H . . . E . . . DOUBLE TOOTHPICKS.
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What is Hell? Is God a Master of Eternal Torture and Pain?
an excerpt from the novel Deceiving the Elect © Copyright 2001
by Douglas Christian Larsen
JACK WATCHED HIS POP POP MOODILY. The ancient man -- the oldest man in the world -- didn't look too good today. Kind of gray around the gills. His eyelids sagged. In fact, Jack knew that soon he wouldn't be the Great Grandson of the Oldest Man in the World any more. He felt a little guilty, thinking about the prospect, because his sadness was more based than a little bit on the fact that he would miss this small bit of fame, and maybe that little bit of sadness was a bit bigger than the fact that he was going to miss this old geezer, his Pop Pop, as a real-live person, his own flesh and blood, his dear old sweet Pop Pop. Sometimes it was hard to think of Pop Pop as a real-live person. It was more like he was an, oh I don't know, an entity or something, not a human like Jack himself. Like he was a little piece broken off of El Capitan up at Yosemite, or a Sequoia tree come to life, or, or maybe, I don't know, one of the characters walking straight out of the Bible. It was hard to think of Pop Pop as being a young guy, getting horny over girls, getting in fist fights and stuff, falling in love, having dreams about being something, having real friends through the years and watching them all die...
Jack sighed. Poor old Pop Pop. No one was around who could understand the old geezer. Jack certainly didn't believe that he understood his great grandfather. But he knew that he loved him, his Pop Pop, didn't he? Sure he did. Jack loved the old man. That's the real reason he came here, now almost every day, to listen to the old man's stories -- some of the stories were so goofy Jack didn't even know what they were supposed to be about. Sometimes he thought maybe his Pop Pop thought he was telling stories to babies or something. Jack knew that the old man used to tell stories in church, years and years and years ago. Maybe a hundred years ago!
It was staggering to think that when Jack was born, the old man was already 99 years old! He had lived practically a century before Jack was even born. When he thought about things like this, he felt he didn't even deserve to sit next to the old man. That it was an honor to have such an old man for a relative. Who cared what they said in school, that teacher Mandlebrot and his condescending nonsense, and Janine and her witchy ways. Jack had a grandfather that was the oldest man in the world, and aside from his age, he was really a wonderful, loving man. What a precious life form, Jack thought, someone this old.
He held the old man's hand, as he always did. Sometimes, it was kind of gross, holding Pop Pop's hand, because it didn't even seem like a hand. That it was skin, with muscles and some fat inside, and veins and arteries and a skeleton in there -- no, it seemed more like he was holding a dead chicken's foot or something. But he knew that Pop Pop liked it, holding hands, and sometimes when he was telling one of his stories, that old hand would squeeze his hand with an incredible strength -- Jack would actually wince at the pressure, and he was a big guy himself, lifting weights, on the wrestling team, playing basketball every day. Jack doubted any of his jock friends could squeeze his hand so hard!
"Why you sad, boy?" the old man asked him. Probably he had forgotten Jack's name again, and relation. Or else he was just being affectionate. "You thinking about that little girlfriend of yours? What was she into, again? Witchcraft and stuff?"
Jack looked levelly into his great grandfather's eyes. They were sitting with their backs up against a great old tree way back at the end of the nursing home's property -- this is where the old man always wanted to meet him when he came for his daily visit -- and the old man was looking every day, every hour of his 116 years of age. And Jack couldn't help wonder, was it all a waste? No matter how old you lived to be, wasn't it all a waste? Wasn't it all useless? Didn't everything and everyone just get old and fall apart, like the old man? Everyone he knew had died. And now, he was waiting to die, and probably didn't have long to wait. Of course, Pop Pop was held together pretty good for so many years. But still, he was so light, Jack could probably lift him over his head.
"Don't you think it's all a waste, Pop Pop?" Jack said, feeling like he would cry at any moment, or maybe have to haul out and slug a tree, break a few of his knuckles -- that's how down he felt, sitting with this old man, holding the withered chicken foot in his own young, fresh hand. Back at school a young girl said she loved him and now was running around with the whole football team, and his best friend was trying to get him to smoke crank with him, and the teachers, they were trying to teach him about "civil rights," and he knew another girl younger than himself who had an abortion two weeks ago -- wasn't just everything in the world, like, a total waste?
"That's a very wise question, you know," the old man said.
"It's wise?" Jack said, surprised, because it was the last thing he expected the old man to say. Generally, people said retarded things like: "Oh don't worry about stuff," or "Go do your homework," or "You're too stupid to think about deeper things, go watch cartoons" -- no one had every accused him of being "wise" before.
The old man's tired old eyes looked around the grove, studying the trees. Jack felt again awe that the old guy could even see.
"Everyone has to come around to it sometime, you know. Wondering. About the world," he said in his still strong voice. Boy did he have a deep voice, Jack thought enviously. Usually old men started to sound weirdly like Porky Pig, but not his Pop Pop. "You haven't felt it yet, having someone you know and love very well, just go and die. And they're gone, you know. Nothing of them remains except what you carry around in your brain," he said, tapping his head with his free hand, "and then that too starts to die. With me, slowly, all the memories start to go. But with other people, it's whammo, their head gets emptied by the Big 'A' and then everyone is dead that has died, inside and out. Then you're all alone, locked in a little closet, and it keeps getting tinier and more cramped, the more empty it gets.
"If you have a lot of money, you don't think about it so much. You don't have to worry so much. You have all these things to keep your mind off it. But even rich people have to get around to it sometime, you know, they have to wonder: is anything real? Is anything at all true? Is there such a thing as truth? Hopefully, everyone can come up with the right answer."
Jack leaned into his Pop Pop and put his head down upon the tired old shoulder.
"I know you think you came up with the right answer," Jack said, slowly -- he didn't want to insult the old man, or hurt his feelings. "But how do you know it's the right answer?"
The old man looked at his great grandson and his face lit up with a surprising smile. Years seemed to melt away from his face. He looked amazingly younger. Why, he could pass for (Jack smiled hard and suppressed his laughter) ninety-five or maybe even ninety years of age!
"Great Grandson Jack, love of my life," the old man said, and it was weird, because for this moment despite 116 bone-weary years, the old man was completely here, all of his mental faculties were returned, he was sharp, smart -- razor-sharp intelligence burned from his eyes. "When all of your worries suddenly disappear from your life, when suddenly you realize it doesn't matter that all of the people you loved so much have died -- then you know. God gives you certainty that's beyond any earthly intelligence or wisdom. God gives you peace -- it's called peace beyond all human understanding. When you have that, you know. And that's when joy fills your heart."
The old man's face seemed to be lit with fire. His smile was wonderful to see. There was no acting here. No affectation. The old geezer was brimming full of happiness.
"The joy of the Lord is my strength," he said in a peculiar sing-song rhythm, nodding, squeezing Jack's hand rhythmically -- flex-rest-flex-rest -- with that merciless power.
"Ouch! Back off, Pop Pop, you're going to pop my knuckles out of joint!" Jack laughed, tapping his great grandfather's hand with his free hand. He wasn't kidding about strength -- it was amazing!
"Everybody knows, Jack, everybody knows. Down deep, way down where they know no one can see, they know the truth. It's there. God gives it to them. The most brilliant scientist who goes on and on about Big Bangs and Evolution and stuff, he knows there is a God. And everyone admits it, generally at the end, but that's okay. God is so full of mercy, He even has a room set aside for those people, the ones that laugh at Him, and spit on Him. He has this big old birthday present with their name on it, and the only thing they have to do is nod their head and say, yes, I want my big old birthday present!"
Jack had to laugh at the picture. Sure, it did seem easy. And yes, he had to admit it that at the back of all his doubts and worries and fears, he did have this kind of weird knowledge that there really was a God. But the merciful part, that always gave Jack the willies. Could anyone believe that God was merciful? No way. Uh-uh. Not that. You'd have to be intentionally stupid to think God was anything like kind. To Jack, God seemed more like a monster than anything. A big, muscle-bound, bald Mr. Clean Monster.
"Whatchya thinking about, Jack?" Pop Pop asked, sighing, settling back against the tree.
"You know. How can you say God is merciful?"
"What makes you think He isn't?"
"Okay, Pop Pop. Look at it this way," Jack said, feeling his brain warm up, like an engine being revved. All the lights were twinkling ON up and down his computer. "You remember Granny Rose? Your daughter?"
The old man thought. Uh oh. He could feel the doors shutting down. Not yet! Stay alert. The boy is asking for your help, right now, and if you couldn't accomplish anything else in your life, accomplish this: stay awake. Answer him, truthfully. Keep your brain up. Rose. Rose? Rose...
"My daughter? Rose?" he blinked. Great. No memory of a "Rose." Shoot! He couldn't even remember his own daughter.
"Wait a sec, Pop Pop!" Jack said, knocking himself on the forehead. "No, she was your son's wife! She was your daughter-in-law!"
"Oh, okay," the old man said, distantly remembering a wedding day, Chuck in a tuxedo with tails, his little Chuck -- he could remember lifting him up on the day of his birth, praying in his mind: "I give this baby boy to You, Lord. He's Yours. Keep him, and protect him, Lord! I love You. I don't deserve this baby, Lord. I don't deserve anything. But thank You, Lord, thank You!" Such a memory, so crisp, so fresh, like it was yesterday, the memory, and the prayer, the fresh pink baby in his young strong arms.
"Chuck's wife, Rose, with all the red hair that came down to her butt," the old man said, memories flooding him, his face lighting up, tears filling his eyes.
"Yeah! That's Granny Rose! I've seen her pictures! And she hated your guts, right?" Jack said, remembering all the old stories.
The old man stiffened. Had dear sweet little Rose hated his guts? Did he remember that?
"Well," he began, slowly, "as I remember it -- and my memory is not what it used to be -- she didn't really hate me, no, it was that she thought I was crazy when it came to God, and wanting Chuck to have a relationship with God..."
"Yeah," Jack nodded, "she was an atheist. She never believed in God, did she?"
"I don't think so," the old man said, but he wasn't certain. He seemed to remember . . . way back, a beautiful young girl with cascades of the reddest hair -- her dark eyes flashing up at him, her hands were on him, he could feel her young strong hands right now, and she pushed him into the wall, and she was angry, her mouth flying in angry words . . . what was she saying?
"You feel it too!" she screamed. "You love me, damn it! Stop being such a coward! Stop hiding behind your invisible god!"
Oh my. He hadn't thought of that in years. Rose, his very own lovely Potiphar's wife. He didn't want to remember this, but it was too late now . . . his memory was so weird, like a living thing all apart from him, flaring up to give him the old aches, all over again.
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