Varieties of Religious Experience

A short story
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There is no God: the revelation came to Dan Kellogg in the instant that he saw the World Trade Center South Tower fall. He lived in Cincinnati but happened to be in New York, visiting his daughter in Brooklyn Heights, with a top-floor view of Lower Manhattan, less than a mile away. He was still puzzling over the vast quantities of persistent oily smoke, and the nature of the myriad pieces of what seemed to be white cardboard fluttering within the smoke's dark column, and who and what the perpetrators and purpose of this event might have been, when, as abruptly as a girl letting fall her silken gown, the entire skyscraper dropped its sheath and vanished, with a silvery rippling noise. The earth below, which Dan could not see, groaned and spewed up a cloud of ash and pulverized matter that slowly, from his distant perspective, mushroomed upward. The sirens filling the air across the river continued to wail, with no change of pitch or urgency; the mob of uninvolved buildings, stone and glass, held their pose of blank, mute witness. Had Dan imagined hearing a choral shout, a cry of protest breaking against the silence of the sky—an operatic human noise at the base of a phenomenon so pitilessly inhuman? Or had he merely humanized the groan of concussion? He was aware of looking at a, for him, new scale of things—that of Blitzkrieg, of erupting volcanoes. The collapse had a sharp aftermath of silence; at least he heard nothing for some seconds.

Ten stories below his feet, two black parking-garage attendants loitered outside the mouth of the garage, one seated on an aluminum chair, carrying on a joshing conversation that, for all the sound that rose to Dan Kellogg, might have been under a roof of plate glass or in a silent movie. The garage attendants wore short-sleeved shirts, but summer's haze this September morning had been baked from the sky. The only cloud was man-made—the foul-colored, yellow-edged smoke drifting toward the east in a solid, continuously replenished mass. Dan could not quite believe that the tower had vanished. How could something so vast and intricate, an elaborately engineered upright hive teeming with people, mostly young, be dissolved by its own weight so quickly, so casually? The laws of matter had functioned, was the answer. The event was small beneath the calm dome of sky. No hand of God had intervened, because there was none. God had no hands, no eyes, no heart, no anything.

Thus was Dan, an Episcopalian lawyer of sixty-three, brought late to the realization that comes to children with the death of a pet, to women with the loss of a child, to millions caught in the implacable course of war or plague. His revelation of cosmic emptiness thrilled him, though his own extinction was held within this new truth like one of the white rectangles weightlessly rising and spinning within the boiling column of smoke. He joined at last the run of mankind in its stoic atheism. He had fought this wisdom all his life, with prayer and evasion, with recourse to the piety of his Ohio ancestors and to ingenious and jaunty old books—Kierkegaard, Chesterton—read in adolescence and early manhood. But had he been in that building (its smoothly telescoping collapse in itself a sight of some beauty, like the color-enhanced stellar blooms of telescopically photographed supernovae, yet as quick as the toss of a scarf)—had he been in that building, would the weight of concrete and metal have been an ounce less, or hesitated a microsecond in its crushing, mincing, vaporizing descent?

No. The great No came upon him not in darkness, as religious fable would have it, but on a day of maximum visibility; "brutally clear" was how airplane pilots, interviewed after the event, described conditions. Only when Dan's revelation had shuddered through him did he reflect, with a watery spurt of panic, that his daughter, Gretchen, worked in finance—in midtown, it was true, but business now and then took her to the World Trade Center, to breakfast meetings at the very top, the top from which no one could have escaped.

Stunned, emptied, he returned from his point of vantage on the terrace to the interior of Gretchen's apartment. The stolid Anguillan nanny, Lucille, and Dan's younger granddaughter, Victoria, who was five and sick with a cold and thus not at school, sat in the library. The small room, papered red, was lined with walnut shelves; the books went back to Gretchen's college and business-school days and included a number—Cold War thrillers, outdated medical texts—that had once belonged to her husband, from whom she was divorced, just as Dan Kellogg was divorced from her mother. Lucille had drawn the shade of the window looking toward Manhattan. She reported to Dan, "I tell her not to look out the window, but then the television has nothing but the disaster, every channel we switch to."

"Bad men," little Victoria told him eagerly, her tongue stumbling, her cold making her enunciation even harder to understand than usual, "bad men going to knock down all the buildings in New York City!"

"That's an awful lot of buildings, Vicky," he said. When he talked to children, something severe and legalistic within him resisted imprecision.

"Why does God let bad men do things?" Victoria asked.

He had an answer, a new one, to this, but he didn't give it. The child's face looked feverish, not from her cold but from what she had seen through the window before the shade was drawn. Dan gave the answer he had learned when still a believer: "Because He wants to give men the choice to be good or bad." Her face, so fine in detail and texture—brutally fine—considered this theology for a second.

Then she burst forth, flinging her arms wide: "Bad men do anything they want, anything at all!"

"Not always," he corrected. "Sometimes good men stop them. Most of the time, in fact."

In the shadowy room they seemed three conspirators. Lucille was softly rocking herself on the sofa, and made a cooing noise now and then. "Think of all them still in there, all the people," she crooned, as if to herself. "I was telling Vicky how on Anguilla when I was a girl, no one had electricity, and telephones were only for the police, who rode bicycles wherever they went on the island. The only crime was workers coming back from three months away being vengeful with their wives for some mischief. The tallest building two stories high, and when there was no moon people didn't leave their cabins." Then, in a less dreamy voice, one meant to broadcast reassurance to the listening child, she told Dan, "Her momma called five minutes ago, and working is over for today, she coming home but don't know how. She might have to be walking all that way from Thirty-fourth Street."

Dan himself had been planning, before returning to Cincinnati, to take the subway up to the Whitney Museum and see the Wayne Thiebaud show, which was soon to be dismantled. At Victoria's age he had dreamed of working for Walt Disney, making cartoon animals move and talk, and Thiebaud had done that for a while; Dan relished the touch of Disney in the artist's candy colors and his bouncy, plump draftsmanship. Viewing this show was suddenly impossible, part of an idyllic, less barricaded past.

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