By The Late Mitchell Warren
Life was never more simplistic or confusing than when it was confined to a second-hand car lot in Dallas, Texas. The big car lots across the street were always busy, so fast-paced and impersonal that you hardly had time to speak, let alone ask your boss or associates about the meaning of life. Working in a used car dealership with 50 percent crap, 50 percent low mileage collector’s vehicles, and one customer every three hours, had a way of keeping you introspective. Perhaps even a bit sullen in mood, since nobody was ever extremely happy to be sitting in a low-trafficked lot, and no one had that “car salesman energy” which drove business.
Mansoor was the owner but he felt so damned guilty all the time, he hardly had the balls needed to sell a heap of junk. Probably because he was a Muslim turned Christian theist, which is a rarity, especially in the early 2001 era, right after 9-11. The poor old Iranian man of 50, gray hair polluting his once thick black mane, had no clue what to tell people about terrorism, except what the church told him to say. It wasn’t God’s will. It was a tragedy, God suffered that day like everyone suffered.
Whatever lie he told to feed his family was a little white lie. He spent most of the sales conversation assuring his customers that he wasn’t trying to “cheat them, screw them over, or sell them a heap of junk.” Which to his credit was true. Except in the cases where he was selling a heap of junk, to which he warned them by simply saying, “It’s a cash car. You get what you pay for.”
“Michael,” he told the kid, a fresh college dropout with nowhere to go but to a dead-end job, “All of dis is temporary.” His thick Farsi accent blazing throughout the small office like thunder in a desert, “You know da end of da world is coming. You can see it on da news. Everyding you see is da book of Revelashion happening. You know dat! So we can’t be distracted with the petty dings. We need to trust in God, serve him, pray to him, and go to Church. It makes us bulletproof from Satan’s old system of dings.”
“Yeah,” Michael said half-heartedly, not disagreeing with the old man, but not entirely convinced the end of the world was coming tomorrow. “Things are happening. It’s an unpredictable world, I suppose.” He was young and so open-minded, his associates often reminded him his brain was in danger of falling out. Green as the silk shirt he wore, it would take him another ten years to even fathom that there was more chicanery involved this “terrorist” attack than an act of random violence, not to mention the idea that “God” seemed to be an ambiguous word to most people.
By the time Gary Pride made his way to the office, the tension in the room thickened up like unchanged oil. He wasn’t just the resident atheist, he was Mansoor’s best business friend, the two of them going back to the 1980s when used cars sold like vice. Two decades later and the both of them were only united by their confusion over the economic downturn. Pride may have been prideful over his 1980s and 1990s conquest of the industry, but he was slowing down and the very thought of retiring for good was a gas guzzler of a notion. Though he had millions in the bank, Gary was still eager to mingle with people and sell them cars that were one step above junk, he proudly asserted. Pride was a welcomed if somewhat noxious presence to the room, a gray-headed man in his sixties but determined to stay fit and not afraid to show up for work in casual wear—sometimes in shorts.
“Gary,” Michael said one lulling afternoon, his controlled smile growing by the second. “I have a new one for you. What is the God Replacement? Statistical probability suggests that all organic structures, which have precisely harmonized reactions, have a zero percent random generation rate. For example, take the birth of a bacteria cell. The ‘chance assembly’ of its atoms is said to be so impossible, it would take an eternity to produce just one. The God Replacement is the non-existent entity that is required to be there, considering how many lucky draws are behind the success of evolution.”
Gary listened closely, his eyes rising above his glasses and his face wincing a bit.
“See, even if we could accept that life on Earth is balanced on a so called knife-edge, science tells us that we have to accept that the entire universe is balanced on the same knife-edge. Meaning we’re constantly at risk of total chaos if any of these natural constants are tweaked at an infinitesimal level. My point is…” he said, mixing his rehearsed delivery of a science book with his own knack for emotive conclusion, “Why is life so pro-life? The universe seems unreasonably suited to the existence of life, inexplicable, contrived one might even say. We take the word ‘God’ out of the equation but this God’s actions, guiding Life to successfully evolve and stay in place, unaffected by infinite chaos opportunity, remains part of scientific theory. We just hate the name and the face.”
Gary tilted his head, rejecting the argument with his wrinkled face, while his words skipped to keep up the pace. “Well…I think that you can explain spontaneous birth without the concept of a God. I don’t think that question mark proves anything,” he said tiredly, not just end-of-the-day fatigue, but with a gradual and stubborn acceptance of his marked off dream. He had no particular reason to be there; no need to work or make a single dollar more, and he never seemed thrilled to discuss philosophy with a kid a quarter of his age.
Yet Gary didn’t feel the need to debate the science of what he believed. He was a “down payment” kind of thinker, and had nothing fueling his anti-faith except a burden of proof, which he handed back to God’s followers a long time ago.
“I don’t mean to offend you,” Michael said. “I’m just curious as to why you seem to dislike God. I’ve never met anyone who thinks the way you do. Of course, I hang around church folk all day, so why would I? I just was curious to know…what would it take to make you believe?” Michael stroked his chin in curiosity, for the first time becoming animated, selling his religion like he ought to have been selling cars.
“Well,” Gary replied, his wistful expression looking towards the floor and only occasionally up to his younger rival. “If you mean a supernatural act, I don’t see anything that could convince me. Wouldn’t believe it anyway. I think what I would need is a logical foundation for which to build a belief. Something laid out where I could do the math and say, yes, this makes sense. I can see it.”
“Well, who knows. But wouldn’t it be great if God did exist? I mean, wouldn’t life be fun if it were all real?”
“Sure,” Pride replied, nodding. “It would be great to keep on living.” A glimmer of happiness bounced around his sloped eyes, “You know back when I had that lot on Jackson Road, I worked with Norma. She was a Christian, just like you and Mansoor. She was just a peach, I enjoyed working with her. And we always argued…of course it was friendly argument. She would always ask me to come to her church and I would always say, ‘Well sure, if you let me give a testimonial I’ll go to your church!”
Gary smiled wickedly at the thought and back to Michael—a rare sight to see Gary’s mountainous dimples rising for a change. “I know there are a lot of good religious people, I just don’t share their views, is all. I think Jesus was a good man, but I don’t buy any of that virgin birth bullshit. I also like that Billy Graham character. His heart seems to be in the right place.”
Michael shrugged at the idea. “Actually, I don’t care so much for Billy Graham. I mean, here he is, a pillar of spiritual strength, and then he goes on national TV and says, ‘I don’t know why God lets bad things happen.’ I know exactly why God lets things happen and I could explain it—”
“No, no, you can’t,” Gary interrupted with a bolt of fire. “No one can. You make think you have the answer, but it’s just your perspective.”
“Well…” Michael almost interjected, before letting the argument die. Any second and Mansoor would be entering the office, and debating philosophy with Mansoor would require a major shift in perspective to say the least.
Gary spared Michael the growing up speech. He had nothing left to say for the moment. That is until Mansoor inevitably invaded the office, overhearing something about God.
“You buying my lunch today, Gary?” Mansoor said with an unctuous grin.
Gary lit up and giggled, always viewing Mansoor as some surrogate younger brother, or perhaps even a pet of exotic origin. “Ohh, you have to watch out for Mansoor. He’s so cheap!”
“When you going to come to church, Gary?”
“Oh here he goes!” Gary laughed, turning red, tickled at Mansoor’s genuine invitation.
“I’m serious!” Mansoor said, losing his grin and glaring with his hairy owl-like face. “Da bible says dat dis means everlasting life, taking in knowledge of Jesus Christ da only son of God. It’s not da trinity like dey teach you in da Catholic Church. Catholic Church is da instrument of Satan. God and his son, da Jesus, is two separate people. But da bible is da true word of God. And Gary, I know you could have everlasting life.”
“What?” Gary said, widening his eyes as if hearing the idea for the first time.
“You could live forever in paradise. All it takes is knowledge of Jesus Christ because he gave his life for you. I want to live with you in paradise, Gary.”
“Live forever?” Gary said, shaking his head and eyeing Mansoor the same way passersby probably eyed overly happy car salesmen.
“Just come to church! Listen to what da bible teaches. You want me to pick you up? I buy you dinner first den we go.”
“No, no, no,” Gary laughed. “I don’t think I would enjoy that. But you can buy me lunch anytime you want!”
“I always buy you lunch,” Mansoor said, eventually losing his smile, realizing he lost the sale—as always, with Gary Pride. “Well, it’s your choice. In da end, it’s up to you, my friend. God gives us all a choice.”
Mansoor left the office, leaving an agitated Michael and smiling Gary behind. As soon as Michael began to talk a second time, Gary lost his smile. Perhaps to him, Michael, that blasted biblical name, seemed to remind him of an ex-friend and bitter old memories.
“Ah, Mansoor,” Michael laughed. “I guess I have to agree with him, since he’s my boss. But I prefer intellectual debate over hammering though.”
“Oh yeah. I’ve been there. I used to be a youth counselor at church a long time ago,” Gary said. “So everything you and Mansoor believe I once believed.”
“Well…” Gary said with an unusually long pause. “It was just a matter of opening up my mind and considering the facts.” Gary flinched uncomfortably, right before Mansoor’s voice bellowed over the office.
“Richard, my friend!”
Mansoor smiled as he opened the glass door out to the garage, letting Richard enter the undignified way. Richard could care less about entrances or social norms. He was balding, gray haired, and hated the things he worked with, those damned little boxes and monitors that made him his living.
Richard didn’t bother saying hello. But Gary, an old friend who first introduced Richard to Mansoor as the ultimate computer guy, seemed excited to see him.
“Richard! How are you?”
“Fine,” the bespectacled giant muttered, already deciphering Mansoor’s PC problem, and anxious to get home. “What kind of system do you have?”
“System? I have a computer. It say Intel,” Mansoor replied.
Richard silently groaned, the same frustrated face a serial killer might make when talking to an overly inquisitive child. “No, I mean what operating system are you using?”
“Operating system? It’s da Windows, isn’t it?” Mansoor asked Michael.
“And what operating system version is installed on da Windows?” he growled.
Before Michael could answer, Richard shoved everyone aside to sit down at the computer desk. “I already found it. It says right there. XP. Do you see that?” he asked gruffly to the room.
Mansoor and Michael grinned nervously, as if entertaining the Keiser or even the Chancellor. Gary meanwhile continued laughing and watching in ebullience.
“Don’t let Richard get to you,” Gary assured them. “He talks tough but he’s an old sweetheart. The man’s so damned sweet he throws a hissy fit whenever I try to pay him. We worked out an arrangement a long time ago, because I told him, ‘Richard I don’t want you doing favors for me for free.’ After a long argument, we finally settled on a minimum price.”
Richard grumbled as he scrolled through the BIOS trying to figure out why Mansoor’s OS was slowed to the point of standby. “What the fuck is wrong with you?!”
Michael’s gut hurt and Mansoor’s eyed widened, but only to realize he was talking to it—the damned computer, whom Richard hated more than anyone else in the room.
“Yes, you piece of shit!” Richard retorted, clicking the mouse button in a hurry.”
Richard suddenly turned to Michael, giving the boy a supervillainous glare. “What did you install on December 3rd? The system says you installed something.”
“I don’t remember.”
“You don’t remember? So you installed something and someone erased your memory? Or are you not telling me because you think I’m going to yell?”
“Um both, I guess.”
“Well. That’s your problem, you have a virus. That’s why you never download shit from the Internet. All the PC virus programs out there are complete bullshit. Viruses that infiltrate your system are new, they’re constantly being invented. Buying a PC virus scanner is like getting a shot for smallpox, aka variola major.”
“I see. Do you think the defragmenter uh…”
“No, no, no, no, I don’t,” Richard fumed. “Just be quiet and listen. The defragmenter is the defragmenter. You have a virus because you installed some piece of shit software you didn’t need. Of course you defrag your computer. You’re using a Windows PC you might as well shit on the keyboard unless you defrag the fucking thing every other day. But I’m talking about the virus. That’s your problem.”
Mansoor grinned as he slapped Michael across the back. “He just nervous. It was probably my mistake. Or maybe my daughter. She installs software on here. But she doesn’t think before she act.”
“Well, is she as fucking goofy as smiley here?” Richard asked, harassing Michael who wore a shit-eating grin, outmatched by everyone in the room.
Michael finally got the nerve to speak up. “You know you would have made a great wrestler, Richard. You could cut a mean interview.”
“What makes you think I wasn’t?” Richard said, hardly softening his stone-cold poker face.
Mansoor had projects to oversee and let himself out, leaving Michael in the company of the two angry bears.
“Hey I got one for you, Gary. What does a dyslexic agnostic do?”
Pride shook his head, awaiting the answer.
“He wonders if there really is a Dog.”
“Ah,” Gary said, rejecting the punch line as easily as he refused Michael’s perception of truth.
The religious allusions only seem to provoke Richard, who was under the hood of an MS-Dos prompt, killing all suspicious files. “Have you been talking to Gary about religion?”
“A little bit. We all see things differently.”
“The entire discussion is unknowable.”
“Are you an atheist too?”
“I’m a Richard, that’s what I am. And the entire discussion is unknowable. You can speculate all you want. You can pull figures and analogies out of your ass all day. But in the end, it doesn’t make one bit of difference. You can’t leave this planet and thus you only have access to one world of knowledge. Do you follow me so far?”
Richard looked up at Michael, his monstrous eyes escaping from the thick professor-esque glasses and continued. “You can spend your entire life learning this world, taking into account all of its sciences, all of its hypotheses and you can write yourself one big ass research paper that stretches for miles. And for your entire life all you will ever learn is one world of knowledge and you won’t even finish it all before you croak. You can’t even learn the name of every species of animal or insect before you croak. Now consider that the universe is a constantly expanding thing, one which we can only define as the totality of existence. Within this universe are galaxies and each galaxy contains billions of planets, independent of billions of stars. Each of one of these billions is a self-contained world of knowledge, an entire planet of distinct knowledge with unique eco-systems and patterns that defy everything we know as earth-bound reality. These are worlds of knowledge we have never studied before nor will we ever study since we are all going to croak within 30 years or so.”
“Me? I’ll be dead at fifty?”
“If you keep interrupting me you’ll be dead at 20.”
“Go on,” laughed Michael.
“So tell me, Michael, how many worlds of knowledge have you learned? How many worlds of knowledge can you explain to me?”
“A lot, a lot…” Michael stuttered, not quite understanding the question.
“You can explain multiple worlds of knowledge?!” Richard roared. “Well, shit you’re a lot smarter than I am. Now by all means, explain to me what’s at the center of the universe.”
Michael and Gary laughed the discussion off. Richard whipped out his floppy drive, preparing one more execution. Like an old pro, he clicked and typed his way to virtual paradise within seconds—paradise, which to Richard was probably a precious moment away from that daunting computer error screen. Perhaps the giant computer-pantheist theory would be Hell for Richard, given his earthly frustrations with that infernal box that filled a lifetime, if not an entire world.
Richard left promptly only bidding Gary a less than heartfelt, “I’m leaving.”
“All right you take care, buddy,” Gary said. He turned to Michael and gave him an affable grin. “Richard is such a tough cookie. But I like working with proud people. That means they take their work seriously.”
“So why did you stop? You mentioned that you used to be a Christian youth counselor.”
“Oh yeah. I gave sermons too. I was just a good old Christian boy for a while.”
“So what happened?”
“Sometimes if you open your ears you tend to hear things. One day I decided to use my ears rather than just my eyes. So I went over to the door and overheard old Pastor Daniels, the beloved Pastor Daniels, making love to a woman. Not just any woman, mind you, but a seventeen year old girl, the daughter of Henry Reynolds, a friend of mine.” His red face shook in fury and his voice gurgled. “And if I listened closely I could hear the whimpering voice of his wife. The bastard had locked his wife in the adjacent room and forced her to listen to every last fuck he gave that poor girl.”
Michael shook his head, ashamed of his contemporaries.
“What kind of a man does that to his wife? A man of God?”
“Ah, Gary. I guess in your shoes I’d have felt the same way.”
“Well, that wasn’t the only reason. About ten years later, I found out my wife had been cheating on me with another church pastor from the new city we relocated to. My first wife, not Jen. The second man of God I condemned.” Gary pounded his pencil into the desk, keeping tight eye contact with Michael for a change.
“And I knew Jen as a friend back then. She was in a whole world of trouble. Her boyfriend, her Jesus-Loves-Me boyfriend beat her up, beat the shit out of her at least once a week. The goddamned pastor of the church told her to stay with him, not to break the biblical code.”
Gary lowered his visage, giving the kid his best Satanic face. “So I went to Jen that night. The same night I found out my wife was fucking God. And I asked her to run away with me. I treated her right. I nursed her back to health. Opened five car lots in one city and made a lot of money. I took good care of her too. I served the god of wealth and materialism you could say. And that’s how we became the perfect anti-Christ family.”
Michael said nothing, as nothing worth saying could match Gary’s angry pride.
“No, there’s no God. There’s no nothing out there.” Gary shifted uncomfortably in his seat, squeezing the tip of the pencil head with angst.
“Well…I’m sorry you had to experience that.”
“Well, it happens.”
Mansoor came in within a few awkward moments of silences, sparing the two peaceful rivals another bout. “Gary, come look at this, my friend.” Mansoor guided Gary outside to look at a piece of junk car that was destined to be repaired, repainted, and resold as heaven on wheels.
Michael soaked in Gary and Richard’s words, as he sat on the recliner, charting his future with God. The sudden appearance of Mansoor’s sweaty brow interrupted Michael’s concentration. “You hear all dat? What dey say?” Mansoor smiled assuredly. “Dey believing lies, brotha. De devil poisons deir mind. He blinds dem to da truth. Gary’s just Satan’s tool for misleading da meek ones.”
Mansoor looked at Michael in concern. “Michael, you know I love you like a son. I’m just saying be careful with dem. Dey have warped minds. Dey basically apostates. Da demons use people to trick people, brotha. And peoples like Gary and Richard, dey don’t even know how dey’re being manipulated. We have to keep on da watch. We have to choose life. Da real life. Not this life of death and depression. You see how unhappy Gary and Richard are? Dey know dis is da truth. But dey too prideful to admit it. Dey serve da God of wealth, dey serve money. Dey serve da government. Everyone serves somebody, Michael. But only God cares about us.”
Mansoor’s words also stuck with Michael, and he did notice the “death and depression” in Gary’s face, right up until the moment Gary bid goodbye for the day. An air of despondence struck his face, aging him harshly, not resulting from any hypocritical preacher man’s actions, but from a life absent of roaring engines, of contract negotiations and insurance quotes, of friendly suckers eager to test drive life’s lemons.
It was a lonely little car lot and a step down from the “real life”, whether that was Gary’s bustling car dealership of the 1990s, Mansoor’s paradise with God, or Richard’s undiscovered world of knowledge. It took the boy a good ten years to realize that whatever God was, he lived in that car lot.