The gigantic explosion seemed more like an amplified smash of thunder. He remembered thinking There are no clouds, Where did it come from, and I hope Rachel and the kids are home.
But the gout of red-yellow flame and black smoke that roiled straight into the sky informed him that something awful had happened.
The closer to home he drove, the more obvious it became that disaster had struck near where he lived.
When he turned the corner, he saw his home in flames. Rachel's old car in the driveway, its hood blistered and black, told him she and the kids were home. He screamed and ran out of his car to rescue them, but the heat formed an impenetrable barrier.
Particles floated down. He thought that pieces of his wife and children, minute, charred, indistinguishable from the pulverized debris of his home, might be in the smoky air. He held his breath, would only breathe through a handkerchief over his face. His white forehead became sooty-black, his blond hair dingy with ashes as he tried to find gaps in the heat so he could rush in and....
Sirens blaring, the firemen came, and the police, but there was nothing to do except douse the flames and keep the gawkers from getting hurt. He wanted to scream again, but his vocal cords froze. Only a muted gurgle came out.
She had been his third wife, gorgeous, kind, sensual--and she loved him. He had been aware that luck had much to do with it, accepted her humbly. His first two marriages had been sour. He understood that part of him wanted to leave each of them, but could never find the courage, was happy they had left, enjoyed the despair. Both times he swore he wouldn't marry again and would have only the shallowest of affairs. But when Rachel entered his life, he knew everything would be all right. And it had been until now, until the explosion fragmented her and their two children into charred lumps and floating debris.
Near the house was a man, wearing a suit as if he had just come from work, carrying a sign: NOTHING IS AWFUL. The police convinced him to leave.
The authorities finally determined that a line in the basement had leaked, a simple thing, perhaps an age-loosened joint, or perhaps something had fallen against the pipe and jarred an opening through which the gas could escape. By then he had too much to drink to care.
After a while he became too sick to continue drinking, cleaned himself up, and went back to work. At work it seemed as if his presence had diminished so that he was less than he had been, a smaller man. His colleagues thought he looked aged, and agreed that what had happened was awful. His eyes had a watery look to them, and dulled, as if empty of meaning. He blinked a lot.
To lift his spirits, his colleagues invited him to parties. He went docily, had some drinks, chatted with the various women brought there to interest him in life, and left early. "I'm tired. Thanks for the good time. I'll see you at work."
Other guests drank and gabbled about things that were not awful, avoided the reality of his anguish. When they spoke, they tried to convince him that he should get on with his life, but he knew that everything was awful, that there was no point to it. Sometimes he thought of killing himself, but remembered his father had told him that suicide wasn't all right. He would survive until something crashed into him, or smashed him, or shot him, or stabbed him, or ate him to pieces from the inside . . . or burned him up. He would not kill himself. At times he screamed into the sky demanding that the sun explode.
Then, at one of the parties he met Dr. William Smith, with his perpetual smile, who took special interest in him as the evening grew. He found that Dr. Smith, a round man of indeterminate middle age, understood the awfulness of his life. Perhaps because Smith reminded him of no one, he could speak about his despair, poured out its ashes in a corner of the room.
In Dr. Smith's office were dark brown leather chairs and a desk of deep brown wood in the middle of the room. The dim light made the pictures almost fade into the walls; they looked gloomy to him. But Smith smiled and smiled and explained that life truly is awful, that the only recourse was to let someone else make decisions for him.
The man felt tension drain out of his body. "You're the only honest person I've met. My life is awful. Other people try to fight me about that, but they're wrong." He cried, tears trickling down from each eye.
"Is it comforting," Smith asked, "to know there is nothing to struggle against?"
The man leaned forward. The question spread through his brain, gentling it, quieting errant thoughts that seemed to go nowhere. The man understood that Smith had said something important. He concentrated on Smith's face.
"As long as you understand how awful your life has been, there's nothing for you to do except let me guide you. You don't have to decide anything. Any time you have to make a decision, call me. I'll tell you what to do. You life will continue to be awful, but you'll find yourself feeling good--no, not good, but without any further concerns about anything. It's a paradox that quite staggered the philosophers who discovered it."
The man thought Smith might be crazy, but felt calmer, let himself fall asleep in the chair, knew it was happening, but didn't care. After a few minutes, he awakened. Smith had gone, but there was a note for him.
"Go home now. Live your life as you have been living it. I will be with you when you need me."
He smiled. Smith must be a maniac, but he did feel better. The struggle was over. There was nothing for him to do, except... follow Smith's advice.
When he left the office, there was a heavily made-up woman with a sign: "NOTHING IS AWFUL." He felt confused. How could that madwoman be permitted to wander the streets spreading such garbage? He wanted to smash her down, to scream at her the awfulness of his life, of her life too, but restrained himself, got into his car. He thought she waved the sign vigorously at him as he pulled away from her. Once he turned the corner and could not see her, he felt better.
One of the office women started coming around, making pretexts to chat with him. Before Rachel, he had taken her out a few times. He remembered her pleasant kisses, and her body soft and warm, but Rachel had come into his life, and that was the end of it. He felt some uncertainty about what to do, so called Dr. Smith.
"It's a good thing you called," Dr. Smith said, "I was getting concerned about you. You know I want you to call once a week. Please do so in the future."
The man's heart raced. He could not remember any such instruction. He remembered, vaguely, that he was to call if he had a decision to make... or something like that. He wanted to protest, but felt the awfulness of letting Dr. Smith down. He realized he had done something wrong and waited penitently.
After a moment, Smith continued. "Don't have anything to do with that woman. She doesn't understand how awful your life is and would try to convince you otherwise. There is no one for you unless I give her to you. In the meantime, you have gone without ejaculation for too long. Do yourself whenever the urge comes upon you. Do you understand?"
"Yes," the man mumbled, distressed but amazed at how Dr. Smith could put everything into perspective for him. He resolved to call once a week. That night he followed Dr. Smith's instructions
He was less friendly to the woman. She finally said (wistfully, he thought), "I guess you're just not interested." He nodded and turned away.
Later that week he called Smith.
"Do you want me to find someone for you?" Dr. Smith said in a jovial tone.
The man almost shouted yes, but felt as if he could read Smith's mind and did not want to offend. "Dr. Smith, do what you think is right for me."
He felt proud of himself, as if he had accomplished something important. He wanted Smith to tell him he had done well.
Silence. He knew Smith was still there because he heard breathing.
In that silence, pride dissolved as he reconfirmed the awfulness of his life. He realized that it was right that he feel that way, that life was truly terrible, and he was grateful that Dr. Smith was willing to care for him. He slumped back into his chair and watched the minute hand on the wall clock, jerking forward with each second. Time became amorphous, blurry, indistinct; like a fly in amber, he felt protected from everything.
Thousands of years might have gone by.
The doctor hung up.
The man returned to his tasks. He thought, If only.... and sighed.
Outside the office window there was an old man with a sign, but he turned away from the sight. He had no idea what the sign said.
During an office visit, Dr. Smith explained to the man that his clothes were too gaudy. He could not comprehend the complaint. Rachel had wanted him to brighten up his clothes and urged him to buy a Hawaiian shirt. He had told her he could decide for himself what to wear. He liked dark trousers and subtly patterned coats. That Dr. Smith wanted him to wear more somber clothes made no sense to him, but of course he complied.
The weekly calls contained similar advice. He was not to eat ice cream. Salt was proscribed. There must be no lettuce on his sandwiches, only turkey on dry bread.
Once he asked Dr. Smith what it was all about.
"You question me?" Thin lips compressed into a tight line, eyes crinkled into a grin, Dr. Smith looked sternly amused. "There is no questioning me. Don't forget, your life is awful." There was a pause while Smith leaned back and looked at the ceiling. "Of course, if you wish to discharge me, you are free to do so."
The man gasped for air. Discharge Dr. Smith? He had done an awful thing, questioning the doctor. He had forgotten that total obedience was the only salvation from his awful life. He shuddered, felt as if he might vomit. "No." It was almost a shout. "No, I need you. Please, you must forgive me. These lapses, I don't know what to do about them. Please help me. Please." The tears streaming down his face no longer surprised him. He desperately wanted the doctor to tell him it was all right to take out his handkerchief and wipe his eyes.
The doctor sighed. " I have a surprise for you. Come to my office this afternoon at two. Be on time or I won't let you in."
Protest trembled, unspoken. He could not simply cancel his appointments, but knew better than to protest. That the doctor might desert him left him dizzy, as if he could suddenly perceive the Earth's rotation.
The moment passed; he felt peaceful again. He wanted to be himself, but knew that any protest would deny the awfulness of his life, plunge him back into the uncertainty of being. Dr. Smith provided the only antidote he could imagine. His life was awful. It was a comfort to him.
His employer said, "You need to go out? What about Hodgkins? And Wasserman, what do I tell her? She'll go crazy. Without you there's no contract. Where are you going?" This last said uselessly to the man's retreating back.
At one-forty-five, he drove to the doctor's house, trembled to see another car in the driveway. It was nondescript, tired-looking, with balding tires and cracked windshield. But it was where his car should go. He felt . . . could not be sure whether it was panic or rage. It was his time with the doctor, he must be on time. Early arrival disturbed the doctor as much as lateness.
He parked in front of the doctor's house. There were still a few minutes before his appointed time. Perhaps his rival for the doctor would leave, and he could ring the bell, and the doctor would smile at him. His watch ticked to one minute before the hour. No one came out.
Like a dead man, he pushed the doorbell.
The door opened. "I see you are two minutes and thirty-seven seconds early. Well, no matter, come in. There is someone to meet."
The man felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. He desperately wanted to ask the doctor why he would meet anyone. He needed the doctor to take care of him. What could another person do? The urge to run gripped him, made him stumble over nothing. His mouth dried. He was afraid to speak, but at the doctor's gesture, he followed him into the gloomy office.
A woman in dark clothing was, thank God, not in his chair. Barely glancing at her, he sat. They both faced the doctor. She remained a dark figure at the limits of his vision. She was so immobile he vaguely thought she was a statue, that the doctor was playing a bizarre joke on him. That's what it was, not a person, but a thing that looked like person. He felt better.
"This is Mary. Mary, this is John." Smith's soft voice brought him back to the room. The man thought it madness, but could not protest. His name was not John, it was nothing like John, not reminiscent of John, not a foreign version of John. His name was... in slow motion it floated into his consciousness, as if through some sluggish, viscous liquid. There was nothing for him to say. He doubted her name was Mary. It did not matter.
Dr. Smith said, "You are for each other." With a slight movement of his hand, he indicated a door. "Go in there and do what men and women do. You may stay there for an hour. Keep the door closed until you leave." He got up and left his office.
The man felt repugnance at the idea. What was the doctor doing?
He looked at her, tentatively said, "I don't understand," understood full well, but preferred disbelief.
Without speaking, she arose, quietly walked to the door and opened it.
The dim office light flowed into the room. There was nothing but a bed. There were no night tables, no dressers, no pictures, no lamps. He followed her, fumbled along the doorway for a light switch, could find none, searched for a ceiling fixture, found none.
Mary pushed at him."We don't have much time." Her voice was like shards of glass ground underfoot. How awful, he thought, to have such an ugly voice.
She closed the door behind them. No light penetrated the dark. For a time he thought he could discern shapes, but they were only after-images that dissipated in the blackness.
There were rustling sounds. Was she undressing? "Walk toward me," the grating voice said. Helpless, he stepped forward, gratefully stumbled into the bed and sat on it, felt her naked heat, moved away from her as far as he could without losing himself in the darkness. He sat trembling, waiting for instructions.
"Take off your clothes."
His erection astonished him. Not since Rachel died had his body filled with such rigid demand. Masturbation never produced such an erection. He had no idea of what the woman looked like, but now longed for her embrace, wanted to feel her skin along the the length of his body, to rest inside of her, to feel them dissolve into each other, however briefly. Hesitantly, he started to disrobe, could not understand her ready acquiescence to the doctor's command, her easy knowledge of how to proceed.
"Do you work for the doctor?" For a moment she said nothing. He heard her breathing increase, could not tell what emotion prompted it..
She said, "No, I don't work for him. He's taking care of me, the way he's taking care of you. He assigns me to his men clients. You're new. Now he'll start assigning you to his women clients. I'm your first, that's all."
He thought from the way she spoke that she had more to say, but she said nothing. He felt sad for her, felt somehow he should be in control, but did not know what to do.
Her voice dropped to a rough whisper. "Sometimes he assigns me to women. It makes no difference. Everything is awful; nothing makes a difference."
After some minutes of effort, he stopped, now flaccid, embarrassed that nothing seemed to have happened. He was sure she hadn't experienced any pleasure. Somewhere he had read that it all comes down to a twitch and and a squirt. Unwanted, Rachel's face floated into his thoughts. Was that all that had passed between them, squirts and twitches?
The woman stirred. "Was it of any value to you?"
He could not speak.
"Don't think," she continued, "that I didn't have any feelings. It's just that my body doesn't respond very strongly."
Her swiftly spoken words, meant to reassure him, convinced him she had felt almost nothing. He started to think that everything is awful, but the heat of her body was still with him. He rolled over and said, "We have time. Let's do more." She held him close.
While dressing, he thought he had broken a rule, felt nervous, but could not think what it might be. Smith's instruction gave them an hour. They finished well within that time. They had done what he had obviously wanted them to do. Still, something was out of place.
"I'm new to this. Have we done something wrong?" He felt an uncomfortable smile on his face, invisible in the dark, but her fingers traced it on his lips.
"I don't know, but I'm scared. It's never happened like this before." She made a sound that might have been a giggle. "It was awful, wasn't it?" But he was sure she hadn't really thought it was awful. The second time they had done it, she had jammed herself against him, muttering, "Oh God, oh God," then collapsed after the final thrust. He wanted to ask her about it, but Dr. Smith's voice crackled into the room through a speaker.
"The hour is almost up. I will be displeased if you aren't out of here by then." As always, the voice was calm and reasonable.
He left. The woman remained in the house with Dr. Smith.
In front of the house, a young man, almost a boy, carried the sign.
The next day he called Dr. Smith to thank him. "Mary is a nice person. Will I see her again?"
"See her again?" Smith screamed. "You enjoyed yourself? How dare you do that? In my kindness I get you laid, and you forget everything I've taught you? And she, the damned whore, had an orgasm. What did you think you were doing? Haven't you understood, that if not everything is awful then nothing is awful? Think about your Rachel and your two precious brats and tell me what happened to them wasn't awful!"
He almost staggered at the doctor's rage. "It was awful, awful. My body betrayed me. What happened to them was awful and my life is awful. Forgive me. What would I do without you?" Yet a part of him, faint, uncertain, unheeded, muttered, Bullshit. He wondered about Smith's loss of temper, his ugly language, but knew better than to say anything.
"That's better," Smith grunted. "Next month Mary and I will be out of town, and you can spend the week cleaning my house."
This confirmation of their relationship did not produce the sense of peace he longed for.
Mary's peculiar voice remained with him. Gradually, it transformed from a sound painful and ugly to something close to strong and desirable. A voice different from the simple tones of other women, but something an ear could grasp and delight in. Surely not like Rachel's voice, but important because of the difference. In bed, half-asleep, he remembered his orgasm, became gently aroused and thought of meeting her again. He touched himself for a moment but... disobeyed the doctor.
His sleep was tranquil, but in the morning he saw the family picture with him, beautiful Rachel, and his two lovely children. They were at Cape Cod, laughing about some forgotten silliness about his Hawaiian shirt - oh yes, he had dropped a big glob of ice cream on it and Rachel said it looked like creamy fruit salad. Dr. Smith wanted him to put the picture where he would see it getting out of bed. It was a reminder. Two failed marriages and the disaster. His life was awful. There was no point in thinking otherwise.
Except that Mary's voice, a freshet he could not stem, washed over his thoughts unbidden, kept covering his misery.
Driving to work, he passed a truck with NOTHING IS AWFUL in huge, red letters on a violet background. He followed it, but was blocked by too many cars and a traffic light.. As it drove away, he could see NOTHING! on its rear.
He told his colleagues about the signs. None of them had seen them. "Nothing is awful?" one of them said, an old friend with a perpetual frown. "Absurd, there are all kinds of awful things in life. Take this job, for example. How can we work for a boss who...."
The man turned and walked away. He could not understand the mystery of the signs. The legend appeared everywhere, popping up at odd moments to fill him with helpless... what? At times it was pure rage, but lately it was more an angry curiosity, but he could not fathom what he wanted to know. It so challenged the core of his existence that he would have preferred to ignore the signs, as meaningless dribbles, denying reality.
Dribbles denying. He liked the alliteration, repeated it over and over, but it soon lost its power to amuse him. It was awful... he chuckled, then felt guilty.
When Dr. Smith's key arrived, he took the week off and cleaned the house, all the rooms. He polished mirrors, vacuumed floors, dusted and dusted, washed floors, and arranged closets. He found that the doctor's wardrobe never varied from black suits, white shirts, and dark maroon ties.
He carefully examined the small bedroom off the office. There was no evidence that Mary had ever been there.
The doctor returned after the allotted week, but if he appreciated how the rooms sparkled, he didn't tell the man. It would have been dreadful to ask for some response.
Nothing changed; everything was awful... except he missed Mary. Quite without plan, he found himself driving past the doctor's house every now and then, hoping for a sign of her.
Like a pebble in a shoe, a small irritation grated at his sense of peace. It was as if he were being cheated but could not think of how. Days and weeks drifted by.
One night, for no recallable reason, he suddenly sat straight up from a deep sleep and screamed. He felt as if he couldn't breath and rushed to a window for cool air.
Snow flakes drifted down. He saw how the moon's light made them twinkle, how they collected on the trees in white layers that gave them a special sense of purity. Without thinking, he put on a robe and went out to stand in their gentle cascade. He thought, If I remain immobile they'll cover me up and I'll become a snowman. What a joke it would be if Mary came by and I suddenly embraced her. We would laugh and laugh and have it as a special joke for the rest....
A passing car interrupted his reverie. A hand reached out and waved a sign: NOTHING IS AWFUL.
He ran after it. "Wait," he shouted as it pulled away, "you've got to tell me what this is all about! What the hell do you mean, 'nothing is awful'?" He remembered Dr. Smith's dictum. If not everything is awful, then nothing is awful. He shuddered, but not from the cold.
Later, in bed, he thought and thought and thought.
The next morning, he called in sick and went to the doctor's house. He knew the rule: the doctor never opened the door unless expecting a visitor. Well, he would open it this time. However, banging on the door did not accomplish anything.
For a moment he thought to leave. Then, howling like a demented wolf, he started throwing himself at the door, kicking it, hammering it so hard that cracks appeared.
Finally the door opened a little. The man smashed his shoulder into it, shoved it open, knocked Dr. Smith to the floor.
"Where is she, you miserable son-of-a-bitch?" the man snarled at the cowering Smith.
"You can't do this," Smith gasped. "What will you do without me?"
"Bastard, I'll do very well." He kicked Smith in the ribs. "Where is she, or do I tear you and the damned place apart?"
"Don't hurt me, my God, don't hurt me." Trembling, Smith pointed to the stairs.
The man ran up them, found Mary, and said "I'm William Harrington. Nothing is awful."
She looked at him and smiled. "I think you're right." she said in her rough, lovely voice. "I've been waiting for you."
They left the house together, stepping over Dr. Smith's heaving body, ignoring him as he commanded them to return.
Bertram Benmeyer is a retired clinical psychologist who has taken up writing in the last few years. He has published more than 20 short stories and articles and is currently working on a science fiction novel. He enjoys listening to jazz, blues, classical, and other music.