The Grand Apprentice
by Ed Simon
Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty.
—2 Corinthians 3:17
If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.
—Attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky
It had been twenty centuries since He’d last walked upon the Earth, and it was in the ninth year of the new reign that He quietly appeared again late afternoon on a cold Christmas Eve, this time at a needle-exchange clinic in Alphabet City. Long greasy black hair in front of a scared tawny face, hunched over, short, hobbled, and ugly, the destitute man of sorrows quietly and at first without notice went from empty chair to empty chair, sitting silently next to the junkies and the HIV infected for a minute or two. He wasn’t recognizable; He barely looked like all of those Pietas and nativity scenes and Crucifixions affixing the walls of the Met and the Cloisters. And yet, His people slowly recognized Him, and soon others began to recognize Him as well. Brows that had furrowed with deep fear for so long that they had seemingly never felt eased, suddenly felt eased. Eyes that had darted nervously, wondering who was an informant, and had scarcely relaxed for almost a decade, suddenly relaxed. Bodies that ached and were cold suddenly felt whole and warm.
He was in the clinic for maybe less than fifteen minutes, but as he headed the few blocks towards Washington Square Park, the cold and huddled masses of citizens, used to food and fuel shortages and the prediction of yet another swirling polar vortex freezing the northern part of the North American land mass, jabbed each other in hungry ribs with angular elbows, and pointed at the man in the soiled purple wind-breaker and the filthy stocking cap who walked those trash-strewn streets.
A young woman who had been homeless for the past two years, her siblings long since sent by bus to one of the black sites near the border, and herself only managing to survive by purchasing forged citizenship papers for close to three weeks under-the-table pay, and a few hours of her dignity, felt tears in her own brown eyes when she looked into His brown eyes. The gold-plated rosaries that were the last relic of her parents’ love, before they were ostensibly bussed back to Ecuador after they were seized in the middle of the night, seemed warmed by an internal heat as she closed her hand around them in her pocket.
Near Houston, a mosque was letting out as afternoon prayers ended, and a young hijabi, bundled in a grey pea coat affixed with an identification badge that was nearing its expiration date, worried that she wouldn’t have the cash this month to pay the Community Monitoring Department agent to secure papers for her brother’s return from an assimilation program he’d been sent to a few months before. And she had her parents to worry about, her father sick with something they were too poor to have diagnosed, and her mother always clinging next to her father, crying over the father’s labored and shallow breaths, the high-temperatures, the sometimes delirious shouting in Bangladeshi. She wondered what shortages there would be at the bodega, bread but no milk, or milk but no bread? No fresh vegetables at Gristedes for weeks, no Aspirin at Duane Reade for months. And even with these worries, when she looked at the prophet, peace be upon him, purposefully moving Uptown, she felt a spreading warmth at the center of her chest that was like a beautiful secret barely remembered but still somehow there.
At the northwest corner of Union Square near Broadway he saw a newly elderly veteran, scarcely older than His own thirty-three years. Bundled under a thin layer of cheap, abrasive red, white, and blue blankets, the man sat in a wheel-chair with one broken wheel, and he looked out towards the skyline that once had twinkled with a thousand lit windows and was now largely dark, eyeless in the Village, for a bit of shrapnel had blinded him at the Battle of Khorasan Province. All his life he’d felt ignored, dejected, made fun of, looked down upon, mocked. Like his father who had also been sent to where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had met their wild God, the veteran enlisted out of a sense of duty and longing, feeling like his birthright had been traded for a mess of pottage. He was not really a political man, but he thought he was a patriotic one. But now, blind and cold, subsisting on whatever charity the Dominican sisters in their convent nearby where able to scrounge for men like him, he sat here, alone and afraid in a city that he’d hated before he’d ever been there, thinking that America was for Americans and that even if people ignored, dejected, made fun of him, looked down at him, mocked him, at least he was an American. But then he discovered more terrifying truths. And as He walked by, the veteran found that there, bundled before the statue of the Emancipator, he could suddenly see again – better than he ever had before.
He makes His way up Fifth. The crowds throng, they respectfully follow him on his pilgrimage as he crosses north, the lights dim on Broadway, the fuel rationed for those who can afford it (and few can afford it), the teeming Ryanvilles of citizens living out of tents in the rink at Rockefeller Center, and in front of the Cathedral, and in the cross-streets behind the luxury stores that still sell purses and jewelry to administration stooges grown fat on nine years of plundering. At first men and women furtively took cell-phone pictures, clandestinely trying not to attract His attention, but soon there were Facebook posts and Twitter hash tags. His face, His actual face, gnarled, sun-blistered, scared, unattractive, yet as calm and beautiful as any which has seen a sunset, fills the newsfeeds of Americans settling in for yet another hungry Christmas. He began to go viral.
Near the police barricades which surrounded the Tower, there is a middle-aged man with a bit of hastily, amateurishly made poster-board with pictures of his dead son. The man has been holding a forty-day vigil, protesting to the police, the city, the administration, God. His son, young, handsome, black, barely seventeen, stares out smiling from the photos tacked to the board. His son, throwing a pitch out at his middle-school baseball game. His son, hands in prayer at his first communion. His son, open casket and eyes closed, laying in wake at a church in the Bronx. The officer said that he thought his son’s cellphone was a gun. The dashboard camera was off, the jury acquitted.
The man instantly knew upon whom he looked, and he turned to the figure in the soiled wind-breaker and the filthy stocking cap, and he said, in a voice of supplication and with a heart that barely remembered faith (thought it still did remember faith) he said to Him, “Please, make my son live again.” The savior paused in front of the mourning father, took him by one calloused hand, and looking into his face said with a barely audible whisper “Talitha cumi.” This father knew then, that somehow, in someway, his son had awakened in their apartment in East Tremont.
There were no books in the Tower. No magazines, no newspapers. Rather there were screens, screens everywhere. Giant televisions, with their continual ribbon of misinformation scrolling at the bottom. CNN, FOX, and now TNN. And there were smaller screens, desktops, laptops, and the omnipresent greasy touch-screen of the smart phone. The apprentice sat in his office most hours of the night, the only light across his increasingly tightening and jaundiced face coming from the flickering, neon enticements of information. There was no wrong or right information, only interesting information. And he would decide what was interesting.
When he was nervous – and he was always nervous – he would placate himself with a bag of cheap Halloween candy. Away from the flash of the light, camera crews whom he simultaneously adored and hated, he’d engorge himself on mini Kit-Kat bars, Crunch bars, and Three Musketeers. His own personal banquet of chestnuts. The embroidered tapestry seat covers on the Louis XIV chair were not comfortable, and the pink marble on the floor was cold, the gold trim on the molding tarnished, and his short fingers stained brown. And in that room, scanning his Twitter feed, he saw with rising alarm that this other man was slowly making his way toward the Tower. And so, he requested that his guards bring Him to the top floor of the Tower; and though the crowds had waited twenty centuries for the savior to return, it took only nine years to make them frightened enough that no one objected when the dirty Jew was renditioned into the dark monolith that arose like a tombstone over Central Park.
“So it’s You? I’m really honored, honestly honored; it’s a great, great, very big honor to meet you. So great, and so nice that you came up here to see me, on your birthday! I feel very blessed, really, very, very blessed,” the apprentice said to the Son of Man. He was heavier than he looked on camera, and the stress (when he admitted that there was stress) had aged him every minute of his eighty years on this Earth. His ginger hair wasn’t on quite straight, but here, in the Tower, there were no cameras.
“OK, but right, why did you come? Right? To stop all of the great stuff we’ve been doing? I made America great again, what did you do? Look at this room! Now look at yourself? Look, I respect you, deep respect, bigly respect, but what’s the bottom line? What did you ever really do for people? Look at what I’ve done, secured the borders, flexed this country’s muscles in Iran, in China, in Mexico, in Germany. You’re all ‘Turn the other cheek.’ That’s, if I can be frank, and I think I can be frank with you, that’s fucking stupid, alright?”
The man of sorrows remained silent.
“So, and this isn’t because I don’t like you, I really do like you, I’ve read your book, or, at least parts of it, and, it’s like, my second favorite book of all time, great book, one of the greatest, lots of classy buildings and art based on it, so, this isn’t personal. But I can’t have you here right now, ok? It’s sort of surprising you’re showing up right now, and it’s not that I’m not honored, again, ok? It’s great that you’re here, but, you know, you cause problems, you always do, and I can’t have problems.”
The grand apprentice looked around the office, gaudy, tacky, trashy. Eight decades on this planet and only a few miles from an entitled Jamaica Plains childhood, still trying to be classy after all these years and never realizing how unimportant it all was. He stared, quietly for a few minutes at the savior’s grizzled, wrinkled, dirty face. That face repulsed him. The apprentice had never felt so simultaneously alone and naked in his entire life, not in front of the generals who he had ensconced in that pathetically humble house a few hundred miles south, not the captains of industry whom he surrounded himself with, not even in front of the tick-tick-tick of that modem always buzzing out insights from that capital a hemisphere away. He had always thrived in front of those mobs calling for Barabbas, and for years had screamed out into that digital void, but finally it seemed like the people were too hungry, tired, or bored to be even bothered to look anymore. He’d never felt this transparent even in front of his daughter, Lucrezia. And he grew angry with the Man.
“What did you ever offer anyone? Liberty? Freedom? What I offer people is greatness, that’s what people want. To be proud, of themselves, their people. They want to feel important, want to feel great again. That’s what I offer them. You’re just depressing. A pathetic loser. All those years ago, you out in the desert, you met you-know-who there, right? And he offered you power, real power, and you were a putz to turn that down. Sad.” And yet the savior still remained silent.
The apprentice looked around the office, at screens flickering with news of bombings in Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit, stalled construction on the southern border, gathering mega-storms off the Atlantic coast, and the Canadian ambassador being recalled to Ottawa. And as always the ever present hum of electronic neon sex on every other screen.
“What did he first ask you to do? Turn some rocks into bread? Come on, that’s a small little miracle for a guy like you, down the block they say that you turn some crackers and some juice into your body and blood, how hard would it be to have taken some sad, measly stones and turned them into bread, right? Doesn’t even have to be good bread. And what did you say, ‘Man does not live by bread alone?’ I’m sorry, but that’s a load of bullshit! It’s always about the economy stupid! People don’t care about goodness, they don’t care about humility. They want the score settled, that’s what people want.” Still the Man was silent, and the other man continued talking, as had been his wont for seemingly ever.
“People need to look up to something, ok? They don’t want silent gods, they want direction, they need direction. They need to be told what to do. ‘Conscience’ is just a fancy word that elites use to distract people from what they really need – orders. People need to be grabbed by the pussy. Nobody wants choices, nobody wants freedom. That is hard, and I’m like, really smart. Really smart. People sign over those decisions to me, the one who can make them. I alone can speak for them. And you, what do you offer? What dignity is there in being hung up on a two-by-four? It’s sad, honestly. And what did he say to you out there, that other one? I’ll say the same thing right now, go out there, jump down those fifty-eight stories, and have angels or whatever-the-fuck pick you up before you go splat on Fifth Avenue, and everyone would bow down to you, and you could do it! You could do it and I know you won’t! Incredible! All the power in the world, inherit everything from Dad, and you’re terrible at investments! Awful deal-maker, but I make all the best deals.” And yet the savior remained silent still.
“That was the third thing he offered you, right? Total power. Took you up on the hill, showed you all the countries in the world. Far as the eye could see, all of it. And you could have been king! Look, I love the little people, the losers, the uneducated. Spectacular people! I love them because they love me. But I don’t love people who voluntarily make themselves losers, because what’s the point in that? You could have had it all, some palace, classy things, sexy women. And no, none of it, and why? To feel better than other people? They say I’m arrogant? When the Times was still published and before half of the Post was in jail they’d go, ‘Oh, he’s so arrogant, so loud, yada, yada.’ Well, I have what people want, right? I was just better at it, but what I want is natural. What do you want? To feel superior to people? You’re the arrogant one, you’re the puppet!” The savior did not speak.
“You had three thousand years to fix everything, and what did it get people? Misery. Confusion. Disorder. I gave people what they wanted in nine years. What were you offered? Miracle, mystery, authority. And you squandered all of it, so, really, I’m sorry if I’m not totally sympathetic, ok? You’re a loser, alright, a loser!” The apprentice began to sound increasingly hysterical.
“And there isn’t a place for losers like that in the new America, no role for you here. Alright? I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to be sent off, you know what that means, you understand? Got to lock you up. Maybe worse. I can’t have you here, not now. Not ever.”
The grand apprentice was breathing heavily now, while the man of sorrows, still silent, stood warmly staring at the dictator. Out in the harbor the blasphemed-against Mother of Exiles stood, her torch snuffed. Across the country the interregnum of demagogic pronouncements, delayed expectations, and cruelty against the strangers in our midst entered its ninth year. Around the world the certainty of fickle uncertainty reigned as ever, turning that wheel of Fortuna over and over. And here in the office a type of blessed silence set these two men apart from the rest of the fallen and bestial world, ever slouching towards Bethlehem. The apprentice, perhaps reflecting on being sent away to military school by his father, or his kind, dead brother, or his wise, jailed sister, or all of the anonymous faces of all the similar people who he’d destroyed, looked out past droopy, fat eyelids at the man whose mud-encrusted sneakers smudged the Oriental rug in his office. Or perhaps the apprentice reflected on his hatred of this man, this hatred of everything that makes him feel small, or stupid, or impotent when he knows that he is great, right? He can tell that the man has listened to everything, why is he not speaking? And he stared, waiting for the man to say something.
Finally, the man walks over to the apprentice, and places a simple kiss on his cold, bloodless, aged lips.
The apprentice shudders, he convulses, something deep and intrinsic that does not have a name spreads throughout his being.
“Get out of here! Get the fuck out of here! Go and don’t come back! Get the fuck out!”
The savior simply turns, and without guard takes the elevator down those fifty-eight stories, walks unnoticed through the gilded marble lobby and out onto Fifth Avenue. He silently leaves into the dark alleys of the city, into the cold of a starless Christmas Eve as the clock approaches midnight, and though He remained unnoticed, He still walks those alleys. And for the apprentice, what of him? Well that kiss burns, burns like a wound in whatever is left of a heart, uncertain of if a benediction is damnation, or what the difference even really is.
Images by digital_freak and Taber Andrew Bain
About the Author:
Ed Simon is a PhD candidate in English at Lehigh University where he studies seventeenth-century literature and religion. He is a frequent contributor to several different sites, and can be followed at edsimon.org or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.