The conversation room. I’m still waiting. I’m still played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, but now I’m wearing purple sweats with white accents.
I crack my gum and look over at the archway. I recognize the person standing in the hall looking at me, though I haven’t seen him for years.
He moves slowly. He is timid, but he also looks frail and weak. He is frowning, and his face otherwise suggests some sort of sharp but constant pain. He is played (at least today) by William H. Macy, who is especially good with the wide, haunted eyes. His hair is rather short, but unkempt. He is wearing what I can only describe as a jumpsuit of some sort, but with no visible zippers or fasteners, and no pockets. The jumpsuit was probably originally white, and it is hard to discern how much its non-whiteness is attributable to age and wear, and how much to lack of laundering.
He’s clutching a tattered black leather Bible, which used to close with a zipper but the zipper is broken. Though I can only see the cover from here, I know that it is the King James Version, with the words of Christ printed in red. It is most likely a Scofield Reference Edition.
“You.” It is just a declaration, with no emotion. He has advanced about a foot past the archway and stopped, staring at me with his haunted eyes.
“Yes, it’s me. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?” God, that was lame.
He stands and stares for several seconds, but then smiles slightly. There is no sound, but I think about how appropriate it would be if his face were to creak, even though the movement is subtle. “I have no idea how long it’s been. No one has been willing to tell me. I lost track sometime during the third or fourth year. I think you probably knew that.” He speaks with a slight accent that is probably Texan, though he has never been in Texas.
“It’s been a little over thirty years since you were at all active in the inner circle.”
The smile departs immediately. “Thirty years,” he repeats.
“Yes. Although I don’t know for sure, I think that it was as long as twenty years that you were…” I pause, not for dramatic effect, but because it is suddenly hard to speak. “…isolated,” I finish. “Perhaps as few as fifteen, but probably longer than that.” I indicate the other comfortable chair, placed near the center of the room and facing the one in which I am sitting. “Please, sit down.”
He does not move. “I thought there would be others. You are meeting only with me?”
“This time only with you. It has been decided that I will say some things honestly to you before we are joined by any others.”
He begins to move toward the chair, but slowly. “You say ‘it has been decided.’ Not by you?”
I shake my head. “Such decisions are not simply mine. I think you probably knew that.” I match his tone exactly when uttering the latter sentence.
“But you are… What should one call it? …THE representative. The mouthpiece, perhaps? You do not speak only for yourself. You report to, and on behalf of…” He glances out the window at nothing in particular. “…all of them.”
I nod. “That is true. But it is also true to say that I do not make important decisions.” I indicate the chair again. “Please sit down.”
He sits, very slowly and deliberately. He sits forward on the chair, keeping his posture erect and formal. “Are you still a Christian?” We’re cutting right to the chase.
“My answer to that is ‘yes.’ But you will not find my affirmative answer satisfactory. You want to know how distant I am now from your fundamentalist orthodoxy. Up until recently, I would have said very distant indeed.”
“Up until recently,” he repeats. His expression does not change, but I can tell he did not expect me to say this.
“Yes. By recently, I mean the last five years or so. It has become clear to me in various ways that you are still very much a part of the selfsystem.”
“…in spite of your efforts.”
“…in spite of efforts within the selfsystem to eject you, silence you, or at least minimize your influence.”
“You make it sound like this did not really involve you.”
“Of course it involved me.” I sigh deeply. “I am sorry.”
His eyes remain locked on mine. He does not respond.
“I cannot pretend that I have eliminated all animosity towards you. But I deeply regret what you have been subjected to.” I am unsure whether I will be able to stifle tears. “…especially the isolation. I don’t know how to say it, except to say that I am truly sorry.”
He glances down at his Bible. “I’m supposed to forgive you.” Long pause. “I wonder if I can.”
“I’m not in any hurry to be forgiven. But I do wish to acknowledge our identity.” He looks me in the eye again. He knows that what I will say next is something that I do not often say to anyone. “I am you; you are me.”
He takes a moment to soak up the significance of my uttering the formula. He then lifts his Bible and holds it in front of him. “Could you really still be me, when you don’t accept that this is the inerrant Word of God?”
It doesn’t seem to call for an answer, so I just wait.
He sets the Bible on the arm of the chair, and seems to relax a bit. “Is this meeting supposed to be for my benefit, or only for yours?”
“There is no reason why one should exclude the other. But I would like to think that it will mostly benefit you. You already know that you are now permitted to participate in open discussions within the selfsystem.”
“With limitations, I imagine.”
“With no limitation, and only one expectation.”
Now I have his full attention and interest. He picks up the Bible again, but leans back in the chair and places it gently in his lap, still unopened. His change in posture conveys clearly that he is listening, so he remains silent.
“I remain opposed to your theology and your approach to faith in general. I will not pretend otherwise. But I fully intend to listen to you and to talk with you. I truly want your unconstrained input, though of course I make no promise that any effects of your return to active participation in the selfsystem will be to your liking, or meet with your approval.”
He takes this in silently for several seconds. “And the one expectation?”
“That you will endeavor to listen at least as much as you speak, ‘listen’ indicating not simply that you are silent when others speak, but that you explicitly commit to the risk of having your mind changed, on any issue under discussion.”
He shifts his weight slightly. “You know very well that there are some issues on which I would understand a change of mind to amount to a loss of faith, and potentially a loss of salvation.” In the old days, he would have started screaming about now. Instead, he is matter-of-fact. This is very good.
“The expectation is that you will agree to be open to the possibility of yielding to selfconsensus on ANY particular issue. This would entail a willingness to genuinely bring into question even the belief to which you have just given voice.”
His eyes narrow. “I take it you mean the belief that some particular beliefs are necessary for salvation.” I’m sure that he remembers our discussions of long ago with great clarity.
“Yes. And the belief that one’s own personal salvation is an issue of primary import. And the belief that ‘salvation’ is a binary matter, something one either has or has not. ANY particular issue.”
“And if I do not agree to this?”
“There is no plan in place for that contingency.”
He blinks. “You don’t have a plan regarding what to do with me if I don’t agree to your expectation?”
“Correct. I expect you to agree. Think of it as a step of faith.”
He closes his eyes. He understands my language well, and he does not bother to question my sincerity in using it. I wait.
Eventually he opens his eyes again. “So if I understand you correctly, you expect me to agree, but you do not expect me to enter into some kind of ‘official’ agreement in this regard. Is that correct?”
I nod. He closes his eyes again and bows his head. I don’t know for sure that he is praying, but I suspect this is at least part of what’s happening. I do not have to consult a watch in order to know that three minutes and six seconds pass. I wait patiently.
He opens his eyes. “It is a step of faith.” That’s as close as I’m going to get to affirmation. “Our meeting is at an end, then?”
“Unless you have anything further that you wish to discuss.”
He stands. The pain in his face seems to increase a bit as he extends his hand. “Thank you.” No particular emotion in the voice.
I stand and shake his hand. “Thank you.”
As he leaves the room and walks slowly down the hall, I look up and see that the toy space capsule is noticeably farther down against the slant of the ceiling, near the point where the wall becomes completely vertical. It is sinking slowly, as a helium balloon does when left to itself, and will eventually be resting on the floor.