A Meeting with the Assistant Vice President

“You really ought to talk to him while you work here.” said Old Noddy, taking me by the arm and leading me out of the cubicle to the corner office of the Assistant Vice President. “He’s terribly delightful even if quite insane, and although he hardly ever talks when he does it can be incredibly insightful, unless of course, he is having one of his moments of insanity which are far from brief, and far from infrequent, in which case you’ll be lucky to get anything out of him worth having. Nevertheless he is a dear, sweet old thing although he can be quite dangerous and I would not, under any circumstances eat any of the candies in the dish on his desk, about whose histories the less said the better if you know what I mean.”

I did not.

“What do you mean?” I asked Old Noddy, who was rather high up in the office of human resources but he simply placed a long finger full of long, limp hairs like vermicelli to his immense nose and said “Now, now. You can’t get nickels out of a pink pig by shaking him, and you won’t get answer out of me like that. Anyway I’ve spent way too much time talking to you, it’s a beautiful day in June and would love to go walking in the park with my Sweetie Tum-Tum on my arm, but I shall be compiling figures for the quarterly report, and if I will not do what I like, then I surely won’t do what you like!” he said and pushing me into the corner office he turned on his heel and in the manner of a determined dove, dove between one cubicle and its neighbor and with a rustle-rustle-thump! first quite loud and then softer and then softer still disappeared into the dimly lit by fluorescence recesses of the office of American Reinsurance.

“I assume you’ve come for my wisdom. They all come for my wisdom. They want my apophthegms. Little blooming missuses, bright preening swains. And I assume you want them too. Or is it my candy you are after?” said the voice from behind the desk.

“No thank you, sir.” I said, heeding Noddy’s warning.

“More for me, then.” said the owner of the voice. If a Daddy Long legs could wear a suit and tie and a human face, and a starched blue shirt covered with bread crumbs and a greenish slick of rancid butter and Vitalis, it would look a bit like my interlocutor I suppose, or perhaps not, yet something of a skinny and yet harmless arachnid, of a creature so light airy and insubstantial and yet fragile, conveyed itself to me from the general demeanor or hexis of the assistant vice president. His voice was low and both mumbly and screechy, reminding one of nothing so much as a cheap children’s plastic whistle the aperture and inner sounding chambers had been nearly entirely blocked with glue.

He took his tiny wrinkled face and shoved it into the glass bowl of bright red and yellow candies and commenced to snuffling them up with the lower half of his face, which combined mustache, hanging pendulous nose, and hanging pendulous lips into a remarkable almost manatee-snout-like organs. This organ, or face-like collection of organs often associated with faces, remained in the glass bowl for several minutes. I heard the sound of the hard candies pinging against the glass of the bowl, and the snuffling, saliva-like sounds of the Assistant Vice President’s slurping, and occasional sighs, that struck me as pleasure or contentment but may well have been simply the audible evidence of his respiration.

Waiting there in the doorway after five minutes I involuntarily allowed my own breath to escape.

“Oh, groaning, are you? Whatever happened to patience?”

“I’m sorry, sir — I wasn’t groaning.”

“Oh, I’m sorry siring, are you? Whatever happened to honesty? If you hate me, tell me. They all do, I know it. But you at least you I hoped would tell me the truth.”

“I don’t hate you.”

Really?!” said the Assistant Vice President. And he got up from his chair and shuffled over to me, and took my hand in two of his own hairy wrist-flounders. And looking at me with his huge watery blue eyes he began to cry, first simply with an increase of moisture in and around his eyeballs, then with the eyeball moisture breaching the banks of his eyes and rushing down his cheeks and then in full blubbering. I found myself holding him then to my chest and then because, despite the Daddy Long Legs impression he made he was very heavy, was seated on the floor cradling him like a baby saying “There there, there there” and he said “You must think me a terrible old fool but you are the only one — the only one in this awful office who has ever shown me the slightest kindness.”

“Old Noddy thinks highly of you sir!”

“Old Noddy is a beast.” he said. “He calls me crazy and is constantly mooning about casting sheep’s eyes on my candies. He’s in it for the main chance, Old Noddy. He doesn’t care at all.”.

“He said you were delightful.”

“Like Old Noddy knows anything of the true delights I have to offer!” he said. “He does not. He just wants my candy!” and he fell to another round of throat-raw caterwauling.

“How shall I comfort you, sir?”

“Now you’re using your head.” said the Assistant Vice President. “You will comfort me by rocking me. Not too quick, not too slow, and whenever you find my ear canal within range of your own mouth whisper in my ear “You’re a pretty boy.”

I did as told. Within an hour the Assistant Vice President had stopped crying and had fallen asleep in my lap, and when my legs had followed suit and fallen asleep as well he woke up and said “Well I suppose you will want my wisdom, now.”

It seemed churlish to demur, so I averred I would prefer that to his weeping or sleeping.

“Very well. I have been in Hodag Land and there I have learned about the remarkable Hooligan Fish or Hoolly-dun Fish. While in our land the typical fish has many bodies and one name, in Hodag Land it is normal for a fish to have at most three bodies and two names. Have you been following my story or are you thinking of a fancy party you’d like to go to, with young ladies in tight dresses and eye-shadow and you can see their belly buttons? Is that it, young temp? Have you lost interest or are you ready for a test on the wisdom so far?”

“A test, sir. Certainly. Not the other thing. I have not been invited to any parties.”

“Brave of you to admit it. Many claim to be more popular than they are. But you are universally hated and reviled — treated as an object of contempt and derision — and you bear it is a mark of pride.”

“I don’t–“

“No, no, don’t say it and then take it back. What are the names of the fish from Hodag Land?”

“Hooligan…and…um…Hooly-dun?” I ventured.

“Is that it? I’ve forgotten. Well, close enough for hand grenades or horse-radish!” he said and started laughing and then choked and then turned an alarming blue, until I seized him by the middle and choked and expelled a clotted mass of gold foil and chocolate from his trachea. He gave a massive wheezing intake of breath and continued.

“This fish has three bodies and just two names. So do you know what they call the third body?”

I affirmed my ignorance.

“Nothing! It has no name. What an inconvenience for the poor fish! And yet in Hodag Land that is considered quite ordinary and proper and acceptable! How fortunate we are here where it is quite the opposite — where there are names for fish that exceed their number of bodies by several million, and the creatures that are nameless are also numberless. Numberless and nameless, or numbered and named! But none of this two names three bodies nonsense that they put forward as a way to do things in Hodag Land. Come close, young Roger.”

My name is not and never has been Roger. I came close.

“Closer. Closer still.” I felt his curious proboscis graze my ear canal.

“The Hodags stole my sanity. They stole my innocence. They stole my name. But I was happier in their caves than I have been before or since.”

“I’m sorry to hear it, sir.”

“Sorry, that I was happy? Why should you be?”

“I’m sorry that you’re not happy still.”

“Who said I’m not happy still? I am deliriously happy. I just said to you, because you are a friend, that I was happier in Hodag Land. I said nothing about my current state of happiness or its absence. And yet you assumed I was miserable. “

“I’m sorry I offended you.”

“You should be. Very well, I forgive you. You were wise not to eat the candies. I grow bored in this office, and the things that have happened to those candies in the long hours of my solitude do not bear recollecting. Now go, Methuselah, and take this letter to the CEO. I said GO!”

He pressed a letter in my hand. When I finally got a chance to speak to the CEO, twenty years later, and was able to present it to him I found I had been promoted to a permanent position. And this made me feel reasonably good and reasonably approbated, although by that time it was more or less an accomplished fact. I had been living in a stairwell of the Reinsurance Company in a little hut made of stolen office supplies, had found a wife, and had two children with her: Richard and Edward.

Still it was good to know I was there by right, and not simply by sufferance.


The Elves that Race to the Top of the Tree

It is dangerous on the ground, but that is where we have to be if we want to live.

On the top of the tree nobody can live for more than a few hours, because they cannot bear the radiance of the gods. After an hour your skin gets red, after two hours you go blind and your skin turns black. Very few who have experienced the radiance of the gods for over two hours have survived the resulting fever. And those who do have deficits in addition to blindness. Incontinence, a trembling of the hand, seizures.

But at some point between the first hour and death when one stands at the top of the tree and experiences the radiance of the gods, a new idea or a vision will be given to one. It is something like a dream but a dream that can be put to work. Richard Jones, who was a contemporary of my great-great-grandfather had a vision of a wooden frame full of diamonds and a soybean plant beneath. He came down the tree and told the local wiseman — this was before the College of Exegetes — and they figured out how to grow food under a greenhouse, and extend the growing season. His dream was the Father of Plenty. And there have been many Useful Dreams gotten from the radiance of the gods since then. It is thanks to them we have computers, and wine, and a veto on the power of the executive by the congress, and rhyme, and many other useful skills.

But as we make life on the ground more livable — although it is not easy, death, and illness, and loneliness, and pain, and want, and crushing risk still bend us to their wishes — the tree has grown higher and higher and useful visions harder to obtain.

It was my father who discovered the elves, that race of being that is like the race of men, but so different. A dark orange in color they can resist the radiance of the gods, but seem to have no interest in this. They race to the top of the tree to gather the pollen, then race back to the ground where they fight for mates and have their children. My father was dying on the trip up the tree; my mother had sent him to look for a way to prevent the black-gut fever that had killed my brother. But he could not get there. He had lost his food, lost his water pack, and was clinging to a thorn, waiting for death.

The elf signaled by its hands what it wanted my father to do. It quickly anaesthetized his skin, drank his blood and let my father cling to its back as it skittered to the top of the tree. There he held on to it, as it drank him nearly dry and let the gods burn him, and had the dream — a burning fire that reduced a span of of forest to ash, so when the fire came again it stopped at the patch of ash. And when he told the dream to the College after weeks of study they began their work upon the first vaccine.

Now we make the journey to the gods in half the time, carried as each of us is by an elf, who feeds upon us.

What do they know of the gods? Do they think we are gods?

What are they who are neither men nor gods?

What is The Tree?

What are the Gods?

What is the Radiance of the Gods that both kills us and gives us Useful, Life-Saving Dreams?

These are all questions that my son’s generation think are foolish to answer. How else could it be?

But the gods and the tree may be such. There could not be a world without gods. Without their painful radiance. Without the tree. Without the dream.

Such a world is literally unimaginable. And so the questions “What is the Tree? What are the gods? What is the radiance? And why are they rather than something else?” are literally meaningless. For how else could a world be? How could one even call it a world, or those who inhabit it men, if it lacked a Tree, lacked gods, lacked dreams?

But a world where we are not carried on the back of an elf, who drinks from us like a wine cup, while it rushes on its own mad, mindless journey?

Such a world is not just imaginable. We know it can be real. It was real.

I know because my father was born in it. And he ended it by his own choosing. By his own will.