something his father would have demanded, given his devotion to facts. The greater issue was that whenever he thought of an argument to defend his position or discovered something he thought he might like to explore, an overwhelming rush of self-doubt would rise inside him and choke off thoughts in their infancy. The only time Justin engaged in resistance was when his father pushed sports as a vehicle for scholarship, and even in that instance, the resistance was of the indirect variety. Rather than refuse to go out for the team and waste energy in pointless conflict, Justin would go to the tryout and display such thorough ineptitude that his father eventually backed off for fear he would be thoroughly embarrassed in front of the other parents. Justin was actually quite athletically gifted, but kept this a secret.

Eventually he did go to college, winding up at the University of Washington, which he chose for two reasons: one, he had heard Seattle was a cool place to be; and two, it was far out of driving range from the suburbs of Chicago, where his parents lived. His dad liked the idea because he was some kind of sales executive for the Mega Software Company, and his mom liked it because she was some kind of human resources person for the Mega Coffee Company, both with headquarters in the Seattle area. “We can come visit you when we go to Corporate,” they said, closing the deal.

“Sure!” said Justin. Since they were footing the entire bill, he supposed he could grant them visitation rights.

*****

The cause of his self-doubt and related aversion to conflict had to do with a mask Justin had adopted sometime during puberty. On the surface he seemed a pleasant, cooperative boy studying hard to validate the American Dream for people like his parents who believed in it as if it were gospel. However, beneath the mask was a very complicated person with millions of thoughts he had never shared with anyone, not even friends his own age.

Justin had concluded early in life that the world and practically all the people in it were insane to some degree, and as the only sane person on the planet, he had to work behind an elaborate façade to make it through each waking day. He viewed the world very differently than his obsessive parents or his I’ve-got-it-handled teenage friends, sensing that the reality on which they had based their lives and personalities was a very fragile reality indeed. He divined that all the pieces of wisdom shoved in his ears by teachers, broadcasters, entertainers, leaders and experts were astonishingly silly, even dangerous, and that their expert knowledge was anything but. These perceptions were accompanied by a profound sadness about the state of the world that he could not shake because he had no clue as to what to do about his sadness or with the world that was apparently causing it. The best he could come up with for the time being was a strategy to lay low, play the role handed to him and see how things turned out. Since no one seemed to want to hear anything that disturbed their sense of certainty and comfort—his parents with their success stories, his friends in their techno-driven universe, his teachers and their dogma—he stuffed all these impressions deep inside.

Later he would look back and wonder how he wound up with perceptions that differed so much from the norm. After dismissing the alien-from-another-planet theory, he concluded that it probably had to do with the realities of modern child-rearing. His workaholic parents regularly worked late and traveled constantly on business, setting up regrets they could enjoy later in life. During his pre-teens, he was always being dropped off somewhere, from school to day care to supplemental math lessons, according to the demands of parental schedules. Because he was constantly in motion, he never had the opportunity to truly connect with his parents, other children or the anonymous caregivers who viewed him more as a revenue stream than a human being. Faces and voices whizzed by him as if he were on a high-speed merry-go-round that never stopped. What he could not explain was why he never developed any sense of resentment toward his parents or why, despite the growing feeling that they and the others had lost all their marbles, he genuinely liked them all and wished them no harm. Perhaps that was due to the innate wisdom of a child; perhaps he was too busy to put much energy into victimization; or perhaps he was simply oriented to accept the hand he was dealt.

The mad whirl decelerated considerably when Justin became a latchkey kid at the age of thirteen. Justin welcomed the change wholeheartedly, for it gave him time and space to think, reflect and try to figure out what the hell was going on in the world around him. Although he didn’t think much of the learning that went along with college prep, he was passionate about learning when given the freedom to explore his own path. Mysteriously absenting himself from the ritual of hanging out with friends after school, he would rush home to throw himself onto his bed and into various books he checked out from the library. His secret studies primarily focused on human history, with occasional side journeys into philosophy, religion, psychology and literature. As it was not a particularly disciplined course of study, there were indeed holes in it, but Justin had always been more intuitive than most and used that intuition to form certain conclusions that partially satisfied his hunger. That hunger had to do with finding out why the people of his world had slipped into insanity and his readings gave him plenty of evidence that the insanity had been there for quite a long time.

During these teenage years, he developed a working theory that the cause of the insanity was extreme self-interest—people doing what they wanted to do at the expense of other people, their neighborhoods, their cities, their countries, even their world. What made this development remarkable to Justin was that he could see as clear as day that self-interest was nearly always self-destructive. He watched his parents become shrunken people in their single-minded pursuit of success, economic partners instead of a couple. Justin could see very clearly that someday the loneliness would eat them alive. He watched celebrities pursue fame and money without regard for how it distorted their personalities, isolated them from the world and transformed them into caricatures out of touch with whatever ability that brought them fame in the first place. And worst of all, he saw people all over the world hurting and killing each other to advance a cause or personal agenda, in defiance of the age-old wisdom that violence begets violence. Justin felt certain that self-interest had placed the world on the path to self-destruction, but he was just as uncertain as to what he or anyone else could do to stop it.

Despite this unusual penchant for deep thinking, people who met Justin at the time would have described him as a fairly typical representative of his generation. When he hung out with his friends, they all watched music videos, played video games and engaged in sexual humor. Like all his friends, he took to new technology with fearless ease. Although he usually hung back from the center of the action and did nothing to draw attention, he would occasionally jump in and defend others from the sadistic teasing that often went on in high school. Whenever a friend needed help with his homework, Justin was The Man. His only unusual feature was a slight stoop, as if he wanted to subtract a couple of inches from his six foot frame by adopting an attitude of humility.  The only differentiating label ever applied to him during high school was the painfully generic label of “really nice guy,” which wasn’t much.

Unlike others in his generation, he never sought to express himself in e-journals, blogs, Emo music or confessional poetry, privately likening those routes to the sound of babies beating their high chair trays for attention. Unlike most of his fellow Americans, he was strangely immune to hero-worship, considering the worshipped and the worshippers as indisputable evidence of mass insanity. He found the pursuit of fame particularly appalling, and had Justin rubbed the magic lamp to make the genie appear, fame certainly would not have been one of his three wishes. This resistance to exposure, combined with his distrust of celebrity and strategic aversion to conflict, made Justin quite unlikely to volunteer to be the poor dumb bastard who finally stood up in front of the world to explain to them that they were all a bunch of frigging loonies.

And yet, in a little more than a year, that same figure now stretched out on a colorless carpet in a sterile apartment in Bellevue, Washington would do just that—and in prime time, no less.

18-over coffee

Passage: Shelby and the Great Idea

Here we introduce the second main character, Shelby Mirabeau.

Shelby Mirabeau had discovered Justin in a cultural anthropology course during his freshman year, and through a series of events that led Justin to give some credence to past-life theory, she had become his closest friend. Even before Justin shared much of his inner self with Shelby, he trusted her instinctively, and found her perspective on life unusually compelling. This world view was made more attractive by her willingness and ability to express herself clearly and directly, without the self-doubt that had always compromised Justin’s communication skills.

Their perceptual filters were poles apart, and to Justin, Shelby seemed to have the advantage. While Justin wished the world were radically different, Shelby accepted the world as-is. Like an advance scout for the aliens, her mission was to study the habits and norms of homo sapiens and process her findings with crystalline detachment. She combined this gift with an unusual self-awareness that allowed her to admit that she was as flawed a human being as the rest and that her observations could be tainted, skewed or even total bullshit. Unlike Justin, who filtered his perceptions through a semi-tragic perspective, Shelby enjoyed discovering the truth, in whatever form and avoided trying to make things mean something when it seemed frivolous to do so. From her perspective, people had already drawn too many conclusions and they needed to chill out and see what was going on around them.

Contrary to the belief in “meant to be” and “love at first sight,” experience tells us that many significant relationships often begin with mutual repulsion. We unconsciously recoil at the power of the other’s presence because we know the flow of life is about to change, and change dramatically. This was certainly the case with Justin, as his first reaction to Shelby was cold-stone fear.

The cause of that fear did not lie in her physical appearance, per se. Shelby had a softened strawberry-shaped face with high cheekbones framed in a black pixie-cut that was partially and perpetually covered by a light blue wool cap. She dressed down, in baggy jeans and sweaters, sans makeup, in traditional Seattle grunge-influenced style. Justin speculated that the avoidance of makeup had something to do with her hippie parents, but Shelby brushed that off by saying, “I just don’t have time for that shit.” However, she had inherited a real VW Beetle from her parents, who had actually been part of the soggy crowd at Woodstock and now smiled the whole waking day as if they were still under the influence of Golden Sunshine.

What turned her natural, gentle beauty into something intimidating was her expression. Shelby did not share her parents’ happy-face habit and she did not come across as the stereotypically nice person from Seattle. Her face to the world appeared as unmovable as a frozen computer screen. The expression itself was neither inviting nor off-putting, but was such a departure from the cultural norm that caution seemed prudent. Even more forbidding was the look she adopted when her mental machinery was processing information that did not seem to jive with the truth: her eyebrows squinched toward the center, her eyes narrowed and her mouth formed a lemon-sucking grimace that was the very picture of intense skepticism. Justin saw this expression in class early in the term and decided she was the last person he would want to link with on a class project.

So he was astonished to no small degree when one day after class she walked up to him and said, “Let’s get some coffee,” and walked down the hall without looking back, fully expecting him to follow.

Justin stood there paralyzed for a minute, and though he could never explain it in a way that made sense, dashed after her before she got too far ahead.

*****

Shelby could make him laugh without trying to be funny and Justin’s soul needed laughter more than anything else during that time. He also came to admire her clarity, which never crossed the line into certainty, and her ability to look at all sides of a question. Those qualities made her more approachable, for her communication was relatively free of the bullshit he was so used to slogging through when trying to converse with other people.

During the summer that Justin stayed in her parents’ basement, before the fight for survival consumed all of his energy, he and Shelby spent many nights out on the deck behind her parents’ house, talking through the long and glorious Northwest summer nights. Shelby chose the spot because she liked to smoke and her New Age parents did not allow smoking in the house. Justin never mentioned her smoking; it was just something Shelby did. Later in their relationship he found out that she took up the habit because her parents were so religiously anti-smoking, defying all expert predictions.

Those summer nights marked the first time that Justin revealed his inner self to another person. He was drowning in transition but the need for survival had not yet shrunk his consciousness. He was looking for something solid to grasp, and Shelby was the most solid thing he had ever experienced. She also appeared to be genuinely interested in him and not what he represented. To his parents he was the symbol of their own validation, to his friends a pleasant companion and a “nice boy” to the girls he dated. Everyone who had known him up to now had looked at him solely from the perspective of their self-interest, and had never bothered to look any deeper.

To Shelby, he was Justin, and she made it clear without saying so that she wanted to experience Justin unedited and unabridged. Once Justin understood this, and overcame his fear of her clarity, the dam burst.

What came out was anything but polished. He whined. He ranted. He stumbled over complex and contradictory drives in a mad explosion of confused thinking that had fermented far too long in his brain. Sometimes he expressed himself with the power and certainty he felt deep in his soul and sometimes his ideas spilled out in weak, broken fragments. His emotions shifted from embarrassment to exhilaration, but he did not hold back. Shelby sat with him for hours, sitting cross-legged on the deck, puffing away, fixing her full attention on Justin’s confessions.

Justin had always been afraid to tell people what he really thought. It was as dear to him as a newborn baby and he didn’t want that baby hurt in any way. Like all of us who have kept things inside for a long time, we’re afraid that if we ever admit them to someone, they’ll laugh and think we’re silly. But when Shelby asked questions, they were purely designed to clarify something she did not understand; and when she listened, her face was free of all judgment. Rather than use questions to expose a weakness or gain an advantage, Shelby used them to learn more.

She did not judge, she did not attack and she did not correct his thinking. She just listened, hour after hour, night after night.

Justin had never received a greater gift in all his life.

*****

That summer, Justin initiated conversations on many topics—politics, history, current events—while Shelby generally listened and helped him sort through the mess of a bottled-up mind. Inevitably, he divulged to her the nature of the secret studies he conducted as a teenager.

“And what did you learn from all this?” Shelby asked.

Justin laughed. “That philosophers are boring and take forever to get to the point. That psychologists just make it all up. That religions have been designed to be unintelligible to the masses. That the history of the human race is one sorry tale.”

Shelby wanted more. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

“Not really. I guess what I was looking for doesn’t exist—a moment in history that was the seed of everything wrong in the world today—the point in time, the event, whatever—that caused everything to go to hell. At first I thought it had something to do with the Industrial Revolution and changing the nature of work into something meaningless, impersonal—which is why I wound up reading Dickens. And I think there’s some truth in that—a lot of the ‘me-me-me’ is probably people feeling so insignificant in the larger scheme of things.”

“Spoken like a budding Marxist,” commented Shelby. “But you don’t think that’s it.”

“Nah. We were killing, raping, pillaging and looting for centuries before that. I can’t think of a more insignificant life than sitting around waiting for the next horde of barbarians to charge over the mountains.”

“But I believe the basic theory that we learned in humanities was that people living in the Middle Ages didn’t feel their lives were insignificant because they’d given them over to God—at least in the Western World,” Shelby reminded him.

“Don’t get me started on religion. The ugliest episodes in human history nearly always have some connection with religion. Stupid wars lasting hundreds of years, people murdering each other over textbook trivia and fighting over supposedly sacred land that isn’t worth shit anyway because it’s in the middle of the goddamned desert! And what’s it all for? If it takes a war for you to prove that your God is better than their God—isn’t that admitting that your religion isn’t worth dick? The Christian, Muslim and Jewish religions all have ‘thou shalt not kill,’ so what the hell are those people thinking?” Justin paused for a breath and started chewing on his lower lip.

“I have hit the nerve,” Shelby said with some satisfaction. “But I think you’re still talking about the West.”

Justin thought about that. “Maybe. But that’s the problem of the moment, isn’t it? And then you still have Hindus and Muslims ready to nuke each other, so it’s more than that.” Justin paused in his wandering and answered Shelby more directly. “As far as the Eastern religions go, I think what I have a problem with is that they seem to think the greatest thing you can do is hide in a cave somewhere and let the world go to hell. I don’t see how that helps anybody.”

Shelby laughed. “Well, there’s some truth in your sound byte, but staying the hell out of it does mean that you’re not hurting anyone else.”

Justin sighed, “You know, that might have been okay a long time ago, but it’s not okay anymore—there’s nowhere left for us to hide from each other. The caves are full and wired to the Internet. It’s impossible to hide and it’s just not right to hide. But when you try to come out, they turn you into a celebrity and ruin anything worthwhile you might have had to say.”

Shelby thought for a minute and then just said, “Maybe so.”

“I’ve just had it with everyone thinking their way is the right way—the only way—and that their way justifies killing or dropping out and that they don’t take responsibility for being a human being on this planet with all the other human beings on this planet!” After that outburst, which he could hear echoing around his brain, he became a bit self-conscious and went back to quietly gnawing his lower lip.

Finally he asked Shelby what she thought.

“Well, I’m not sure. I know some very nice people who believe in God, so I’m not sure religion is as evil as you make it out to be.”

Justin took a couple of deep breaths to help him calm down. “I know, I know,” he finally said. “It’s not black and white, but you know what I mean.” Justin was a bit frustrated with Shelby for bringing up details. “I’m talking big picture.”

“To be honest, I have a hard time seeing a big picture.”

Justin was nervously interested. “Why’s that?”

“I don’t know. It’s hard for me to deal with the whole world. It’s just too big for me to grasp with my itty bitty mind.”

Justin was flabbergasted. “But you’ve got to admit you have to be worried about the way things are going—the greed, the madness, the hatred, the killing—and hey, listen—you could be killed tomorrow by someone you don’t even know from the other side of the world, so how can you not see it?”

Shelby frowned. “Hey, it’s my turn, Justin,” she said firmly.

Justin felt the redness spreading across his face. “Sorry.”

“Look, I’m not you, Justin. This world hasn’t come into focus for me yet. I’m in learning mode. I’m still trying to figure things out in my little nook of the galaxy.”

Justin backed off and said, “Yeah, you’re right—so am I. It’s just that—shit, I don’t know.”

“You care,” said Shelby, paraphrasing the underlying emotion.

Justin relaxed but also felt he wanted to cry. “Yeah, I do—and I don’t know why—I wish I didn’t.”

“Don’t be sorry—I’m glad you care—and I’m glad you care about the whole world.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Think about it. Everyone I know and all my parents’ activist friends have just one thing they care about—the environment, the war—but it’s always just the one thing. You’re the first person I’ve ever met who cares about the whole deal.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

Shelby reached over and touched his arm. “Give it time. My mom always tells me, ‘don’t worry about the future, you will find your path when it’s time.’”

“Do you believe her—believe in that?”

Shelby shrugged and said, “I don’t know. It could be New Age bullshit and she does have that glassy expression on her face when she says it, but who knows? I thought it was worth a shot. Think it’s helpful?”

Justin looked away and said, “Not really, but thanks for the effort.”

“No problem. Use it if you need it.”

There was silence for a while as Justin reflected on nothing in particular and then tried to revive the original topic. “Maybe, if people feel they need religion, what we need is a new religion—something that avoids all the problems of the old religions—something that unites people instead of dividing them.”

“Maybe,” said Shelby, after a period of quiet consideration. “But those roots are pretty deep, and if there’s one thing we know, religion is full of martyrs who won’t listen to anything but their truth. How on earth do you get through to someone who is convinced they already own the truth?”

Justin sighed and said, “Yeah, you’re probably right. I just wish—”

“You wish that people would grow up and knock it off,” commented Shelby, finishing the thought.

Justin laughed. “Oh, God, wouldn’t it be cool if it were that easy? A booming voice from a loudspeaker orbiting the earth, shouting, ‘Hey, dickheads! Knock this shit off!’”

They laughed together under the night sky, shifted to the small talk of tomorrow’s plans, then took their thoughts to separate beds.

*****

Shelby was anything but a passive listener. She was an active participant in the discussions, which helped them both clarify questions they had long considered. Being far more skilled in communication and clearer in her thinking, she spoke her mind with greater economy, which gave her words more force. She did not need the chaotic volume of words Justin needed to say what she thought. To Justin, this was all magical—her short bursts of communication were sudden bolts of lightning that lit up the darkness. To Shelby, it was just the way she was and she attached no magical properties to the ability.

“I’m confused about something,” Shelby said after a pause during one of their discussions.

“So am I,” Justin laughed. “Sorry. About what?”

“You seem to feel that the people in the world are insane because they’ve given themselves totally over to self-interest—or at least that’s part of it.”

Justin felt the usual insecurity of being put on the spot. “Uh—well, yeah, I guess—I’m not sure—let me think—yeah, okay, let’s go with that.”

“So, are you implying that it wasn’t always so and that this phase of excessive self-interest is abnormal?”

The question forced Justin into reconsideration. What if self-interest was the primary driving force behind the evolution of the human race? He rummaged through his brain for examples from history when people were not driven largely by self-interest and came up empty.

“I don’t know—maybe I just don’t want to believe it’s normal. Maybe it’s always been this way. But it feels like selfishness and greed have taken on so much force now—and this force feels so powerful, so mindless, so frightening—like it’s gathering this terrible energy that we won’t be able to control. I think I need to find out more—maybe do more study—”

“Oh, no! Don’t do that!” cried Shelby.

“Huh?” responded Justin, jolted again by another surprising comment.

“I think you’ve fallen into the trap that people seem to fall into all the time these days—having to justify a feeling with some kind of backup, some kind of proof, a verifiable reference to some self-proclaimed expert in the field,” explained Shelby.

“Ah,” said Justin, still puzzled.

“If you’re looking to change things, I don’t think you’re going to get much help from the usual sources. I think it may be possible that all education focuses on the past and is primarily designed to maintain the status quo—not to help anyone change anything.”

Justin chewed on this for a minute and said, “I guess I’m afraid of saying what I think—like, who do I think I am?”

“You’ve been intimidated by the existence of experts. Don’t worry about it—happens to the best of us. Tell you what—skip the need to justify your feelings and opinions and just say what you think without knowing where it came from or whether it has any basis in anything.”

“Okay. Hey, let me know when you hear me wimping out like that.”

“You bet your sweet ass I will,” said Shelby, picking up energy. “Now—there’s one more thing I’ve been thinking about. Forgetting about the ‘why’ for a minute, let’s say the reason why people are sucked up into themselves so much is because they’re scared.” She paused to take a drag. “Now, I don’t think it’s going to help anyone for you do to an exhaustive research study to find the reason for the fear, because all they’ll do with that is turn themselves into victims of the ‘neurosis of the day’ and it won’t change a thing. Then they’ll turn you into another frigging expert, putting yourself above people with your superior knowledge of the situation.”

Justin looked horrified. “That’s the last thing I would want to do.”

“I know, I know,” Shelby said gently, “But apparently it’s pretty easy to fall into that trap, so stop worrying about not having all the knowledge that exists in the known universe and trust your instincts a little more.”

“Okay,” Justin replied, though still in doubt.

“We’ll sort this out. I don’t know what we’re going to do with it, but I sense—I sense echoes of something—like some kind of theme to all this—maybe it will turn out to be poetry, or maybe you’ll write some kind of book—but for now, we’ll just keep talking and see where it leads us.”

Justin felt better and walked over to give Shelby a friendly little hug.

*****

During one all night session on the deck Shelby’s father came through the back door, his bearded, bespectacled face smiling as always, carrying a tray with two steaming, earthen mugs.

“I brought you guys some Chamomile-Lotus tea,” he smilingly explained.

“Er, thank you,” said Justin, who took a sniff and felt as if allergies might be coming on.

“Thanks, Pop,” smiled Shelby.

Smiling and commenting on the wonderful weather they were having, he departed and Justin poured his tea into a planter filled with dirt. Shelby used her cup as an ashtray.

“You know, you’ve never told me your life history,” Justin remarked, thinking of her smiling father.

Shelby took a drag, blew out the smoke and said, “I was born a compromise.”

“What?”

“I was born a compromise. My dad likes Shelley, my mom Byron, hence Shel-by,” she responded.

“Ah, so now you’re going to tell me how your entire life has been a compromise and how you’ve had to struggle with this unfair disadvantage,” commented Justin in mock-seriousness.

“Of course! I have been so . . . wounded by it all,” Shelby smiled.

“So tell me how you’ve managed to overcome such abuse,” Justin suggested.

“Ah, well, I guess it does start with the parental units. You may have noticed they’re what people call ‘free spirits’ or at least that’s how they like to think of themselves. Their nomad days are over and they’ve settled into their own compromise with capitalism—my dad with his music store and my mom with her jewelry business. Anyway, they wanted to give my brothers and me lots of freedom growing up, and so they treated us more like members of the commune than kids. My brothers are both gone now; Paul is following his wanderlust and the last we heard he was headed for Nepal. Dylan went to Humboldt State in Northern California and stayed there; I’m not sure what he does for a living, so maybe he’s a pot grower, maybe he’s plotting an eco-revolution, I don’t know. I was the baby of the family and there’s a huge age gap between my brothers and me.

“Anyway, with parents like mine—so out of what was then the mainstream—I was exposed to lots of things that other kids didn’t get to experience, and vice versa, I guess. My mom almost had a coronary when I told her I wanted to be a Brownie. I spent my summers camping in Europe, hiking in the Andes, living on an Ashram, all the stereotypical New Age hippie things. Maybe it came from their conditioning, but they always told me to never trust authority, which was a huge rallying cry in The Sixties. They love it when I tell them they’re full of it, which is kind of a downer—I never got to rebel against my parents like other kids. And I have to admit they were right about authority. Most authority is just a person saying so, like who the hell made you God.

“So here I am and I’d say at this point in my life, it’s a good time to find myself in learning mode, don’t you think? After college, I’ll probably just follow my instincts and do what seems interesting at the time. Something will come up and poof—I’ll go follow that—and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll do something else.”

Justin reflected on what she said, and responded, “You and I are so different.”

“You think?”

“Yeah—my life has been so—I don’t know—conventional, boring, burby. Planned.”

Shelby shrugged her shoulders. “We’re all thrown into it one way or another, I guess.”

“Yeah, but I wish I’d done more, had more experience.”

“Oh, Justin, sca-rew it. Regrets are such a huge energy suck,” Shelby said with finality. “We all come from different places and spaces, and whether you’re born a rich kid or an average kid or a weird kid or even an abused kid, it’s always time to move on and figure out what’s next.”

Shelby said this with a weary certainty far beyond her years, and Justin concluded it was probably good advice. They sat in silence for a while, then again went inside to deposit their cups in the kitchen sink before heading off to sleep.

*****

Back in the present moment, as he floated drowsily through memory and thought, he felt deep regret that Shelby wasn’t around, energy suck be damned. She had followed her damned instincts to spend the summer on the underside of the planet, an intern on a research team studying one of the indigenous peoples of Paraguay, out of the range of the global communications grid.

For a minute, he allowed himself to hate Paraguay. “Paraguay, piss-ass, prick-filled, picayune Paraguay,” he said aloud, spitting out the P’s. This gave him some comfort as he fell into a half-sleep, where he had visions of the American Army paratrooping into Paraguay and rescuing Shelby, quickly followed by a brief scene where he was signing a contract to become the creative consultant for the inevitable made-for-TV movie.

With that out of his system, Justin felt genuinely sleepy. He thought of going to his room but didn’t feel much like getting up, so he turned back on his tummy and fell sound asleep.

A couple of hours later he sensed alarm. The impressions causing the alarm were coming from somewhere in his body, but his body seemed disconnected from his brain. He tried to concentrate on the impressions and realized that what he was feeling was a series of blows to his left side.

“Hey—hey—asshole—hey—get up—hey—asshole.” It sounded like Matthias. Justin tried to ignore him.

Matthias kicked him again. “Hey—asshole—rise and shine.”

Justin mustered some resistance. “Stop kicking me,” he whined. Then he closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep.

Matthias kicked him again. “Then wake up, loverboy.”

“What do you want?” Justin cried, turning over on his back and looking at his attacker. Matthias was grinning at him, like he was having a pretty good time. A memory of Matthias playing a one-person shooter appeared in Justin’s mind, how he would shout with almost every kill, “You dead, sucka!”

Matthias kicked him again.

“Telephone.”

“Who is it?”

“Some babe,” said Matthias as he disappeared down the hall.

Justin got up on his knees and sort of crawled over to the only landline phone in the apartment, an old touch-tone slimline somebody’s parents had lying around.

Justin ironed his face with his hand, found the right end of the receiver and said, “Hello?”

“Justin, come get me. I’m at Sea-Tac, lower level, outside American.”

“What?” There was no response, as the other party had ended the call.

With a rush of excitement, his memory bank confirmed that the voice was Shelby’s.

*****

He rushed into Matthias’ room and got Matthias to lend him his car in exchange for two weeks of bathroom cleaning. Justin didn’t bother to re-dress, but did remember to wash his face and brush his teeth to avoid appearing totally insensitive. He jumped in the car and headed for the freeway, hoping there wasn’t any construction going on to screw up the Sunday morning drive.

As he drove down 405 he thought about the last time he’d seen Shelby, which was right before graduation. Their paths had diverged after that summer, with Justin withdrawing into the mechanical life of survival and both of them pursuing different majors (he Economics, she Anthropology). They still met for coffee on occasion, but Justin’s responsibilities as a man of the world made him less accessible and the conversations more boring. He didn’t think about the big picture as much, because his world had become so small. Shelby would occasionally look at him with a curious smirk on her strawberry face, but never commented directly on the new version of Justin.

She broached the subject only once, right before graduation. They met in a laptop-clicking coffee house on Capitol Hill around the corner from the retro clothing shop where Shelby had found part-time employment. After a perfunctory hug, they did the perfunctory catching up, sounding dull and ordinary in the process. There was none of the passion of the summer nights of conversation, which seemed so long ago.

Shelby took his hand and played with his fingers.

“Things didn’t go like you thought they would,” she said.

“Yeah,” he agreed, with discomfort.

“And that was a bad thing?” she asked.

Justin was about to answer, “Hell yes,” but he stopped himself because he realized he didn’t know why what happened was a bad thing. His mind went off on a quick review of the past two years and he realized that maybe things didn’t have to be so bad after all. What changed him? Why did he become so completely consumed with the problem of survival?

Shelby waited patiently while Justin played inside a trance. She had seen it before on the deck behind her parents’ house. Finally he looked at her like she’d just beamed in from the starship.

She aped the stupid look on his face and laughed. Then she planted a little kiss on his cheek and got up to leave. “Read the card,” she said, handing him a small cream-colored envelope and dashing out the door.

Justin was astonished by her sudden disappearance and just sat there fiddling with the envelope. Finally he opened it and read the following:

Landed a gig with a research team. Off to the malarial jungles of Paraguay. Take care, and when you land somewhere, leave your number with the parental units.S

Although Justin had not seen much of Shelby lately, he felt sad reading the card, sad that she was going so far away. He swallowed the rest of his drip and trudged back to the apartment. He threw the card in a pile of stuff that he’d designated for moving and started studying for a final.

He had forgotten about the card until he had unpacked his belongings in Bellevue and the card slipped out on the floor. Still the same person who had followed Shelby to their first rendezvous without knowing why, he called her parents and gave them his new phone number.

Now it was all about to pay off.

*****

Since there wasn’t much activity at the airport on Sunday morning, he had no problem finding Shelby, who was leaning against a post outside of baggage claim, smoking a cigarette next to a No-Smoking sign. He was so excited to see her that he even surprised himself with what happened next.

He got out of the car, walked right up to her and kissed her deeply and passionately, as if inside her was the life force that would satisfy the unknown hunger in his soul.

When Justin was all kissed out, he stepped back and saw that Shelby had an unfamiliar look of breathless astonishment on her face. Then her expression changed to something like a frown. Finally, she spoke.

“Justin, we don’t have time for this shit,” she said firmly. And with that she picked up a big green sack, threw it in the back seat and climbed into the car.

17-Capitol Hill

Passage: The Great Idea

They jumped into the Beetle and sputtered over to Capitol Hill. On the way Justin told Shelby more about life at Mega Software. She laughed in pain with him. “Jesus—that sounds awful. I wonder how those people got so damaged.”

“I don’t know and I really don’t care. Try to imagine living your whole life like that.”

“Sounds like S&M without the fun.”

“Yeah, but you wouldn’t want to see any of those people in leather.”

Shelby found a back-in spot on Tenth Avenue and they stumbled over to Caffé Vita. After waiting in line without complaint for two perfectly-executed cappuccinos, they decided to sit downstairs where their conversation wouldn’t disturb the laptop geeks who always seemed to fill the upstairs seating area.

Shelby picked up where she left off.

“It’s hard to describe—something was definitely going on inside. I knew only one thing for sure—I was finally done with learning mode, at least in the traditional sense. And I think the experience on the plane convinced me that what I’d learned in college had been pretty much a waste anyway, so to hell with learning. I wanted to do something!

“Anyway, I don’t know if I ever told you, but when I’m ready to go through major changes, I get this incredible urge to sleep, like my dreams are pulling me inside, demanding that I pay attention. I had tons of dreams in BA. I don’t remember most of them, but there was one that finally cleared the fog from my head.

“It was you and me. We were out on the deck like we used to be but we were surrounded by a film crew—I don’t know why. We were just talking as always, and they’d move in for close-ups on our faces like what we were saying was like the most monumental pronouncements imaginable. Then somehow it became more of an interview format, and I was interviewing you. At first I didn’t know what I was interviewing you about, but I hung in there, confident and smiling, just like those bimbos on the morning shows.”

“How did I do?” Justin asked.

“You sucked,” Shelby laughed.

“Not surprised,” Justin smiled. “Couldn’t even imagine it in a dream.”

“But the dream got me thinking about seeing myself as someone who right now would be impossible for me or for anyone I know to imagine. I liked that.”

“So . . . you’re going to launch a career in broadcast journalism,” Justin snickered.

Years later he would still remember the look that appeared on her face when she looked up from her coffee. Only one word could describe that look: wicked.

“No. Something much better,” Shelby smiled. A wicked smile.

Justin felt himself getting curiously tense. “What?” he said.

“You’re part of it, too,” she smiled.

Justin was now even more uncomfortable, and said nothing.

“Ready?”

Justin took the plunge. “Okay—what?”

“You and I are going to be the founders of a new world religion.”

“What the hell?”

“You and I are going to be the founders of a new world religion,” repeated Shelby, and Justin could tell she was unusually serious.

“What—come on—this is—don’t bullshit me—what the—what?” Justin sputtered.

Justin’s sputtering did not cause Shelby’s blue-green eyes to waver one inch. “I am very serious. We can do this. We must do this.”

Justin was now speechless, but could not tell if he was astonished, frightened or somewhere in between.

“And it was your idea, anyway,” Shelby taunted him.

“My idea? When the hell did I ever say anything like that?”

“On the deck during one of our evening tête-à-têtes that summer,” Shelby responded.

Justin searched his memory banks and came up all zeros. “If I did, so what? It’s the dumbest damned idea I’ve ever heard and I’ll fully admit that I’m capable of dumb-ass ideas.”

“It was a great idea,” Shelby smiled, once again, wickedly.

“How—what—come on, Shelby, get real!” Justin nearly shouted, sensing she was indeed serious.

Shelby narrowed her eyes. “Justin, I have had a moment of clarity. Will you please let me have my moment of clarity?”

“Oh, well, excuse the hell out of me for pissing on your clarity, but for Christ’s sake, this is insane!”

“Why?”

“Why? Why? In the first place, who the hell are we to start a religion? We’re nothing special. We didn’t have virgin births. We weren’t visited by angels and we haven’t sat under a tree for forty-nine days—what do you mean why?”

In the face of the storm, Shelby remained calm. “So, let me see if I’ve heard you correctly. I’m nuts because we weren’t ordained or inspired by a higher power, and therefore, we cannot possibly have any extraordinary wisdom to impart to humanity,” she paraphrased.

“Well, yeah,” he said lamely, then recovered. “We’re two kids, barely out of college, our combined life wisdom wouldn’t fill this espresso cup—hell yes, you’re nuts!” he concluded.

Shelby took a sip and a quick breath. “May I respond?” Shelby asked politely.

“Certainly,” said Justin, with a gracious sweep of his hand.

“Let me begin with the ‘we’re too young’ argument. In case you haven’t noticed, nearly everything that has had a social impact in the last fifty years has been initiated by people who were too young, mainly people in their twenties. Think of Elvis, the Beatles, the Sixties protesters, Woodward & Bernstein, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, those guys at Google, all the losers who are somehow making a big splash today. America is always looking for something new, always rushing to the next big thing—and it doesn’t matter if it’s any good or not. Our generation is uniquely qualified for this mission because we don’t know shit and we don’t let that stop us!”

Justin wasn’t entirely sure about the complete accuracy of her argument, but had to admit that his objection based on youth had been effectively overruled.

“Second, let’s look at the idea that a religion’s founder has to be special, divine or enlightened. How do we know that all that wasn’t just self-promotion or the marketing tactics used by followers to give the movement some credibility with the stupid? We hear all the time how this new singer or actress is a legend after one crappy CD or one lousy movie. It’s all marketing, Justin. Mar-ke-ting!” She paused and took another sip. “And that means we’re perfect for this. We’re Americans—it’s in the blood!”

Justin’s emotional state was now somewhere between frightened and paralyzed. Shelby had obviously given this a lot of thought and what she said had a certain logic to it. He still thought the idea was silly but was no longer sure as to why he felt that way.

Shelby told him why. “Justin, the reason why you’re giving me all this pushback is that it sounds pompous, grandiose, overblown and egomaniacal. It sounds too much like the self-interest that you believe is causing all the insanity in the world.” Shelby took a sip of coffee and continued. “And you’re afraid that if you actually do something about the state of the world, you’d be exposed as someone acting out of self-interest and you’d be nothing more than a hypocrite. And that’s why you haven’t been able to figure out what you want to do in life—you’re paralyzed by this fear that doing something means you’re a player and being a player means you’re a narcissistic, celebrity-seeking jerk. Well, you don’t need to let other people’s perceptions define you—get some balls!”

Justin tried another line of reasoning.

“Can’t we do something else to make a difference? Join the Red Cross and help those people down in New Orleans? Join one of those groups trying to save the rainforests? Something smaller, more . . . manageable?” He was almost pleading when he said this, and he heard the plaintive note in his voice with something like anguish.

Shelby remained calm and focused. “Sure we can. But that’s not what you think about. You think about the world at large. You think big picture. You don’t want to make a difference in Seattle—you want to change the whole world. Since you’re too young to run for President and you have no qualifications to be the UN Secretary-General, what are you going to do with this thing you’ve been brooding about for years?”

“Wait a minute. What about you? You told me you couldn’t get your itty bitty brain around the concept of ‘world problems’ and now you’re talking about turning us into a pair of lame-ass messiahs or something.”

Shelby chose to ignore the sarcasm and respond to point number one. “One good thing about being young, Justin, is that we change. I may not be able to get my head around world problems as well as you do, but I know in my heart that this is what I want to do. I’m not sure why—I know what I don’t want more than I know what I want. I don’t want to be a junior research assistant. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life living in the provinces with my Swinging Sixties parents. And I don’t want to find some stupid job like yours and spend the rest of my life in that weird, neurotic survival thing people get stuck doing. I want to do this and you’ll just have to trust me because I can’t explain exactly why.”

Any hope that Justin had that Shelby was no longer Shelby had now been crushed. This was Shelby, but it was—dare he think it—an enlightened Shelby, a Shelby who had resolved the conflicts and found an answer. Justin felt a little envious that he hadn’t been able to come up with anything, and he had to admit, this was something. As crazy as the idea sounded, he felt a crazy kind of hope welling up inside. Perhaps it was time to take a risk. Still, it was a scary thing and Justin had never been much of a leaper.

“Let me think about it,” he finally sighed.

“You’re blowing me off, you bastard!” Shelby accused.

Justin shook his head. “No, this isn’t a blow-off. Give me a couple of days to get my head around it.”

Shelby relaxed and smiled. “I’ll be around! The world and its problems aren’t going anywhere either.”

They finished their now cold coffee and left the café so Shelby could have a cigarette. They stood out on the wet street in a suspended silence, then Shelby drove Justin to Bellevue without Justin having to make the request.

“You want to come in and see how the other half live?” Justin asked, getting out of the car in front of the designed-for-the-upscale apartment building.

“Not today, thanks.”

“Okay, I’ll call you in a couple of days.”

“Groovy, dude,” Shelby responded, and sputtered off.

Concept of love and coffee

Shelby has convinced a reluctant Justin to meet her in Vancouver to sketch out the philosophy of the new religion.

Chapter 7: Unity

Scene: A dingy hotel room off the beaten track in Vancouver, B. C. The room is lit by a 40-watt fluorescent lamp and an ancient 19-inch television tuned to a French station. The bedspread is faded autumn flowers; the nightstand plastic veneer over plywood with a small dresser to match. A small rickety desk in yellowed paint supports the lamp. On the desk is a pile of assorted items: a couple of worn sweaters, packs of cigarettes and a black spiral notebook.

Enter Shelby, followed closely by Justin. They are twenty-somethings who could be mistaken for American backpackers on a budget. Shelby wears a blue wool cap over her dark hair, her body housed in a petite frame supporting breasts larger than the baggy sweater reveals. Justin is taller, with sandy hair, a lean physique and a slight stoop. His eyes are dark chocolate; hers aquamarine. Shelby flips off her hat, musses up her hair and takes a quick look around the room.

Shelby: Welcome to paradise.

Justin: I hope they have a frequent guest program.

Shelby: Let me check. (She moves over to the phone on the nightstand and picks up the receiver.) Oops—no dial tone. I’ll have to speak to the concierge.

Justin: Please do. (He points to a blue duffel bag he is carrying.) Which drawer’s mine?

Shelby: Just toss it somewhere for now. We have work to do. (She lights the second lamp on the nightstand, which flickers a few seconds before finally agreeing to provide a dry purple light.) How’s that?

Justin: Let’s try the drapes. (He moves over to the window, draped in curtains of an indescribable color somewhere between brown and green. After some struggle, he manages to pry the drapes open and let in the dim gray light of a cloudy day.) Guess it’s going to have to do.

Shelby: Good. Let’s get down to business. (She moves over to the desk pile, grabs the notebook and flops down on the bed, which gives a squeaky bounce in response.)

Justin: Sounds good. (He turns off the television, looks around for a place to rest his body and rejects the adjustable office chair shoved under the desk as too much of a risk. Instead, he stretches out on the floor in front of the window.)

Shelby: (Flipping through the notebook.) Where are my notes? Ah, here we are. So, this is what we have to do in the most basic terms. First, we have to create the word; second, we have to get the word out.

Justin: Sounds about right.

Shelby: Let’s focus on step one and not worry about the other right now.

Justin: I’m with you.

Shelby: Did you bring something to write on?

Justin: I have my laptop. (He crawls over to the duffel bag and takes out a 12-inch Apple iBook, then slides back to his previous spot and hits the power button. We hear the familiar chime.)

Shelby: Okay. Now, I’ve been doing some thinking on this. Whatever we create as “the word” has to address two issues: first, the major problems facing the world today—the problems we need to solve—and second, we have to answer the question as to why the religions we have now can’t solve those problems.

Justin: I’m impressed.

Shelby: Thank you.

Justin: But let me get something straight. When you talk about “the word,” what are we talking about? A new Bible?

Shelby: Well, in a way, but I don’t think modern attention spans are capable of slogging through something that long and dull. We have to keep it short, simple and to the point.

Justin: Sound bytes? Bullet points?

Shelby: More like poetry, maybe—not as obscure, because we need to be understood. Few words, lots of punch. If we can get it all on one page, even better.

Justin: Okay. So what was the first question?

Shelby: What are the major problems facing the world today? What’s causing all the grief?

Justin: You want me to start?

Shelby: Let’s just brainstorm. You write it down. (JUSTIN positions his fingers on the keyboard. The following dialogue is conducted over the sound of rapid keyboard clicks.)

Justin: Self-interest leading to self-destruction. People not taking responsibility for anything. Avoiding truth, burying truth, distorting truth in the name of self-protection.

Shelby: Environmental destruction. Inequality, racism, sexism, the existence of isms in the first place. Cultural conflict; cultural destruction. Political correctness. Indifference.

Justin: Evil. The existence of evil. People killing each other despite all the evidence that it doesn’t solve a damn thing.

Shelby: Harming the innocent. Power trips. People believing they’re above any kind of . . . I don’t know, consequence? Effect? I don’t want to say “punishment,” but it’s that kind of thing. People think they can get away with screwing everyone else.

Justin: Religion itself. The hatred caused by religion. The people who use religion to justify cruelty.

Shelby: Corruption. Maybe that gets back to self-interest, but put it down anyway. Greed, too.

Justin: People thinking their way is the only way. That’s religion, for sure, but it’s also the same in politics, at work, in relationships.

Shelby: On the religion theme, the fear of death. They really exploit that angle. And all the weird modern responses to death.

Justin: Like?

Shelby: You know—health-mania, plastic surgery, all the denial about aging.

Justin: Okay. Time itself—or the way time happens to us now. It seems like people have no time to think or reflect. My parents were always doing something, going somewhere, taking care of things that really weren’t all that important and never seemed to have time for anything else—you know, the demands of modern life and all that—and dragging their kids into the same mindset.

Shelby: Hmm. Put it down, but I’m wondering if that kind of thing is universal enough to put into a religion . . . too Western World . . . never mind, sorry, let’s just keep going and we’ll sort it out later.

Justin: Your turn.

Shelby: Taking turns, are we? Really, Justin.

Justin: Okay, call me an anal wank.

Shelby: Prisons, crime, punishment, lawyers, pedophiles, rapists—the whole system seems out of whack about what to do with people who are out of whack.

Justin: Economics.

Shelby: What about economics?

Justin: The economic system—it seems to feed on itself, like it’s out of control. We’re controlled by the system that controls our survival and we all become victims. Capitalistic bullshit. Socialistic bullshit. Governmental bullshit.

Shelby: Wait—the victim thing. People pretending to be victims screwing real victims out of any help or compassion. You know, we’re so sick of victims we don’t want to help anybody—that kind of thing. Victim-hatred.

Justin: Catchy. You should go into op-ed.

Shelby: Sca-rew you, buddy. Go on.

Justin: I don’t know how to put this into words—people thinking they know everything and that they have all the answers and they don’t have anything to learn.

Shelby: They don’t want to look stupid or open up new possibilities that could rock their worlds.

Justin: That makes me think of families. The whole family thing is loaded with expectations that seem to get in the way of any kind of togetherness.

Shelby: Well, on a larger scale, how about organizations—big organizations like your dumb ass software company? That’s a huge problem—these large institutions—kind of like what you said about the economy—creating victims, powerlessness.

Justin: I’ll put it down.

Shelby: And what about technology? I mean, it’s the people who use technology to make bombs and viruses and spam that are really at fault, but I don’t think anyone has a handle on the problem. It just mushrooms and then we have a new set of problems we didn’t have before.

Justin: (Click, click, click, click.) Under technology, I want to work in the point that it hasn’t really helped us reduce the workload. It’s created more busy work, more mindless work. Hold on a minute and let me write down “self-destructiveness” as a note under “self-interest.” It’s sort of a circular thing—self-interest leading to self-destruction. Oh, and let’s not forget the evils of science—cloning, nuclear weapons, all that stuff. (He finishes editing and looks up.) Go.

Shelby: SUV’s.

Justin: What?

Shelby: You know, SUV’s. People pissing away resources they don’t have just so they can feel like they’re above everyone else, pun intended.

Justin: (Not writing.) I think that’s awfully narrow for a religious text.

Shelby: Yeah, okay—just put in the part about pissing away resources.

Justin: Yo.

Shelby: You got anything else?

Justin: Well, there’s the media.

Shelby: Put them down. May be a subset, but yeah, put them down. Put down the whole system of human communication—we have more of it, but less understanding.

Justin: Which reminds me. Mass mediocrity.

Shelby: Oh yeah. That’s big.

Justin: What else?

Shelby: Sex. People think more about sex than anything else other than money, so we should probably say something about it.

Justin: Complicated topic. On one hand, it’s become a commodity; with the gay marriage thing it’s become political. It’s less about intimacy than showing off—you know, people imitating porn stars. I’ll put it down—we can deal with the details later. What else?

Shelby: (After a period of silence.) I don’t know if we have it all covered, but it’s a hell of a start. My brain seems to have clicked off.

Justin: Wait. One more thing. Children.

Shelby: What about them?

Justin: I don’t know. I ran into a guy the other day on my way to your place—he was lost, looking for I-5. Anyway, he had his baby daughter with him—and she was so—jovial.

Shelby: In contrast to adults, who tend to be so—constipated.

Justin: Something like that. (Types something very quickly.) Okay, that’ll do for now. Now I’ll save this . . . done.

Shelby: (Gets up off the bed and removes a pair of worn blue jeans, exposing a bare backside.) Let’s fuck.

Justin: (Stunned, sits up straight.) What?

Shelby: Let’s fuck. Let’s get close. Let’s make love. Let’s do it! (Removes her sweater, exposing a braless top.)

Justin: But . . . we’ve never done that before.

Shelby: Justin, don’t tell me you’re a virgin!

Justin: (Reddening.) No! Come on! I’m just . . . surprised.

Shelby: (Noticing that Justin has been averting his eyes but sneaking in a peak every now and then.) You want to, don’t you?

Justin: (Reluctantly looking into her eyes.) Yeah. Yeah, I do.

Shelby: Then come fuck me. (Justin stands up, moves to Shelby’s naked body and gently follows the outline of her figure with his hands while looking into her eyes.)

Justin: You’re beautiful.

Shelby: So are you. (She pulls his head down to her lips and kisses him.)

Justin: (Pulling back after a long kiss.) Uh oh.

Shelby: What?

Justin: No condoms.

Shelby: (Pulling him closer.) Are you safe?

Justin: Of course.

Shelby: Well, let’s hope The Pill works. The odds are with us. (Unbuttons his shirt.)

Justin: Let’s hope so. (His voice trails away as she covers his chest with kisses.)

Shelby: (Between gasps). Let’s lose the lights. It’s like a hospital in here. (She falls on the bed and takes care of the nightstand lamp while Justin switches off the desk lamp and shuts the drapes. Fade scene as Justin unbuttons his pants, his eyes focused on the sprawled figure of Shelby undulating gently on the bedspread to the sound of squeaky bedsprings that neither of them seem to notice.)

11-Cubes

Justin returns from the energizing experience of Vancouver to the dreary dullness of his job at Mega Software.

Chapter 9: Freedom

When they had cleared the Vancouver city limits, Shelby said exactly what was on Justin’s mind.

“Man, I hate to leave. Wish we could have stayed longer.”

“Me, too, but the irresistible lure of another exciting day at Mega Software was just too much for me.”

“Yeah, that reminds me. I’ve pretty much run through my savings account and I need to start looking—fast.”

“Want me to put in a good word for you at Mega?”

“Thanks, but no thanks. I prefer small and nimble to big and stupid. You should get out of there, you know.”

Justin sighed, “Yeah, I should—but let’s get this religion thing behind us first. Looking for a job is a major time suck.”

“Sounds like a plan,” said Shelby, as she hit the power button on a CD player that was wedged between the emergency brake and the passenger seat.

“Is this the new Oasis?”

“Yeah—it’s fabulous!”

“What’s it called?”

Don’t Believe the Truth,” Shelby reported.

Justin laughed. “Love the title and I agree with it completely.”

Leaving Shelby to sing along with her favorite band, Justin turned the weekend over in his mind. What dominated his review was not planting the seeds for a new mass movement, but the amazing feeling of being inside Shelby for the first time. Despite his humble attitude, Justin was just as horny as any other man his age and was not in the least bit averse to casual sex. However, the other times he had made love had all been somewhat disappointing in the end. Sometimes the girls would close their eyes or look up to the heavens, as if they wanted to avoid the whole thing. Other girls talked soft porn the entire time as if they were on a movie set. Shelby kept her blue-green eyes focused on him the entire time, through every move and shudder. The few words she spoke were real and deeply felt. Justin had never felt so alive in his body and soul as he did inside her. Although he was careful to repress any expectations, he decided it was okay to have a little hope, and he hoped with all his heart he could feel that again.

He leaned sideways in the seat to hide the growing erection and cleared his head to review progress on the religious front. He thought they had made a start; he was certainly clearer about things than he was before the trip. When he looked ahead to writing whatever it was that would become the foundation of the faith, he felt unusually confident that he could accomplish it alone, without Shelby around to inspire him. Justin heard her closing message as the classic pat on the butt the coach gives before sending a player into the game and he wanted to show her that he could thrive in empty space as well as she could. His habitual self-doubt had temporarily gone into remission.

At the border, the customs agents had them pull over, which Shelby expected due to the hippie vibes generated by her Beetle. After they were satisfied that the passengers were not shuttling illegal substances across the border, they were allowed to proceed into the U. S. A.

After a brief stop in Bellingham for a bite to eat and coffee, they made good time the rest of the way and no plans to see each other again.

“Let me know when you’ve got something for me to look at,” Shelby said as he climbed out of the Beetle.

“Will do,” said Justin, and started down the pathway to his apartment with long, confident strides.

*****

Upon his arrival, he found a note from Matthias on his bedroom door. “East Coast conference call—gotta be there at 7.” Justin groaned, for he never looked forward to another day at Mega Software, especially a long one. “I need to get that car,” thought Justin.

So Justin arrived early at Mega Software and found that his security badge wouldn’t open the door to his building. Luckily, one of his cubicle mates showed up at about the same time and let him in.

“Must be a bug in the software,” joked his cubicle mate, whose name Justin never bothered to learn.

Justin laughed politely and entered the building.

He arrived at his cubicle with the feeling of having entered a minimum-security prison. Tossing his bag on the extension above his single file cabinet, he fired up his computer. Even though he was in no hurry to work, the slowness of the startup process always drove him bonkers. “Come on, come on, dammit,” he said, as he had said every morning since day one. Finally the logon screen emerged from the darkness.

He entered his user name and password and received the following message: Logon failure.

“Turn off the caps lock, dummy.” He tried again: Logon failure.

“What the hell?” One more time: Logon failure.

Now he was locked out. “What the hell is the matter with this thing?” Justin grumbled.

As he sat there staring at the screen, Brenda appeared through the cubicle opening.

“Justin! You scared the hell out of me! What are you doing here?” gasped Brenda, her hand appropriately stuck to her chest.

“I had to come in early because my ride had an early conference call,” Justin explained, wondering why he had to explain.

Brenda looked completely flustered and stood there for a few moments, looking like her system had crashed. “Wait here—don’t go anywhere.”

“Sure—but I’m locked out of my computer, so I can’t—”

“Just stay where you are!” Brenda said with some force. She turned and zipped down the aisle.

“Well, this is weird,” Justin muttered to himself. Not knowing what to do with himself, but feeling a strange sense of alarm, he thought he’d try the computer one more time.

Nothing.

But by that time, Brenda had returned, somewhat out of breath.

“Justin, come with me.”

Justin got up and asked, “Where are we going?”

“My office.”

Justin followed Brenda through the maze of cubicles to her office, where it was his turn to experience surprise when he discovered that they would not be meeting alone. A woman in a not-particularly-well-tailored navy pants suit was sitting in one of Brenda’s two guest chairs. When Brenda had closed the door, the woman popped up out of her seat and said, with a bouncy smile borrowed from teeth whitening commercials:

“Hi, Justin, I’m Wendy, your HR Business Partner.”

Justin didn’t know why he needed an HR Business Partner, but he shook her hand and said, “Hi.”

Brenda had seated herself on the other side of her pile-covered desk and looked at Wendy. Wendy looked at Brenda. Brenda raised her eyebrows. Wendy looked confused.

“Do you want to start?” Brenda said with noticeable irritation.

“Oh! Sure!” Wendy said. She turned to Justin and her nondescript face went through a magical transformation from peppy to grave concern. Justin’s immediate reaction was that he did not like this person and he liked her even less when she began speaking in a high-pitched nasal whine.

“Justin, as you know, if Mega Software is going to remain competitive, we have to constantly make sure that our strategy is in perfect alignment with the marketplace, okay?”

Justin wasn’t sure if she was asking for his approval of Mega Software’s approach to business or if it was just her way of ending a sentence. He guessed the latter, chose not to answer and waited for more information.

“So in order to remain competitive, today we are announcing a realignment of some of our business units, okay? This global restructuring is designed to rationalize our human capital and make sure that the needs of our clients are met at the same time, okay?”

Justin had no idea what this woman was talking about. He heard the “remain competitive” tagline and thought she was talking about a different company—certainly not the virtual monopoly who served as his employer. He was also getting irritated by the “okays,” delivered on a rising pitch with the second note sounding like fingernails on a blackboard.

“So, I’m sorry to have to tell you that your position is one of the positions impacted by the rightsizing of our human capital, okay?”

Justin turned her words over in his mind while Brenda sat on the edge of her seat, chewing her nails. “Let’s see. Human capital . . . is that me? Restructuring . . . realignment . . . rightsizing. Hmm . . . my position.” Then he remembered his frozen PC and put it all together.

“Are you saying that I’ve been laid off?” he asked Wendy.

“No, no, I’m not saying that at all, okay? A layoff means that you might be called back and Mega Software does not anticipate that occurrence happening, okay?”

“But you’re saying that I don’t have a job,” Justin responded.

“What I’m saying is that your position has been eliminated as a part of this restructuring and, unfortunately, there are no positions that match your skills that are available at this time, okay?” Wendy whined.

Justin was tempted to look behind him to see if Wendy was reading off cue cards or a teleprompter. He looked at Brenda, who looked away and started shuffling some papers.

Wendy charged ahead. “I have a packet here with the official announcement, your rights under COBRA, a booklet about unemployment insurance . . .”

So it was true! He was no longer an employee of Mega Software! His mind started racing a mile a minute trying to grasp what it meant to his life, his finances, his future, but an emotion from deep in his belly sped through his system like a freight train to quickly arrive at the part of his brain connected to his vocal cords.

“Yeah, baby!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. He stood up and shook hands with Brenda, shook hands with Wendy and started to walk out the door.

“Justin, wait! You can’t go alone, okay?” screamed Wendy.

“Why not?”

“For security reasons, I have to walk you out of the building, I have to collect your badge, I have to process you, okay?” Wendy said with fearful intensity.

Justin was about to argue that he was no security risk whatsoever, but since it was obviously important to Wendy that she process him, he opted for compliance.

“Process away,” he said gallantly, making a slight bow.

Wendy whined all the way through the voluminous paperwork. This included signing a waiver that said he would not sue the company in exchange for a few hundred dollars of severance pay. Justin yawned as Wendy went through a checklist and signed mechanically whenever she said, “I need you to sign here, okay?” His only motivation now was to hurry things up so he would never have to hear her nasally voice again. Finally, they arrived at the end of the paperwork.

“Now, give me your access card and I’ll escort you to your workspace so you can clean out your desk, okay? I have a box so you can pack up your personal effects, okay?” Wendy pulled an unmade box out from behind her seat, knocking Brenda’s desk piles to the floor. Justin wasn’t sure if he should help pick things up or if taking such action would be considered a breach of security, but he pitched in anyway.

“Um, I don’t need the box—I don’t have any personal effects. I just need to grab my backpack from my cubicle and I’ll be on my way.”

“Okay, but I’m going to need you to empty your backpack for security reasons, okay?”

Justin shrugged his shoulders. He was starting to get very annoyed with this sniveling little person, but he could put up with one more inconvenience, considering the payback. “Let’s rock, okay?” he said, imitating her unmusical whine. Brenda suppressed a laugh, but Wendy seemed to have missed the joke and whined, “Okay.”

They proceeded in single file to Justin’s cubicle where he unceremoniously dumped the contents of the backpack on the table. Wendy picked through the pile for a few minutes and then pronounced herself satisfied with the results of her inspection.

“Now let me walk you out, okay?” Wendy said.

“Sweet!” Justin replied.

Once he was past the doors and could breathe fresh air, he did a little dance and started walking through the vast complex to the nearest exit. On the bus ride home he made two decisions. He would not tell his parents because he did not want to deal with his father’s reaction. He would return to Vancouver immediately, without Shelby. The serious, responsible side of his personality tried to debate that decision, reminding him that his future income was likely to be limited to a very small unemployment check and that he would be better off devoting his energies to securing regular employment. Fortunately, his better instincts told him he had some time, plenty of room on his credit card and a chance to create something that might get him out of the employment scene forever. He did not want to waste this opportunity by thinking small, a sentiment that his father would have supported wholeheartedly.

So he hugged his backpack like a teddy bear, thinking, “Thank you, Mega Software,” and resolved to make a passionate leap into the great Unknown.

Justin and Shelby enlist their friends Theo and Emmy to launch the new religion, now called Ringing True. The launch is less than successful, as it turns into a sublime act of high comedy. After venting her embarrassed anger at Justin, Shelby introduces a new idea to get the religion off the ground.

Passage: Matthias

61-Matthias and Sidney

After Shelby had her fix, she asked Justin if he wanted to go get some lunch and he readily agreed, not having eaten anything but a day-old Krispy Kreme that morning. They walked down to one of the numerous breakfast-brunch places in Wallingford, put their names on the waiting list and passed the next twenty minutes standing in silence, watching mothers struggle with strollers and drivers struggle for parking on Wallingford’s car-filled streets. The healing process began in earnest once they had given their orders.

“We’re cool, right?” Shelby asked.

“Yeah, sure. We’re cool,” Justin responded with a half-smile.

“You know, if I didn’t feel so close to you, I never could have shown you that part of me.”

“Yeah, I know. Don’t worry about it. I just felt so bad for you, seeing you hurting like that.”

Shelby squirmed in her chair a little. “Okay, let’s move on. It’s still kind of fresh, you know.”

There was more silence, a little small talk about Shelby’s job, then more silence. Their food arrived and after answering the ritualistic “do you need anything else?” question in the negative, they thankfully dug into their meals.

“So! We really bombed yesterday,” Shelby remarked.

Justin stole a quick glance to verify her mood and saw she had lightened up considerably, so he went with that.

“The ultimate suck-ass performance of all time,” he agreed with a smile, slicing into Eggs Benedict. “What was I thinking?”

“I’ve never seen so many things go wrong in my life.”

“Everything except Emmy. Man, she hung in there, didn’t she?”

“Better than I would have in her place—but poor Theo!”

“You know—that was a stupid thing he did and all—but it was so Theo—so natural, just following his impulses—I couldn’t get mad at him—you know?”

“Yeah, I know—actually I was kind of relieved when it was over,” said Shelby, peeking over a black bean burger.

“Yeah,” said Justin, now starting to feel that yesterday’s disaster might not be the end of the world.

Shelby took a bite, washed it down with water and said, “Well, this may seem like a silly question, but did anything go right yesterday?”

“Other than Emmy?” Justin asked.

“Yeah.”

Justin reviewed the sequence of events and came up with a few positives. “I thought you did a great job getting people to settle down. Your voice was clear and had the sound of authority.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” replied Shelby.

“I thought the reading was going pretty well until—well, you know. I think we had their attention—but damn, it was so stupid to do the curtain thing—without it, we could have seen their reactions.”

“Did Emmy get the feedback sheets?”

“They are safely piled up on the floor of my room, still attached to their respective clipboards.”

Shelby opened up her burger and reached for some catsup. “Well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to take a look but we should pretty much assume that there won’t be anything particularly helpful there.”

Justin was surprised. “Why bother? Do you really think we should go ahead with this thing?”

Shelby took a sip of water and asked, “Do you?”

Justin sighed, “I don’t know. Before the event, I was allowing myself to believe that somehow this thing could magically take off—and then, boom, crash, back to reality. I feel a little silly now.”

Shelby considered what Justin said in silence while Justin shoved a few more bites in his mouth. When she had his attention, she gave him her perspective.

“Listen. The only thing we learned yesterday was that we don’t know shit about how to get the word out.”

Justin agreed that it was indeed a lesson learned.

Shelby leaned forward. “Justin, there is nothing wrong with the substance of what we have created. I still think it is beautiful and I believe that other people will feel the same if we give them a chance.”

Justin looked at her skeptically, in part out of his own sense of vulnerability. “And you don’t think that we’ll wind up looking silly?”

“Justin! Read your history! Every person who ever brought a new idea into the world looked silly at first. That’s all part of our programming—that nasty little voice telling you not to go for it because you’ll look silly. Sca-rew those voices, Justin—let’s look silly and let the world hump itself.”

Justin had to smile at the welcome return of Shelby’s energy.

“Okay, screw them. So what do you want to do?

A wicked little smile crossed Shelby’s face.

“You’re not going to like it.”

“Try me.”

“No, really—you are not going to like it.”

“Come on.”

Shelby leaned forward, pushing her plate to the side. “Okay. If we are going to make this thing fly, we are going to have to connect with somebody who knows how to get the word out.”

“Agreed. See—I like it so far.”

“And getting the word out in the 21st Century is a complicated thing. There’s a lot of competition for attention out there—advertisers, journalists, film directors, rock bands, politicians—all using multiple channels to spread their messages—TV, the Net, social networking—and so we need somebody who understands all that to make sure our voice is heard. It’s too much for people like you and me to ever get a handle on it.”

“Okay. I’m with you.”

Shelby leaned forward even further and said in a near-whisper, “We need to market this thing, Justin.”

Justin nodded, unsure where she was going.

“We need someone who understands mar-ke-ting.”

Justin finally got it and collapsed into his seat. “Oh, no,” he groaned.

“We need Matthias,” Shelby finished.

Justin stared off in the distance for a few minutes. He wanted to respond but also wanted to choose his words very carefully. Finally he hit on the right combination.

“But he’s such an asshole,” he moaned.

*****

No one who knew Matthias Bender would have argued with Justin’s opinion, not even Matthias himself. Confidently arrogant, a true egomaniac, the very definition of imperiousness, Matthias was responsible to himself and self only and he rather liked it that way. While capable of cooperation and an occasional act of kindness, those generous impulses were nearly always tactics to achieve a desired result, a result often hidden from those involved. Friends and acquaintances might scream at him, break into tears because of him, or threaten him with emotionally satisfying but unlikely-to-happen dire consequences in retaliation for his often appalling actions—but it all bounced off Matthias as if he were surrounded by a force field. He couldn’t care less what people thought of him, as long as he got what he wanted.

Like Justin, Matthias was an only child. Unlike Justin, who thought at times that it would have been nice to have a sibling for companionship, Matthias reveled in his favored status and eventually wound up dominating and terrorizing his parents. This was all the more impressive because his parents were no pansies themselves—his father was a successful venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, his mother a corporate attorney. They gave him everything he wanted (which was never enough) and made no attempt to rein in some of his socially undesirable tendencies, because they believed in their hearts that some day the investment in indulgence would pay off big time.

On the subject of college, his parents assumed he would be attending Princeton, Harvard or Yale; he defied them both and decided to study at the University of Washington. He chose Seattle because his intelligence gathering had informed him that Seattle was home to the most successful and despised companies in the world—companies that had cornered their markets and didn’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thought about them. He wanted to experience that environment first hand and opted to become a Husky majoring in Business, with an emphasis in Marketing.

The surprises did not end there. Although his parents offered to buy him a condo, Matthias told them he wanted to live in the dorms with the rest of the kids. Since they knew he did not care much for people and considered most people his age irritatingly inferior, they were stunned that he would refuse such a potentially lucrative investment. “I have my reasons,” he told them, and said no more. His parents tried once again to give him a condo upon graduation, and once again he declined, requesting that they fund a brokerage account instead. Justin’s explanation of the refusal was that, in his heart, Matthias was a terribly lonely person; Shelby opined that since Matthias didn’t have a heart, it was probably one small step in a very intricate scheme; and Theo concluded that Matthias wanted to continue the current arrangement because he loved bossing him around.

Shelby knew Matthias through Justin, having run into him at dorm parties or when she collected Justin for an outing. She found his never-ending performance monologue worthy of some study, but did not think about him at all when out of contact. She was therefore surprised and amused when Matthias asked her out during her junior year and actually laughed when she heard the question. “You don’t want to go out with me,” she smiled. “What do you really want?” Temporarily taken aback, he turned on his heels and walked away. She shouted after him, “You thought I was sleeping with Justin, didn’t you?” He did not turn around, but gave her the finger behind his back.

The incident never came up in Shelby’s conversations with Justin, largely because those conversations had become relatively rare during Justin’s period of self-survival. For his part, Justin tried to tune out Matthias, allowing him to perform his monologues without interruption and avoiding discussions about anything close to his own heart. However, tuning him out entirely was an impossibility, as Matthias’ energy filled the room and every available nook and cranny in it, demanding attention. Try as he might, Justin was unable to stop himself from forming judgments about Matthias, which were much more complex than the asshole label he had used with Shelby.

While Matthias was a thorough asshole, he could also be a charming asshole. While on one hand Justin felt disgust at his outrageous self-centeredness, another part of him had to laugh at the sheer audacity of the man. Matthias never ceased his efforts in self-promotion and did so in a way that showed quick wit and a remarkable sense of timing. Justin also noticed that certain kinds of women found him irresistibly attractive. Matthias was very striking, tall, perfectly postured and with a long flowing mane of light brown hair brushed straight back, like a hero out of the Crusades. However, Justin felt his appeal to the opposite sex had more to do with the extreme self-confidence he communicated in every word and in every move—a self-confidence that his young competitors lacked. These women sensed that he was going somewhere—he was perpetual motion, pushing his way past all obstacles with overwhelming force—and they wanted to go there with him. Justin chalked it up to the self-interest ethic pervading the culture and considered his conquests another sad commentary on human loneliness. Matthias would have found such an observation quaint, amusing and further indication of Justin’s inferiority.

Matthias constantly reminded Justin of his inferiority in both direct and subtle ways. Whenever Matthias was around, Justin often felt combative and edgy, for reasons he did not fully understand. Lacking that understanding and not particularly skilled at this form of combat, Justin’s responses to Matthias’ attacks consisted largely of emotional outbursts and poorly-executed rejoinders. Matthias was a master matador, his red cape a profoundly elusive target. The repeated frustration of falling in battle left Justin feeling more inadequate, more edgy and more likely to lose and lose again. Not being devious himself, he could not understand deviousness in another, leaving him at a severe disadvantage every time they locked horns.

Matthias put Justin in his place on the very day they met each other as dorm mates.

“And who do we have here?” Matthias smiled when Justin walked through the door under the weight of a backpack and suitcase, not bothering to get up from his bed.

“Justin. Justin Raines.”

“Never heard of you,” responded Matthias. “What do your parents do?”

Justin complied with the request.

Matthias sighed and shook his head. “So, your parents are stock option wannabes. Where are you from?”

“Chicago. Outside of Chicago.”

“The Second City. And outside of it, no less. How quaint,” Matthias said with an expression combining humor and disdain.

“And who the hell are you?” asked Justin, feeling a bit tired and testy.

Rather than respond, Matthias just stood up, smiled at Justin and walked out of the room.

A day later, when Justin met Theo, he asked him about this strange person he would have to live with for the next nine months.

“Oh, man, you don’t want to know,” was all Theo would say.

It was not a bad answer, for there were several Matthiases. In addition to Charming Matthias, there was Sadistic Matthias who cruelly zeroed in on a person’s weak spot until they screamed uncle. There was Onstage Matthias who spoke more like a bon vivant in an Oscar Wilde play. Finally, there was Entrepreneurial Matthias, who spoke in blunt, no-nonsense language while wheeling and dealing at cyberspeed.

Entrepreneurial Matthias made all the career choices and after college he decided that he wanted to observe the methods of world domination firsthand at Mega Software. As his father had little pull with that particular monolith, Matthias faced a formidable challenge securing a position due to the ingrained Washingtonian prejudice against know-it-alls from California. Relishing the fight, he networked and bullied his way past his small-minded opposition and landed in one of the company’s many marketing departments. When Justin offered halfhearted and insincere congratulations, Onstage Matthias responded, “Just a way station, my boy, just a way station—all part of The Grand Scheme.” Justin never bothered to probe Matthias as to what this Grand Scheme was all about, but suspected that The Grand Scheme was all smoke and mirrors and that Matthias was just winging it—but then again, you could never be sure with Matthias.

During the drives to and from Mega Software, Justin sat as a captive audience as Matthias shouted at brokers on his cell phone, made lunch dates with people he called “players” and threw a few crumbs of wisdom in Justin’s general direction. The theme connecting all the performances was “The Next Big Thing.” Matthias wasn’t sure what The Next Big Thing was, but Justin divined that it was somehow connected with The Grand Scheme and that Matthias wanted to be at the center of it.

“It won’t be coming from Mega Software, my friend. They’re dead, dinosaurs, out of it, ripe for the taking.”

“Idiot scientists have screwed up the whole biotech industry, the tedious, detail-oriented bastards. They say it’s The Next Big Thing—I say they’re wrong. You watch.”

“I have to admit I didn’t see the iPod coming—but it’s not The Next Big Thing. Not big enough.”

Justin neither agreed nor disagreed with Matthias’ pronouncements; he really didn’t care one way or another. While still vulnerable to becoming entrapped in losing battles, over time Justin learned to tune him out—most of the time. He put up with his greed, with his domineering ways, with his tendency to turn every conversation into a negotiation and tried let it go. Where Matthias was concerned, it was best to stay out of the way of his Grand Scheme, and let him have his Next Big Thing.

Now Shelby wanted Justin to turn his religion over to this asshole.

*****

“No.”

“Just talk to him, Justin.”

“No!”

“What can it hurt?”

Justin was getting exasperated. “It can’t hurt anything, because the whole idea is pointless. Having Matthias help us launch a religion is like asking the Dalai Lama to team up with Bin Laden. Oil and water. Good and evil.”

“But I think he can help us get—”

“Help us? How can one of the most self-indulgent people on earth help us broadcast a message of responsibility to others? How can a guy who would screw his parents out of their last nickel help us inspire people to create an economic system that doesn’t depend on power? And speaking of power—didn’t we say it was wrong for another person to have power over another in the text?”

“Without their permission, yes.”

“Well, Matthias wants power over everyone and everything. Come on, Shelby—Jesus!”

Shelby rested her head on her hand and drummed her fingers on the table. “You’re making this personal and this isn’t about personal,” she said with a touch of pique.

“No way—this is not personal, it’s logical.”

“But you don’t understand the logic of modern communication—you’ve admitted that yourself. Matthias does. Hold it!” Shelby said sharply, raising her hand to quiet Justin’s impending outburst. “I know what you’re going to say—that it’s all about manipulating people into wanting something they don’t really want or need. But let’s go back to what we said about power—it’s wrong unless people choose to give it up. You don’t think the average person today actually enjoys being manipulated? I do—I think they’ve learned to admire it. I think what they want is not to stop the manipulation, but figure out how the manipulator pulled it off so they can do it to others.”

“Oh, bullshit—that’s ridiculous!”

“And your black-and-white idealism about this isn’t ridiculous? Justin, quit being such a tight ass and realize that we need help! We need help! And it’s all about marketing, about getting people’s attention!”

“And you’re not worried that the message will get lost in whatever crap he comes up with?”

“We’ll be there to stop that from happening—we’ll be there, Justin.”

Whether he was tired or whether Shelby convinced him, Justin felt himself teetering on the edge of surrender. The feeling triggered a distant memory that he finally identified as “the decision to go to college” memory. He remembered that he went along primarily because he didn’t have a better idea, and here he was in the same situation again. He found himself wishing he had magical capabilities and could wave a wand and make the whole world understand the essence of Ringing True. But he wasn’t much of a wizard, and he didn’t have a better idea—so he gave Shelby the proverbial inch.

“Okay—I’ll talk to him.”

“You want me there with you?”

“No—I think I’d better do this myself.”

“Come here,” said Shelby leaning across the table and indicating she wanted to whisper into his ear. Justin did as indicated and shivered in delight as Shelby started to nibble sensuously on his lobe.

“Come home with me,” she breathed into his ear. “Come fuck me.” She then pulled back, picked up her purse and left the restaurant.

Justin shifted his erection to make it less visible and clumsily walked out of the restaurant.

*****

Later that night, Justin came home to find Matthias stretched out on the couch, doing nothing. This in itself was very unusual, for the only time Justin had ever seen him not moving was when he was sound asleep.

“Hey,” said Justin, disappointed in finding him there at all.

“Welcome home, dear boy,” said Matthias, almost gaily.

“Where’s Theo?” Justin asked, secretly expressing a wish for an alternative form of company.

“I believe he is spending the evening with the fair Emilia, or so he said on departure.”

Justin hung up his parka, sighed loudly and escaped into the kitchen. While he was rummaging through the fridge, Matthias loped in.

“So,” he said with a slight grin. “How’s it going?”

“Uh, good, good,” Justin replied, trying to ignore him.

“And what did you do today?” Matthias asked, in a what-happened-at-school-today-little-boy voice.

“Hung out with Shelby,” Justin responded, growing uncomfortable.

“Uh-huh,” said Matthias, still grinning.

“Had something to eat, hung out, nothing much,” Justin continued, filling the silence.

“Another lazy day,” Matthias remarked.

There was more silence during which Justin shifted his rummaging effort to the makeshift pantry and Matthias made room for him, leaning against a cupboard and grinning.

Justin crouched down to explore the lower shelves of the pantry.

“So!” said Matthias in dramatic fashion. “How is the religion business, anyway?”

Justin froze in shock. Matthias allowed himself a little chuckle.

“What?” Justin finally managed to croak.

“Come now, dear boy, let’s not play dumb ass. Ringing True, eh? Very catchy, very catchy indeed.”

Justin stood up, closed the refrigerator and faced Matthias.

“Who told you? Did you get it out of Theo?”

“Oh, please. Give me a little credit. I don’t usually try to obtain information through such unreliable sources. The truth is you left the evidence right out in the open for anyone to gather.”

Justin appeared confused for a moment, then remembered the red clipboards piled on the floor of his room.

“You went into my room!”

“Now, now, don’t play the poor victim! I was simply strolling down the hall this morning, slowly rousing myself from a well-deserved rest, when I noticed the door to your room was wide open and I saw what I believed to be an abstract art piece lying there on the carpet. Never having credited you with any artistic ability whatsoever, I was curious. The rest, as they say, is history.” He paused and gave a wide smile. “The cat is out of the bag, my friend. You’ve been found out.”

Feeling violated about the invasion of his privacy and irritated by Matthias in bon vivant mode, he snapped out, “Well, now you know, so piss off.” Justin then stormed out of the kitchen.

Matthias laughed and followed him. “There, there, my boy. If it makes any difference, I sincerely apologize for the intrusion,” he said, with a gallant bow.

Justin had to laugh, partly out of tension, partly out of appreciation for the size of the balls on the guy who was bowing before him.

“So, let’s sit down and have a nice little chat about this new endeavor of yours,” continued Matthias, waving Justin to a seat.

Remembering his promise to Shelby, Justin gave him a quick overview of Ringing True, from the creation of the text to the focus group disaster. He concluded his story by reluctantly hinting at the need for a more improved method of getting the word out. Justin refused to mention the word “marketing,” as he could not quite bring himself to go that far.

Matthias listened in rapt attention, smiling the entire time. When Justin was done, he asked, “Where is this text you mentioned?”

Justin said simply, “On my laptop.”

“Go get it,” Matthias said, standing up. “I want to see it.”

Justin remained sitting and said, “Why?”

“Because I want to. Just go—go!” Matthias replied, waving off Justin with impatience.

Justin was partially immune to Matthias’ power plays, but this time he did as he was asked. He returned in a minute with his laptop open to the document. Matthias grabbed the laptop and gave the text his full attention while Justin flopped on the couch, waiting for the inevitable sarcastic criticism. After what seemed to be an extraordinarily long wait, he heard the lid of the laptop close and turned to face Matthias.

“Brilliant!” Matthias whispered.

Justin was stunned.

“It needs work—timing—positioning—guerilla tactics—viral marketing—seed money.” Matthias was not looking at Justin, but lost in the project manager of his mind, connecting diamonds and squares with timelines, weaving through critical paths while linking them all to a compelling vision that illuminated his face and expanded his presence to fill the room.

Justin watched the transformation with amazement and some skepticism. He thought Matthias might be playing him and had no desire to take the bait. Suddenly, the barely audible muttering rose rapidly in volume.

“Bypass the competition—hit them when they’re vulnerable—YES!!!” Matthias ended with a shout.

Justin jumped a good three feet in the air and said, “What?”

Matthias looked at Justin in surprise as if he had suddenly materialized before his eyes.

“Give me a week with this and let me get back to you,” he said coldly, all business.

Justin snapped back like he had been slapped in the face. “Wait a goddamned minute here—I don’t know if I want to give you anything—whether it’s five minutes or a week. And in case you haven’t noticed, I haven’t asked for your help.”

Matthias clicked his tongue and looked up at the heavens with an expression that said, “Oh, Lord, why have you saddled me with such idiots?” He then turned to Justin, once again all business, and said, “Look. You don’t know shit about marketing or publicity—I do. You don’t know a single person of the slightest significance—I do. And as your recent dismissal would indicate, you can’t even hold a fucking job, so don’t try to tell me you don’t need my help.”

Possessing ample experience with Matthias, Justin should have let the cheap shots bounce harmlessly off his psyche. At the moment, however, he wanted desperately to fling something hurtful right back at him, but knew at the same time he could never find anything that would satisfy the pettiness. So while he found Matthias infuriating, pompous and more than a little despicable, he agreed with him on one thing: he needed his help.

“What do you need a week for, anyway?” Justin said peevishly.

Matthias indicated by his expression that he was not fond of having to explain himself, but in the interest of superficial collaboration, he did so. “To make contacts—line up some players—design the strategy—structure the business—”

Justin interrupted him with a shout. “Hey, asshole—this is a religion, not a stinking business.”

Matthias gave him a death stare for having the gall to interrupt him, but realized he was talking to an inferior human being who needed his assistance to enter into the light. Relaxing his stare and his posture, he leaned back in his seat and laughed.

“You’re so dumb you don’t even know what we have here. My boy,” he said, leaning forward and beaming radiantly, “This is The Next Big Thing!”

©2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 by Robert Morrow

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